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Authors: William H. Gass

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A farmer’s market is bright, lively, sumptuous, and gay.… Sun-splashed sausages have a splendid appearance. The meat shows off in all its glory, proud and purple, from the hooks on which it hangs. Vegetables laughing verdantly, oranges jesting in gorgeous yellow heaps, fish swimming about in wide tubs of water.… This joyful, simple life, it’s so unpretentiously attractive, it laughs at you with its homey, petit-bourgeois laugh. And then the sky with its topnotch, first-rate blue. [“Market,” in
Masquerade and Other Stories
, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, p. 35.]

His narrators consequently split their point of view, merging their removed and alienated angles of vision with the way the observed believe and wish themselves to feel: at weddings, happy as all git-out; at funerals, sad as Niobe or Job; enjoying their gluttonies without anxiety or future pangs, exercising their tyrannies without guilt or fear of overthrow. His narrators’ noses are pressed to the window: surely those are goodies there, beyond the fogged glass. The young servant thinks: Look at the family eat—how delicious the food must be; listen to their laughter—how happy they are; how nice it must be to be beautifully dressed, to own a fine carriage, to live in this house I work so hard and helplessly to keep clean.

And the food
is
no doubt delicious. It
is
pleasant to be well got up and possess a closet of consequence. It
is
certainly lovely to look down on the soiled hats of passersby when wheeling through the park. It doesn’t take a tired proverb to tell us that between high life and low, high is higher. But it is also true that the wide sky is the property of rich and poor alike; that the broad lake will not refuse the body of any bather, even one cockeyed with care; that the massive range of mountains will stare indifferently at good and evil equally, at fortune or misfortune, at noble and knave; that each—sky, lake, peak—that surrounds and shelters us is honestly serene, and cool and blue—first-rate in every way.

If Kafka’s neutrality widens our eyes with horror and surprise, Walser’s depictions, always working within what is socially given,
are equally revealing. The effect is complex, and always wholly his own. No writer I know employs the adjectives and adverbs of value so repeatedly, with such real appreciation and conviction, with such relentless resentment. Standing alongside the lunching patrons of a Berlin bar, his word-making voice can genuinely claim that “it’s a sincere pleasure to watch people fishing for frankfurters and Italian salad.”

If his narrators sometimes seem to be ninnies, it is because they are beguiled by surface, by the comfort of commonplace persiflage. False faces frighten them, yet they entrust themselves to strangers whose smiles are matched by the ninny’s own grins and good feelings. They fall for any startling detail like those who are fated to stub their toes on the beach’s single stone. Watch “the good,” “the true,” and “the beautiful” dance hand in hand while a reassuring lie unfolds, a jolt gets delivered, in the following characteristically shrewd sentence: “Carefree and cheerful as only a true pauper can be, a good youth with a ridiculous nose wandered one day through the beautiful green countryside.” Yet the ohs and ahs of these innocent souls cynically amuse the very mouths that make them, because the extent of every narrator’s self-deprecation is at the same time a measure of the congratulations they will shower on themselves—superior in the form and fullness of their inferiority like a simple paperclip or tack or pin beside the welder’s torch or the rivet gun.

The effect of such writing is complex and contradictory. It is as if, holding in one’s hand a postcard picturing, let us say, a pretty Swiss scene—perhaps an inn at the edge of a snowy village with the Alps (as they ought to be) above, blue lake below—one were in the same look to sense behind the little window with its painted pot the shadow of a weeping woman, while in another room of the inn there was loneliness as cold as the window glass, cruelty in the severely scraped and shoveled walk, death in the depths of the lake, a cloud of callousness about the mountain peaks; and then, with nary a word about what one had seen—about bitterness, sadness, deprivation, boredom, defeat, failure added to failure—yet having
seen these things, sensed these things, felt them like a cinder in the shoe, one were nevertheless to write (and Walser is the writer to do it) an apparently pleasant description of the pretty Swiss inn on its pretty site, colors as bright as printed paint, surfaces as shiny and slick as ice, smoke as fixed and frozen in its coils as on the quarter-a-copy card, with its space for any message, provided the message is trite and true, gay and brief.

