This Babushka Has Talons

Dostoyevsky in the footsteps of Walser

I first read Dostoyevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), on the recommendation of a young man. I was 18. He was two years older and more or less out of his mind. I recall the solemnity with which I told my mother I would love him forever. Two things stayed with me from that first reading: something about a Grand Inquisitor, and a crush on the youngest Karamazov brother.

In September a cheap paperback of the new Pevear/Volokhonsky translation caught my eye at Heathrow, and I bought it. It’s long, but I was due for a long train ride: a tour of southern Germany and Austria via Switzerland. Successive readings from the German translation of Mislaid would take me to opposite ends of Lake Constance. Between them lies Canton Appenzell-Ausserrhoden, where Robert Walser was nominally a citizen (his father was born in Teufen), entitling him to live out his days at the public insane asylum in Herisau for free.

I’d traveled nearly everywhere Walser ever lived, seeing many things he saw, but never to Herisau. I’d never even been to the Swiss side of the lake! Switzerland is so expensive it’s insane. If you’re not rich enough to regard all money as play money, your only option is to work there earning Swiss francs and pretend they’re worthless. I had hundreds—roughly equivalent to dollars—left over from doing festivals during the summer. With absent-minded nonchalance, I committed them to financing my pilgrimage to Herisau, as if they were nothing.

Spending too much money on things important to me that I have dreamed of doing for years always puts me in mind of the same depressing scene. On a Saturday morning in 1992, I was riding the Central Park carousel alone in the rain while the calliope played “Walk Away Renée,” and the lonely carousel keeper told me that the best carousel ever is the Derby Racers at Rye Playland. It spins, he said, at alarming speed, with horses that move forward and backward as well as up and down.

Soon after that I got myself all the way out to Rye Playland, but I didn’t get on the Derby Racers, because it would have cost $12. There was no way to buy a ticket separately, so you had to buy a book of tickets for all these other lame rides. I watched it from the sidelines. I think soon after that it broke down or caught fire or something. [Brief pause to look it up] I was about to clinch the case for why, when other people say “YOLO,” I say “Derby Racers,” but the internet claims the ride works fine! Indeed, the one in Rye is not the only extant exemplar. I could ride Derby Racers in Blackpool tomorrow. Rather than “You only live once,” the message seems to be one of resurrection and eternity.

In either case, given that I had dates at both ends of Lake Constance three days apart and CHF 800-plus in stiff, bright cash, I was going to walk the Robert Walser Path (RWP) come hell or high water. Otherwise the opportunity would arise daily for the rest of my life and beyond—in other words, never again.

I had remembered the Grand Inquisitor material as being profound and difficult. From the perspective of a person no longer 18, it’s a gratuitous caricature of Catholicism. But I’d still be a fool not to marry Alyosha—winningly handsome, last brother standing, sole heir to his murdered father’s many rubles, and a model of virtue whose studied outward innocence belies an all-consuming sex drive. Dostoyevsky calls it “sensuality.” People in the book call it “Karamazovian,” because it’s the defining feature of a Karamazov. His love interest is a moody teenager. Nearly 200 pages before the end, she tells him about her recurring fantasy of watching a little boy die nailed to a wall, crucified, while she eats pineapple. He leaves in a hurry. She slams a door on her finger to watch it bleed and swell. That’s the last we see of her. So I’m thinking he’s available.

The two older brothers and the dad—while he yet lives—are out of the closet. Each wants in the pants of the same sappy, sexy kept woman. Dependent and impulsive, arrogant and servile, spiteful and noble, fat and thin, she is thoroughly persuasive as a fully realized human because she makes no sense.

I could tell from the RWP brochure I had picked up at the RW Center in Bern that Herisau wasn’t much of a town. Still I booked two nights at a comfortable-sounding hotel. Arriving from my lakefront reading venue Bregenz via Sankt Gallen in a storm, I checked in and immediately took off, brochure and umbrella in hand, for the spot where he died. It was a tedious climb through residential neighborhoods. The wind picked up with the altitude. My pants and boots got soaked. There was little to be seen on the hillside where Walser had a heart attack on Christmas day in 1956, aged 78.

I was more disappointed than moved—there’s always something disappointing about people dying—but glad to have seen it. I could have descended straight into town and dried off, but instead I struck off across the valley to his grave, which has been thoughtfully preserved. It stands alone at an odd angle under a tree in the municipal cemetery, a black granite headstone bearing his early poem “Beiseit” (“Out of the Way,” translation by me):

I take my walk;
It goes not particularly far
And home; then without a sound
Or a word, I’m out of the way.

