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Authors: William H. Gass

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BOOK: Finding a Form
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Perhaps we readers who are writers in the United States today are feeling a little of what the British novelists felt when (through the mediation of devoted translators, too) the Russian novel appeared in all its misshapen majesty, and Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev swept by Scott and Thackeray and Trollope like a swift train through a vacant station.

They were long, those damn books; they were full of strange unpronounceable names: loving names, childhood names, nicknames, patronyms; there were kinship relations that one can imagine disconcerting Lévi-Strauss; there was a considerable fuss made concerning the life, sorrows, and status of the peasants, the
oblige
of the
noblesse;
and about God, truth, and the meaning of life there was even more; moods came and went like clouds, and characters went mad with dismal regularity. Oh, they were long, those damn books. And they were extravagantly admired for their worst, or most irrelevant, qualities. Must we do that again?

The admiration of the literate public for
One Hundred Years of Solitude
doesn’t count either (
ahito ta!
as we cried when we were kids and the rain kept us in;
ahimè
and
hélas
). It doesn’t count, not because
One Hundred Years of Solitude
isn’t a literally dazzling book, so that the eye blinks repeatedly as you read; but because it permits, perhaps even encourages, a nostalgia for the old forms and functions of the novel; consequently, it is loved for its brightly
colored characters, its fascinating storytelling, its exotic setting like
Nostromo
’s, its controlled release of the reader from realism, its Mary Poppins magic. It has slid backward in time to become one of the books we loved when we were kids.
The Autumn of the Patriarch
does not encourage that kind of pleasant regression; it has less philistine appeal; its hate is a hot iron, its language like a noose about the throat.

Are these, then, the true Friends of the Forms of Fiction, who just adore
One Hundred Years
, as it is familiarly called, but who find
Hopscotch
just another fancy contrivance; who are baffled and finally worn out (as who, reasonably, might not be; as who, emotionally, must not) by the proliferating prose of Lezama Lima’s
Paradiso
; who are bewildered by the multiplicity of techniques employed in these novels, their metaliturgical fusing of history and fiction, fact and superstition, which produces a far sturdier alloy than the merely wet mix of journalism and melodrama we opportunely use in this country to disguise a lack of artistic intent and want of talent? Gosh! (as we used to exclaim in a less forthright age, gosh and by golly) what are we to make of those who refuse to lose themselves in Vargas Llosa’s artful mazes and many minds; who falter in front of the plasticity of place, the penetration of times by times, as they occur in these books, occluding and combining the way color enters color; who reject the interplay of tapestry and torrent, as if music were carving stone like blown sea waves, of moonshade in daylight, reality rendered as dream, dream delivered up on the beach like a half-drowned refugee? phenomena that are fundamental (as are all these elements and others) to Carlos Fuentes’s
Terra Nostra
, a towering achievement few Americans, I fear, will ever climb to the top of.

For these are the fathers who are hiding behind their daily papers, to alter the sense of the image again; and who bitterly complain, when struck at all, of pointless complexity, needless difficulties, and abnormal artifice, of cold contrivance in the execution of the blow (all qualities life can be accused of having, but never fairly these fictions); but, they say, the novel is worn out anyhow (though, of course, there is
One Hundred Years;
however,
look at
Letters
, John Barth’s broken time machine, or William Gaddis’s
JR
, as disagreeably oral as Cabrera Infante’s
Three Trapped Tigers
, both as discolored and distempered as a spew of chewing tobacco); there is no optimism in them, no uplift, just genius; and isn’t Goytisolo as bitter as Céline? which isn’t nice; Lezama Lima as luxuriantly self-indulgent as the jungle? Cortázar as cute and nihilistic as Sterne? Why do they so stubbornly seek for alternatives to the world?