So the prose strolls, and what it reports primarily qualifies the character and color of its concerns, not the character and color of things. As it strolls, observing what it wishes to observe, it dreams: so that about the figure of a young woman who is cutting roses in her garden it may place its usually decorous yet desirous arms; it selects: so that an overheard remark will be passed around like a snack on a plate; it ponders: and in the face of some innocuous scene, it can nevertheless hem and haw itself into revelations. If Walser is a descriptive writer, and he is surely that, what he is describing, always, is a state of mind … and mostly the same mind, it would seem.

To say that the prose strolls is to suggest that it follows the contours of its subject. There is no narrative because there is no thread. The text stops before this item, ruminates a bit, then it stops before that; it thinks one thing (who knows why?), then another; but there is no continuity, for the cat will not be followed in its flight up a tree, only caught with its back bowed and its fur erect. A shade is pulled, a pitcher sits upon a table, someone is met, the narrator is addressed, he gives banal advice, but each of these is a moment only in the arc of a life quite accidentally intersected. Nor is a thought, which might have been provoked by the drawn shade or the scared cat, allowed to grow others, to flower so far as theory, or to link up and chuff on down a track like cars connected to form a train. Nor will the narrator act on anything, however violent and effective he has been in his fantasies. If he says he has kissed, doubt it; if he says he is drunk, don’t believe. Not even nothing does he do.

The formless look of many of these pieces, then, is only a look,
because the prose does imitate the shape of its subject. If the narrator takes a walk, so does the tale; if the narrator is nervous, so is the prose. An early piece, “Lake Greifen,” for instance, is already characteristic of Walser’s art. Here, a very self-conscious description of a lake is set in the text the way the lake lies in its landscape. The doubling up of the language reflects the mirrored images of trees and sky on the surface of the water.

But let’s give the description itself, in its traditional effusiveness, a chance to speak: a wide, white stillness it is, ringed in turn by an ethereal, green stillness; it is lake and encircling forest; it is sky, such a light blue, half overcast sky; it is water, water so like the sky it can only be sky, and the sky only blue water; sweet, blue, warm stillness it is, and morning; a lovely, lovely morning. [“Lake Greifen,” p. 3.]

The narrator, who has left a large city lake to seek out this small hidden one, swims far out with the greatest joy, but perhaps he has swum too far, for now he must struggle back to shore, where he lies panting and happy on the beach. What will such a swim be like, he wonders, when the lake is dark and the sky is full of stars? The story says no more (the story is over), but we can guess the rest, including the prose for the missing part: as calm as slate, composed of starlight, water, and drowning.

Walser is no ordinary voyeur, consumed by the secrets he feels have enraptured his eye, because quite prominent in any of his observations is the observer himself, and that person, too, Walser is watching. He follows each thought, each feeling, from the time one arrives on the scene to the moment it leaves, with a fond but skeptical regard, so that it is the seeing of the thing seen, he sees; and then, since he is also an author composing a page, in addition to everything else he must take into account, he watches the writing of the writing itself (both the walk through the woods and the corresponding walk of the words), until a person who has been simply encountered in
this
world becomes a person perceived in
his
, and until, in turn, this complex, pale, increasingly imaginary
figure is further transformed by words into further words; words which talk about themselves, moreover, which smile at their own quirks and frills, and wave farewell while a substantial and often painful world dwindles away into this detached, multiphenomenal, pleasantly impotent, verbal object.

How absurdly philosophical we have become, Walser might exclaim at this point, and threaten (it would be characteristic) to drop our entire subject, lift my pen and his abruptly from the page.

The world he views should not become a view to be framed and hung in his attic room, or exposed to the morning amusement of casual people. He feels guilty when he turns a lovely woman into words; when a longed-for caress becomes a sentence perhaps shaped by that yearning. Walser’s lyricism, which is intense, attempts to revivify his verbal world, often with images that burst like bullets from the text. In his extraordinary novel
Jakob von Gunten
, which exploits the author’s experiences as a butler-in-training, he has his narrator remark about Fuchs, a fellow student, that he “speaks like a flopped somersault,” a metaphor that would turn anybody’s head. In a piece called “Comedy Evening,” translated in the collection
Masquerade
, he writes: “In the mezzanine beneath me, an elderly lady blew her nose with a ferociously lacy handkerchief. I found everything beautiful, enormously bewitching.” In “Tobold,” an important story, he tells us that “With both swiftness and, understandably, great ceremoniousness, I bore the beverage to the beautiful woman, who appeared constructed and constituted entirely of fresh milk.” Had there been a woman whose soft pale lucent skin had given rise to this witticism, would it be fitting that all that is now anonymously remembered of her is the milk a fictional servant felt she was made of?