It takes a pretty solid knowledge of German to appreciate Walser. For example, see Ben Lerner’s annoying introduction (“the quick shifts between ebullience and subjugation . . . inevitably evoke the imminent cataclysms of European fascism”) to A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, an NYRB Classics edition of selected short prose, in which he cites (I know this only because Amazon put it online) a passage that begins, “Colors fill up your mind too much with all sorts of muddled stuff. Colors are too sweet a muddle, nothing more.” The original reads, “Farben erfüllen das Gedächtnis mit allerlei krausem Zeug. Farben sind nur ein zu süßer Wirrwarr,” which might be construed as “Colors fill one’s recollection with variegated frizz. Colors are but too sweet a tangle of confusion.” Or not, but offhand I believe it’s fair to say that in the work of Damion Searls, something has been lost.

In expansive moods (Eros), I fantasize about translating Walser myself for the benefit of my friends. In less generous moods (Thanatos), I feel a vicious joy at the exclusion of Ben Lerner from legitimate enjoyment of his work. The self-styled poet manqué got a MacArthur “genius grant” for (I guess) preciosity in dissemblance, so it feels good to see him flail around praising an author he’s never read. Note to geniuses: Life in the German welfare state is like getting a dingbat grant every day. Enjoy your war machine and your mass incarceration! Your income tax is paying for them, so they’re yours now.

Now I await destruction. It’s not considered nice to fault translators. No one, not even a worm (there’s a great Primo Levi story about literary tapeworms, “Man’s Friend”), can do it without punching down. Yet the translation community is so notorious for mutual loyalty and outward vindictiveness that I feel like an underdog.

There’s something self-destructive about this essay, and I’m grateful to the London Review of Books for rejecting it. Do I contain one too many multitudes?

The next day I returned to the death site via the psychiatric hospital where Walser spent his retirement reading, helping out in the gardens, and doing crossword puzzles, according to forms filed annually by caregivers. The rain had stopped, and a wall of snowcapped rock lined the eastern horizon.

I found the asylum reassuring. I had read his sister Lisa’s letters to its director about how happy she was to see him in such a nice place, but I was never sure whether she wasn’t buttering up the staff to get him better treatment. Maybe she was, but the hospital encircles a hilltop beneath wooded mountains, picturesque and lovely. Six silent men were trimming the edges of a walkway on their knees by hand. Haus 1, formerly the “House for Calm Men,” faces a pen with chubby pygmy goats. A handsome young patient sat on the veranda, rolling a cigarette under a plaque dedicated to Walser. He told me he’d read Carl Seelig’s memoir of Walser just the week before. I beamed.

“Goaties!” I said to myself as I walked away. It’s fun to say it in a small, delighted voice, like the happy four-year-old you are, but only on the rare occasions when you see goaties.

Our hero transferred to the Herisau facility in 1933, and as far as anyone knows, he never wrote another word. His tiny penciled drafts on scrap paper—the “micrograms” first deciphered in the 1970s—weren’t late products of institutionalization or madness; they even rate a mention in his first novel. As he told Seelig, an editor who befriended him in 1936 and ended up as his legal guardian, his best customers were German newspapers, and right around 1933 the market sort of dried up.

The official diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia. Whenever he considered leaving the asylum, the voices would scold him to get a job. Or at least that’s what he told the doctors, who describe him as mute and passive. Seelig reports an initial mistrust followed by brisk hikes and intense debates on literature and politics. He made fun of the psychiatrists for wanting feedback on their literary ventures, which he found so poor that the only possible tactful response was to feign catatonia. I’m sure everyone got it right.

Having reprised his fatal final constitutional yet again, I made for a nearby off-RWP meadow with views of Lake Constance twelve miles away. Flocks of migrating songbirds skimmed over the rippling terrain, calling in small, delighted voices. I recognized greenfinches and yellowhammers.

I was on the hilltop called Lutzenland for at least an hour, moving from bench to bench and occasionally devoting a moment’s bemused frown to recollections of Dostoyevsky’s description, in The Brothers Karamazov, of its murderous villain’s habit of “contemplation”:

Yet he would sometimes stop in the house, or else in the yard or on the street, fall into thought, and stand like that even for ten minutes. A physiognomist, studying him, would have said that his face showed neither thought nor reflection, but just some sort of contemplation. The painter Kramskoy has a remarkable painting entitled The Contemplator: it depicts a forest in winter, and in the forest, standing all by himself on the road, in deepest solitude, a stray little peasant in a ragged caftan and bast shoes; he stands as if he were lost in thought, but he is not thinking, he is “contemplating” something. . . . There are plenty of contemplators among the people.

Before rereading that passage, I had felt unreserved pride in my ability to contemplate. I began working on it around 2010, inspired by Adalbert Stifter’s novel Indian Summer. I knew from reading Adorno and other thinkers that thinking is somehow better, but contemplation seemed more useful. Thoughts confuse and mislead, I thought, while contemplation refreshes and informs. A Stifter character can get three hours out of a hilltop easy, just sitting there. An artwork busies him for weeks. My newfound pride in contemplation was somewhat tempered by Dostoyevsky’s implication that I am a loosely wound peasant. Thoughts of Walser consoled me. His monumental autofiction (he once remarked that all his work taken together made up a vast mosaic autobiography) suggests a talent for downtime and mindless hikes reminiscent of my own, and we share a certain rebelliousness—no sensitive person can get through life without it—and succumb to similar temptations (mannerism, solitude). We’re not anti-intellectual. We’ve met enough intellectuals to know they’re not like us. We don’t begrudge them their coherence, as long as we can get our dingbat grants.

The plot of The Brothers Karamazov defies summarization. As its unmotivated twists mounted, I was reminded of Dwight Garner’s complaint, in a review of Nicotine in The New York Times, that plot for me is “there when she needs it, like a small fleet of dependable Vespas, to shuttle her characters around.” Only now did I perceive the indelible early influence of the master. Mislaid closes with a courtroom scene whose origins I had always insisted lay in Viennese operetta, but it’s obvious to me now that I borrowed the idea from Dostoyevsky. I never even heard of an operetta with a courtroom scene.

The plot: the aforementioned contemplator bludgeons the evil dad and hangs himself, pinning the crime on the ne’er-do-well eldest Karamazov brother. The truth—that a contemplator could plan something that complicated—is known only to the middle brother, and it stresses him so severely, to the point of hearing voices, that no one in court believes a word he says. The verdict: guilty. The sentence: hard labor in Siberia. The accused is sorry-not-sorry in a particularly intense way, as befits a Dostoyevsky character.

The 100-page courtroom scene rehashes the events of the novel in detail. On first delve it threatens to be a huge bore. Then it launches into an unexpected critique of contemporary American literature. “Psychology prompts novels even from the most serious people, and quite unintentionally,” the defense attorney points out, rambling on and on:

The prosecution liked its own novel . . . well, and what if the thing went quite differently, what if you have created a novel around quite a different person? . . . ‘Such is not his character, he could not have had such feelings.’ . . . But you yourself were shouting that Karamazov is broad, you yourself were shouting about the two extreme abysses Karamazov can contemplate. . . . Consider all these facts separately, without being impressed by their totality.

His critique of narrative anticipates The Interpretation of Dreams (1900); the abysses, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in which Freud expands his short roster of drives (Eros) to include the death drive (Thanatos). The defense attorney calls them “love” and “unrestrained carousing.” Aficionados of Dostoyevsky will know that “unrestrained carousing” can range from the casual slaughter of social inferiors to sex with 12-year-olds.

I read a bunch of Freud once because Philip Rieff, best known for having married Susan Sontag, spent a semester at William and Mary in 1984 to teach a course on film. This was around the time Freud’s letters to Wilhelm Fliess came to light, unmasking Freud’s imposition of what became Freudianism on his patients’ memories of sexual abuse as a ploy to keep perpetrators (older male family members) paying his bills. The discovery lent a new piquancy to the feminist critique. In 1900, though, he was still sifting through his patients’ disjointed (“hysterical”) minds via free association in search of their histories, and Rieff taught us to read films that way—motif by motif, turning up our noses at narrative.

As the defense attorney says, narrative fosters untruth by culling reality of inopportune facts. Through the details chosen to flesh it out, it seeds a self-fulfilling plausibility, not unlike that of the characters in a bestseller. As do prosecutors, successful novelists identify final causes—“desires”—and work backward.

Real people don’t work backward. As Tolstoy observes in his last novel Resurrection (1899), they react to immediate circumstances. They wish they could live as purposefully as fictional characters constructed around all-consuming psychological motivations, but not enough to change their lives. So they consume distractions until their mitral valves fail or whatever. Finally there’s some drama, but not the kind they wanted.

In Resurrection, it’s coincidence that shocks the protagonist out of his hypocritical groove, and conscience that keeps him from falling back in. Only after he falls in with like-minded idealists—a cohort of political prisoners en route to Siberia—can he relax and give in to peer pressure like a normal person.

Walser’s way of rejecting the primacy of individual desire is different. He doesn’t approve of it (emotional dependency is unworthy of a man for him, and so is surrender to others’ desires), but he’s eaten up with it, flitting from object to object, testing the limits of societal tolerance as boldly as the children reunited with their mother in Kipling’s story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep.” That’s not necessarily something a grown man should be doing. He’s at his best in his tortuously discreet accounts of unrequited love and other symptoms of poverty. “Not everyone is capable,” he writes in a posthumously published piece, more or less (from Mikrogramme, my translation), “of coming to such excellent terms with the aridities of his character and the bleaknesses it likely contains as for example me when with mannerly condescension I regard the impatient fidgeting of my own renunciations from the heights of my ability to maintain a good mood, appearing to rule over them with playful effortlessness.”

My next stop after Constance was Vienna, where I went to see a painting I had remembered fondly since 1985 without knowing its name: St. Michael Vanquishing the Devil, by Luca Giordano. In my recollection it hangs high in a stairwell, facing a bare wooden bench, near a vending machine that dispenses coffee for two schillings in small white paper cups. In real life it dominates a gallery wall facing plush sofas near the museum’s soaring belle-époque cafe. The archangel wears ostrich feathers on his helmet, a gauzy T-shirt trimmed in gold, matching blue ankle warmers, and the wings of a swan. He brandishes a flaming sword. Selfish Satan stands on lesser devils’ shoulders, but he’s already been cast down. His diminutive bat wings wouldn’t take his weight even if he got past the sword. An explanatory plaque notes the painting’s affinity with the “crass realism” of Ribera. My first thought on seeing it anew was: “What is up with Satan’s dick?” Knee-length and thick as a dachshund, it resembles a roiling green earthworm.

Attention to the narrative revealed that it’s a fig leaf (figuratively speaking) and properly pertains to the kraken hiding behind Satan’s ass. So reassuring: it’s a tentacle, which of course would be a disturbing image—the penis as tentacle—if it weren’t for the lurking kraken that makes it all okay. It’s not the penis of Lucifer after all, just some kraken’s arm. An authentic kraken with integrity, a psychologically motivated kraken that avows its desires. No way its tentacle would get caught wandering around loose.

When I got home from my trip, I brooded, pondered, daydreamed, and wrote an email to my agent saying that I should write a biography of Walser. There’s no current one, even in German. I’m not a scholar, but it’s usually journalists who write popular biographies anyway, so who cares? I’m pals with the director of the RW Center, I have friends in Bern and Zurich, one of them a literature expert fluent in Walser’s dialect, and I can almost read French. (Walser was trilingual, at least in the construction of his bon mots.) I’m heavier into Gottfried Keller than anyone I know. (Walser was heavy into Gottfried Keller.) An adequate presentation of his failings might cost me substantial agony while persuading no one, but my desire to write the book would carry me through.

My agent’s response was swift and unambiguous. It wasn’t that she follows current developments in central European literature in translation, but that The New Yorker had just announced—in a piece of dance criticism—an upcoming biography by Susan Bernofsky, due in 2020. There’s no point in competing. Bernofsky runs Columbia’s MFA program in literary translation and will get God’s own reviews.

Wikipedia says she’s best known for introducing Walser to the English-speaking world (as she points out in various interviews, that was Christopher Middleton), so maybe you think it’s odd that I’d never heard of her. I own 28 books by Walser, none of them in English. I bought the first—a Reclam Kleine Wanderung that weighs one ounce—in 1986 after he was brought to my attention by Max Brod, Kafka’s best friend, who describes him as giggling while reading Walser aloud.

I looked for a sample of Bernofsky’s work online. Finding one wasn’t a challenge. An excerpt from the collection Looking at Pictures had been published in The Guardian.