But our Spanish-speaking, novel-writing friends have demonstrated that although some readers may be weary and fast weakening, they are not, nor is their art. The novel, so far, now, from being played out, if we look about the world at the company it keeps, is holding a fiesta for the form: whether we read Handke, Bernhard, Gadda, or Calvino, whether we stand before the Goytisolo triptych as before a glorious Bosch; whether the work is in Polish, German, or Japanese, concerns itself with Peru or making money or Tidewater Maryland, USA; for language, the instrument of the
logos
, the soul itself, is everywhere alive and kicking, creating a world that, for all I know, may be real; for all I care, may be purely imaginary; and the writers who serve this art share, I think, at least this belief, and are prepared to honor the commandment that
Terra Nostra
’s El Señor so urgently utters: “Take paper, pen, and ink; listen to my story … write: nothing truly exists if it not be consigned to paper.” And when Cabrera Infante conceives a rumba dancer in the middle of a sensual gesture:

 … as the music stopped every time he switched off the jukebox, the dancer remained in the air and made a couple of long delicate steps, her whole body trembling, and she stretched out a leg sepia one moment, then earth-brown, then chocolate, tobacco, sugar-coated, black, cinnamon now, now coffee, now white coffee, now honey, glittering with sweat, slick and taut through dancing, now in that moment letting her skirt ride up over her round polished sepia cinnamon tobacco coffee and honey-colored knee, over her long, broad, full, elastic perfect thighs …

we easily understand how any man might love such a limb and long to sip that creamy coffee with his lips; but, even more completely, how the writer loves the language that gives that leg its life; since this sentence, or any one well wrought, is not simply a significant series of signs, but a judgment, a stone in a wall, a brick in a paragraph, a house, or a palace like the Escorial, which figures so importantly in
Terra Nostra;
and the consciousness it contains visibly distends it the way a serpent who has just swallowed its supper is swollen; both the rodent in the stomach and the snake are real, as is the snake’s slick skin, its cautious cressential slither, its warning hiss, the sun it sleeps in, the warm rock and sandy ground around, the slowly liquefying flesh of the rat.

Going south. After all, reading these works is a lot like that. Going south. The excitement I feel when I enter the world of an author I have never read before, and I realize—from the opening lines of
The Green House
, for instance, which launch me up a steaming river in the company of some soldiers, several nuns, and a thin shadow of gnats—that I am in godlike hands, and that these people are being well-served—saved—even if they are damned; well, my excitement is not unlike that produced in people by a dancer’s shapely limb, because a good reader is not merely being informed that parrots give you diarrhea (as the book soon does) (and something good to know if you contemplate eating one), because this “fact” is a piece of poetry, and then I hear the words the parrots use to fly from the village; so that this reader, who is also a writer, can consequently take heart for his own weak art: it is worth it; Fuentes’s remote black beach, the hawk whose claws cuff the wrist—they are worth it; the construction of the Escorial—again, syllable by syllable—is worth it; the pain, the worry, the discouragement, well spent; it can be done; it is being done; do it; and you are ready to proceed once more; to chew up and swallow another page, as if it held secrets; to swallow your shame, the sentences you’ve slain and left to rot; you are ready to get on with it; become drunk again on the glories of creation, on the long low sounds that omnipotence makes in its sooty vertiginous throat as a way is cleared to let the word “light” burst out.

Well, here’s to happy days, as we once said, tossing back our bourbon in the years before Beckett’s unhappy play (well, bottoms up and happy days); which was how I felt, myself, when my father put the Kaiserling down because his collar was tearing and evidence was accumulating. The little shit stared at me in wonder then, in amazement, for he’d seen me throw the truck myself after taking careful aim; so that the comeuppance of the kid, the justified trick I’d played, I thought, the bump on my father’s brow, so perfectly deserved, so long delayed, and the Kaiserling’s attempt to shift the blame to me, which I knew would be bootless, and surely still to come like the main feature—recrimination and quarreling among the adults: all were causes of the deepest pleasure to me, like the slow melt of one of those waxy chocolate skulls in my smiling mouth.

ROBERT WALSER

T
hey found Robert Walser’s body in the middle of a snowy field. It was Christmas Day, so the timing of his death was perhaps excessively symbolic. I like to think the field he fell in was as smoothly white as writing paper. There his figure, hand held to its failed heart, could pretend to be a word—not a statement, not a query, not an exclamation—but a word, unassertive and nearly illegible, squeezed into smallness by a cramped hand. It would be a word, if it
were
a word (such doubtful hesitations were characteristic of Walser), which would bring to an end a life of observant idling, city strolling, mountain hikes, and woodland walks, a life lived on the edges of lakes, on the margins of meadows, on the verges of things, a life in slow but constant motion, at a gawker’s pace: sad, removed, amused, ironic, obsessively self-absorbed.