In this same significant story, there is a small speech that I call a “blurt,” because the author’s usual reticence is lifted and Walser speaks directly about one of the contradictions which disturb him: that between the surface of the well-off world (to which he has devoted so many flattering phrases) and the interior gloom beneath—a gloom resembling the gloom of the poor and ugly, a resemblance which is deeply troubling.

Can princesses cry too? I’ve always thought it impossible. Such high-placed women, I always thought, would never insult and sully their pure, clear eyes, the pure and sparkling sky of their vision, with soiling, defiling tears, which disfigure the unchanging expression of their faces. Why are you crying? If even princesses cry, if wealthy, powerful people can lose their balance and their proud, imperious bearings, can be depressed and overcome by a profound weariness: then what can one say and how can one be surprised to see beggars and beggar-women bent over in suffering and misery, if one sees the poor and the humble wringing their piteous hands in despair, at a loss as to what more they can do than bathe themselves in unending, miserable sighs and moans and in torrents of tears. Nothing, then, is certain in this world shaken by storms and afflictions. Everything, then, is weak. Well, if this is so, I’ll be glad to die someday, I’ll gladly take leave of this hopeless, sick, weak, troubled world to rest in my relaxing, dear, good grave from all my uncertainties and hardships. [“Tabloid,” pp. 98–9.]

The page is the dear, good grave where everything that lasts will finally rest. For Walser, this conclusion was never quite comforting enough.

Thomas Hobbes described the State of Nature as a state of war, with every man’s hand against every man’s, and argued that only the mutual relinquishment of rights, along with their implementing means, could guarantee peace. He furthermore wrote of the paradox of power, which meant that as any man obtained power, he would need still more power to protect what he had acquired, because envy of him would increase along with the fear; and this consequence was clear, since in the customary state it is the sovereign who is most perilously placed. If you were, however, a nobody, a nebbish; if you had nothing that could be desired; if you were dismally undistinguished; then perhaps you would be ignored and could go about the little business of your life unnoticed, invisible as a servant is supposed to be, performing small services quietly, unthreatened and serene.

To hold a priceless vase in your hands may be pleasing, but you are at the same time in danger of dropping it. If you possess any authority over others, you are in a position—through indolence, incompetence, or spitefulness—to injure them. Success survives on success; the higher you rise, the dizzier you become; obligations weigh, moment by moment, more heavily upon you; others begin to rest their limbs, their lives, upon your limbs and life, which the postures of sex not even secretly symbolize. Thus what Robert Walser fears, and flees from, is power when he feels it in his own hands. The power others possess is something that, like a great outcropping of rock, may fall upon you; but it also makes a shade under which you may find shelter.

His mind pleads incompetence. Asylums
are
asylums. There he can guiltlessly surrender his fate and pass his days at the behest of others. He will no longer need to write in such a way that its public obscurity is assured. He will no longer need to write. The daily walk will suffice.

Among Immanuel Kant’s many important distinctions is the one he made between willing something to happen and wishing it would. When we will an end, he said, we must necessarily will some means which will be effective in obtaining it. If you hear me speaking of my love of boating and the sea, of my dream of one day owning my own yacht and sailing the Chesapeake as if it were my private lake, you will be quite properly disabused of your belief in my desire when you notice that I subscribe to not a single boating magazine; that I do not follow the Cup races in the papers; that I have not set aside any sums toward the purchase of so much as a jaunty cap; that, in fact, I spend my vacations with my family in the desert Southwest. In short, I may wish for such a luxury, but I have never willed it. When I wish, my means are dreams. Each evening, before sleep and in place of love, I imagine my vessel parting the waves: I cry to the sky the salty orders of a shipmaster and eat heartily without any fear of sickness from the rolling of the sea that lies around me like my cool, uncohabited sheets. As a people, as a race, Kant observed, we always will war; we only wish for peace.

BOOK: Finding a Form
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