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Walser's life (1878-1956) was a lugubrious one, marked primarily by poverty, neglect--and, ultimately, schizophrenia and artistic silence. But this Swiss writer's use of German, in novels and essays and miniatures (as here), was much admired by such writers of the period as Kafka and Benjamin. Furthermore, in Walser's short, quite retracted prose pieces, Susan Sontag (in her foreword) discerns ""The important . . . redeemed as a species of the unimportant, wisdom as a kind of shy, valiant loquacity."" And one can see what Sontag means, in, for instance, this passage from ""The Job Application"": ""I am, to put it frankly, a Chinese; that is to say, a person who deems everything small and modest to be beautiful and pleasing, and to whom all that is big and exacting is fearsome and horrid. . . . I shall be waiting, esteemed gentlemen, to see what it will be your pleasure to reply to your respectful servant, positively drowning in obedience. . . . ""Similarly, a piece like ""Helbling's Story"" suggests what in Walser Kafka must have found so intriguing: ""I think that one listens to the murmur of the soul only because of boredom. When I stand in the office, my limbs slowly turn to wood, which one longs to set fire to, so that it might burn: desk and man, one with time."" Yet while Walser's studies of passivity and sedulous diminishment are inviting--the skewed miniaturism is kept under remarkable control--there's also frequently a droning, winsome irony to much of the work: ""The Walk,"" the longest piece here, is a jagged, headachey fugue of displacement, admirable in conception but pleasureless in particulars. With those limitations, however, Walser certainly qualifies (as does Stevie Smith, say) as one of the genuine isolate eccentrics of 20th-century European literature--and this English edition will be a welcome introduction to a curious, one-of-a-kind talent.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux