The Tanners by Robert Walser

The Tanners BY Robert Walser. edited by Susan Bernofsky, W.G. Sebald. New Directions. Paperback, 360 pages. $15.
The cover of The Tanners

Robert Walser’s prose exudes fluorescence, if words on the page can be described as color. His protagonists have such brightly sharpened tastes and manners, and such blindingly astute observational skills that to read their ways of seeing is as enlightening, and at times as painful, as staring into the sun. Reading Walser fortifies me to notice, to study, and to transform into art those moments that I hope never come. But come they will, Simon Tanner notices repeatedly in Walser’s first novel, The Tanners, published in Switzerland in 1907 but only recently translated into English. “Long live misfortune!” he toasts. “Misfortune is our lives’ cantankerous but nonetheless honest friend.”

On the surface, this book, built of twenty chapters marked by seasonal cycles, charts Simon Tanner’s family dramas, particularly between siblings Klaus, Kaspar, Emil, Hedwig, and Sebastian. While Kaspar and Sebastian lead abstract, artistic existences, Klaus and Hedwig hold regular jobs and serve as Simon’s anchors as he floats through daily life wondering why people seek mundane securities. “A bank is a foolish thing in springtime,” Simon declares as he quits yet another menial job in favor of walking outdoors.

The Tanners is not merely the chronicles of a flaneur. Rather, it illustrates the high costs of spontaneous living. Simon feels the sting of poverty and loneliness while offering insightful, connective narrative threads between his childhood and the present, tracing the psychology of a man who chooses “impertinence” over basic human needs. “My mother frightened me because she uttered affectionate words so infrequently,” Simon writes in one contemplative passage. Though fond of a woman named Klara Agappaia, he refuses to lend her more importance than his daily stroll. “She holds sway over me, of course, but what’s the point in pondering? When I feel my limbs I am happy, and then I’m not thinking of any other person on earth.… I’m quite simply not thinking at all.… How lovely it is to be free.”

Simon’s decision to live without ties to others not only costs him Klara’s love but also becomes a major motif. The Tanners, with its meandering, minimal plot, is really about the tension between what we think and what we do, particularly when that tension produces disappointment.

Heartbreaking as that is, what’s remarkable is how Walser presents this antisocial and obsessive realm—with wit and keen self-awareness. Working briefly yet contentedly as a servant for a cold mistress, Simon writes in a letter to his brother: “Oh, I’m going to the dogs here, let me tell you, it already shows. My mind is occupied with folding napkins and polishing knives, and what’s queer is that I like it.” Simon might loathe his own “idiocy,” but he’s far from oblivious.

And even while Simon's primary concern seems to be himself, his thoughts can, at times, become exuberant and all-encompassing: “Religion in my experience is a love of life, a heartfelt attachment to the earth, joy in the present moment, trust in beauty, belief in mankind, a feeling of carefree pleasure during revelries with friends, the desire to ponder and a sense of not being responsible for misfortune, smiling when death arrives and showing courage in every sort of undertaking life has to offer.” The Tanners is a book that epitomizes Walser’s uncanny knack for combining microscopic personal detail with lofty, universal largesse.

Trinie Dalton is the author of the novel Wide-Eyed (Akashic, 2005) and the editor of the nonfiction book Mythtym (PictureBox, 2008). Her novella, Sweet Tomb, was just released by Madras Press.