Walser Worldwide

How many Robert Walser translators have you ever seen in one place at the same time? Two? Three? Well, I just saw 18 of them (i.e. 19 counting me), and even spent an entire week tooling around Switzerland with them in a big Walserian herd thanks to the generosity of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, the Robert Walser Zentrum in Bern, and the University of Lausanne, which has a well-established translation studies program. The idea was to let all the Walserites, who usually labor in isolation in their various countries, know what all the others are up to, and in fact it was a pretty fascinating week. Part of our time was spent on Walser tourism: the group traveled to various locales where Walser lived and worked, and learned something about the places and Walser’s life there. At every stop, there was a tour led by an often overqualified expert. Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte, for example: the two gentlemen who spent 12 years crouching over little magnifying glasses on feet known as thread counters to produce the six volume edition of microscripts Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet. Echte showed us around Biel, where Walser was born, escorting us from location to location so we could see what it meant in geographical terms for Walser’s father to come down in the world (clearly visible even now). Echte has published a book about Walser’s childhood and youth in Biel, so he knows these locations inside out. He also showed us the beautiful old theater where Walser saw his first play, at age 15 (it was The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller), and the fountain he describes in his prose piece “The Old Fountain” that I translated once but never published, if memory serves. I should get on that.

Karl Walser: Kabuki-Theaterszene, 1908

We also visited the Museum Schwab in Biel to see an exhibit of works by both Robert Walser (first editions galore!) and his brother Karl, who in his day was a celebrated stage set designer, book illustrator and painter. We saw another of Karl’s paintings in the museum at the Paul Klee Zentrum in Bern, which was showing a special exhibition on the influence of Japanese art in Europe (Karl Walser traveled to Japan and did a lot of painting and drawing there).

Bern is now the international focal point of Robert Walser research. The Walser-Archiv was once located in Zurich, but it moved to Bern several years ago, and its collections are now split between the research center in the Robert Walser Zentrum and the Swiss National Library (which houses the manuscripts). In the RWZ, director Reto Sorg talked to us about recent developments in Walser research, in particular the new in-progress edition of Walser’s complete works, Berner Ausgabe, which is to include extensive commentary, updating the annotations done by Jochen Greven on his wonderful edition Sämtliche Werke in Einzelausgaben. We also met with Wolfgang Groddeck, who is heading up a team working on a more academic Kritische Ausgabe, several volumes of which have already appeared. Currently the Robert Walser-Zentrum is also showing a beautiful little exhibit of work by Robert Frank, a Swiss-born photographer who lives in New York and is inspired by Walser’s writing. In the Swiss National Library, Peter Stocker showed us a number of Walser manuscripts, including several recently discovered letters Walser wrote to his maybe/maybe-not-fiancée Frieda Mermet. Stocker coached us through reading Walser’s full-sized handwriting (in the old German script called Kurrentschrift) before inviting us to try our hands at deciphering a microscript.

Psychiatric Clinic, Herisau

Back outside on the streets of Bern, we were given a tour of some of Walser’s many addresses by Werner Morlang, who wrote a book about Walser’s life in Bern. Walser spent the last active phase of his professional life here before checking himself in to the Waldau psychiatric clinic in 1929. After that, Walser was transferred to Herisau, where he spent his last twenty-three years as a patient in the clinic there. And so the busload of Walserites traveled to Herisau as well (an idyllic little town in the middle of Appenzell in eastern Switzerland). The head of clinical services showed us around and talked to us about what life in the asylum was like in those days.

Villa zum Abendstern, Wädenswil

The clinic grounds are gorgeous, with views of the Säntis (the one Appenzell Alp), and we visited the cemetery where Walser was buried. On our way back to our home base in Bern, we visited Echte again in the house in Wädenswil on the shores of Lake Zurich where Walser’s second novel The Assistant was set. Then we traveled to Lausanne and spent the day talking about a prose piece, “Die leichte Hochachtung,” that each of us had translated into his/her respective language (16 languages in total). Our hosts were the inimitable Peter Utz and Irene Weber Henking.

All in all, it was a pretty fascinating week. And it ended with a weekend at the Solothurn Literary Festival (Solothurner Literaturtage), where a number of the translators from the group took turns playing “glass translator” (i.e. translating in front of an audience for an hour, typing on a computer screen projected on the wall in real time while narrating one’s thought process), and four of us appeared on a panel to talk about translating Walser and other Swiss authors. For anyone who’s interested, there’s a podcast posted on the website of the Literaturtage, a report on the panel broadcast by the Swiss radio station SRF2 (starting at minute 3:30), and brief praise in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. When it was time for the panel to start, I was shocked to find something like 250 people crammed into the room, which appeared to be designed to hold 100 or so. But then every single event at Solothurn was packed to the gills, and the big readings may have had audiences of up to 1000. This is the one big yearly festival of literature held in Switzerland, and clearly a lot of people look forward to it and come. I kept hearing people saying they were traveling to other cities to sleep because there wasn’t a single hotel room left in all of Solothurn. I heard readings by Matthias Zschokke, Erica Pedretti, Urs Widmer, Klaus Hoffer, Jenny Erpenbeck and Mikhail Shishkin (author of the great Maidenhair – he lives in Switzerland), plus a number of younger writers like Arno Camenisch, and my encounters with Swiss writing continued into the evenings, when the bars (esp. the Kreuz) were packed with successful writers rubbing elbows with newcomers. My last night there, I met Michael Hunziker, a young writer who’d just published his first novel, Vom Rand der Tropen, which looks interesting. In short, more literature than you can shake a stick at.

So that’s my report on Walserweltweit. Now it’s time to continue my travels.

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