At least three of Walser’s seven siblings were successful. Success was something Walser studied, weighed, admired, mocked, refused. He had a grandfather who was a journalist, a father who bound books. He would write for periodicals himself, and author novels. He was born in Biel, by Bieler See, in northwest Switzerland, but left school at fourteen and worked briefly in a bank; with the desire to be an actor, went to Stuttgart, where he found employment in a publishing house; turned up in Zurich in 1896 to begin his odd-jobs life in earnest; and managed, by the time he was twenty, to get his first poems in a Berne newspaper.

He was a kind of columnist before the time of columns. So many of his pieces are brief, reflective, simple enough in their syntax and diction to be columns, deceptively ordinary in their observations, a little like those cozy nature notes that prop up editorial pages still, a little like some letters to the editor, too: the signature
HARMLESS CRANK
could be appended to quite a few without discordance or much malice. And yet, reading them, one is astonished that any were ever put in print, because Walser matches trivial thoughts to trivial subjects—as rug to drape—with relentless insistence; so concerning ladies’ shoes, for instance, he dares to believe that they are either brown or black; moreover, his transitions are abrupt as table edges; non sequiturs flock his pages like starlings to their evening trees; the pieces turn, often savagely, against themselves, or they dwindle away in apparent weariness and, unable to find a reason to cease, cease for want of a reason for going on.

Walser passes nine quiet years in Zurich; eight in Berlin, where he lives for a while in his brother’s apartment and cares for the cat; eight more back in Basel, near his sister this time; twelve in Berne (eight years go by there before he has himself institutionalized after several possibly suicidal episodes and his sister’s insistence); then, finally, the remaining removed and silent twenty-three in the asylum at Herisau, taking his walks, busy about the idle business of being mad, waiting for the blank which would blanket his attendant blankness (such wordplay was characteristic of Walser), and finding it, we might say, when his heart failed in a field full of snow.

Throughout this time, he’s been an inventor’s assistant, worked in banks and insurance offices, as an archivist or the secretary of an art dealer, attended a school for servants, and become a butler for a bit, before he accepts insanity as his true profession.

Lightly attached to people, to the formalities of society, to any work which lies beneath another’s will like a leg beneath a log, and more in love with localities and their regularities (like the seasons) which do not require him, Walser draws a borderline near poverty
for himself and lives his increasingly frugal life in little rooms, in donated leftover spaces, in otherwise unoccupied attics, in circumstances straitened to the shape of his thin frame, shrunk to the size of his microscopic script, a miniaturization perhaps too suitable to his status (such patterned repetitions are characteristic). Walser is always the dog beneath the dogs, a ne’er-do-well and a nobody. He pens lines for which he receives small recognition and less pay. He composes novels that get lost or are so artfully mislaid they might have been murdered. He stays out of other people’s way, posting his innumerable ruminations to publications that not infrequently publish them—surprising even themselves. Most float back, leaf after leaf, to pile up eventually into books.

His is the perfect stroller’s psychology. To his eye, everything is equal; to his heart, everything is fresh and astonishing; to his mind, everything presents a pleasant puzzle. Diversion is his principal direction, whim his master, the serendipitous the substance of his daily routine. I think that Walser most loved his long peaceful walks in the woods, and in particular that moment when a clearing came into view like sunshine between clouds, or a lake rose from its labor of duplicating mountains to drench the spaces between trees. In any case, his characters run away to the forest as often as creatures in fairy tales, and more often than not with similar results.

Walser’s prose frequently reads as if it had been lifted from a tourist brochure, because his narrators almost never see things with Kafka’s scrupulously realistic and coolly dispassionate gaze: they look upon a commonplace world in terms of conventional values and received opinions. Things are therefore said to be “lovely,” “dear,” “sweet,” “charming,” “little,” “clever,” “perfect,” or “enchanting.” Things are tritely characterized as beautiful and good, deliciously tempting, absolutely true to their type; they are as pleasing as can be imagined, as delightful as anywhere can be found. Things are meant to be presented to us exactly as they appear to smug, assured, accepted, and acceptable estimation. Walser paints a postcard world.

BOOK: Finding a Form
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