Immediately my heart sank. “In a forest painted by Diaz,” she writes, “a little motherkin and her child stood still.” “The Forest by Diaz” is an obscure posthumous piece, and I hadn’t remembered it, but it only took me one look at “motherkin” to know she had been stumped by Mütterchen, the word translators of Kafka habitually render as “little mother” in his famous observation on Prague (“This little mother has claws”).

It means little old lady. Also, common decency forbids all portmanteaux involving munchkins. I was reminded of a passage in my prescient 1998 novel Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats: “I’ve stopped recommending him to people who don’t read German. Even the snobbiest Knopf edition, with the introduction by Susan Sontag, has painful errors in first lines. . . .” (The one I can recall now is a potential landlady’s telling the narrator, “You are pretentious.” In the original, she calls him anspruchsvoll, which has no negative connotations. That is, she says to him, “You have high standards.” He’s shabby, but she’s an ironist, not a bitch.)

I checked the original. It’s Mütterchen, all right.

Fortunately I don’t want accuracy from translators, or even competence. You know who used to put out readable translations? The East Bloc, that’s who! I stand in awe of the East German Eugen Onegin. Drafted decades before under the forbidding regime of the Wilhelminian Empire, polished by trained Marxist-Leninists, its sparkling verse blends the wit and power of Byron with the grace of Heine. The charm of the GDR Platonov, the eloquence of the GDR Tolstoy . . . There’s simply no comparison with, say, the bumbling of the UK Flaubert, whose characters pursue “romantic assignments” because the translator doesn’t know assignations are a thing.

The GDR seated unwitting dissidents on gamma ray sources that gave them cancer, but its translations were brilliant. Coincidence? I think not. Under communism, an ex-Soviet friend explained to me, the best writers couldn’t publish their own stuff, so they translated and edited to survive. Imagine if the Confederacy had won and Paul Beatty had to get work translating Paulo Coelho. That’s what it was like.

Back when I couldn’t publish my own stuff, I also translated. It’s a compromised art. I remember telling my agent, after she liberated me from economic oppression, that it was like eating snot-covered baseballs. Languages are incommensurate. The better you know them, the more you’ll hate it. But someone has to do it. There’s no compromise between getting it wrong and never trying in the first place. In this way it resembles all worthwhile endeavors—peace, justice, conservation, et cetera. You can approach it with a mix of laziness and demoralization, get ugly results, and still be doing the right thing.

Overwhelmed translators, I applaud and deplore you, and you should be flattered by that, because only non-trivial problems admit of solutions that can be simultaneously applauded and deplored.

After finishing The Brothers Karamazov, back in 1982, I read Notes from Underground, whose protagonist classifies mankind as “ungrateful biped.” Soon after, I met Rieff. We got along. I could tell his conservatism was an act, designed to annoy people. I hung out in his hotel room while his wife lounged on the bed. We drank sherry. I admired his son’s paintings. He asked me whether I’d like to be his graduate student.

I stared like a catatonic. I was hurt and upset. I had a C+ average from a second-rate college. My transcript sported an F in my major! There was no way I was ever getting into grad school, much less getting a scholarship. If Rieff had the power to change my life, I definitely didn’t know it.

I took revenge by writing him some satiric fiction in the transgressive style of the films he’d been showing us. I think the theme was incestuous pedophilic homosexual rape. He never invited me anywhere after that, and I returned to my first novel, Autobiography of a Radiolarian, about a lonely diatom stuck at the bottom of the ocean. Soon after that I discovered Kafka, who led me to Walser. Like them I abstained from sex and violence in my fiction, but only until 2011, when a situation similar to the one with Rieff arose and I wrote The Wallcreeper (dead baby in the first sentence, date-rape scene six pages later) in response to overly inchoate offers of help from Jonathan Franzen. All of a sudden, people liked me.

Where would you place literature on this carousel of cause and effect? Was my antisocial literary behavior in some sense Dosteyevsky’s fault, or Kafka’s, or Walser’s? Did I fall in with the wrong like-minded idealists, a peer group of the dead? Are they the target audience for this essay?

I was so happy during the week or two when I was becoming convinced I’d soon be living with Walser (what it takes to write a biography). Dead writers are open yet thick-skinned, supreme angels of self-assurance, impossible to scare off—just the kind of friends I like best. Glad now I dodged that bullet. Looking forward to Bernofsky’s book. Would love to meet her.

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