If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
“Do permit me to address a letter to you. I’ve seen you several times now at your window; something about you pleases me, I believe myself convinced that you inspire my trust, and now suddenly I find myself thinking of a woman I saw at the theater, where I observed her quite closely, perhaps even somewhat too attentively, discovering that she no longer looked so very good. One should always refrain from making observations, don’t you agree? Yet why do we make them nonetheless? It’s curious how incapable we are of escaping a compulsion constantly to judge one another. What a weakness this is! You have a very beautiful, large room, but this sounds already perhaps a tad indiscreet, and if it is, I shall retract the remark and act as though it had never crossed my lips. How prettily you dress! Surely your thoughts and feelings are exceedingly elegant. Recently I was sitting in a coffee house—in a refreshment hall for all—and suddenly felt I was being observed, that is, that someone was taking note of me from a particular angle, that I was being accorded a certain regard. Immediately I felt this to be improper and shifted my gaze to take in some people sitting there with a quiet-disinterested air. No one likes to pay homage to those who insist on being found noteworthy. Perhaps I ought in general to speak more, I incline to taciturnity, but possibly because of this I sleep well at night. Now don’t go thinking of me as a slugabed! That would be disastrous, but listen, there’s a woman, one I run into now and again and might consider beautiful if only she were taller. In any case, she has a face that deserves to be raised high aloft by an imposing body. If what I say seems indecorous to you, I would regret this. I am a sort of poet who at times is a very sober person but has almost something like a beloved, which obviously means a great deal to me. In honor of this girl, I wrote a book full of bullheadednesses; but I would never dare to presume she might understand this volume, which—it goes without saying—I never placed in her hands. I wrote the book because she would not permit me to spend my days in her company, devoting myself to her, which I would have done with genuine pleasure. To you as well I would scarcely venture to present the work, though if you did order me to let you read it, nothing would prevent my obeying. I am the love of freedom incarnate, yet at the same time I yearn to have someone telling me what to do and how to relate to those around me, whom I know but at the same time perhaps misunderstand completely. It’s entirely possible that I do not treat and view even myself correctly. Many, by the way, would perhaps do well to ponder similar questions.
“I am a person who reads a great deal without having the ability to be powerfully influenced by what I read. Books have not changed me in the slightest, which might as easily be a failing as an asset. I revere Mozart and Stendhal, and do not consider you as happy a woman as you are clever, but what poor manners I display! Why should you not gather intellect and enjoyments around you in equal measure, and how could we ever be as happy as we might wish? If our natures exactly matched our longings, longing would cease to exist, and it’s so lovely to have desires. Why is the sky never beneath our feet but always high above, and why does it give us pleasure to be allowed to gaze up into it? Upon the console table in your room stands a Chinese vase, do forgive my eyes their truly indelicate perceptiveness—although this observation is self-evident and in any case signifies little—and to doubt the extent to which reading these lines will take you aback, even if the shock is minimal, would be a discourtesy of which I know myself innocent. What’s more, I have given a bit of thought—approximately a quarter of an hour’s thought, to be precise—to whether there might be persons besides yourself to whom I might turn with my request to be invited to supper, which would provide an opportunity for me to speak my mind, and I then came to the opinion that the chilliest of women would be the best suited to this purpose—the most reserved the most deserving of my trust. You have no doubt already dispensed with all fear that I might be intending to flatter you. To sit across from you at a table at any time of day, providing responses to questions of all sorts, would relieve rather than oppress me; I feel as though I owe information to a person who, I predict, thinks neither highly nor poorly of me. How can I, for example, have lived so long in this city—a city where you yourself occupy a respect-inspiring position—without pursuing any activity other than standing still now and then in front of an art bookshop to study the reproduction of a famous Old Master, and then hurrying to my room to write something about the impression it has made on me?”
As I wrote these words, the most beautiful maiden, applauded by her own alabastrine hues, lay in the shimmering raiment of the most enchanting undress upon the sofa in my study.
“You seem so immersed in your vocation,” she said, and I nodded. When she saw me pause in my writing, she said: “Tell me a story!” I went up to the mirror, checked my appearance, and then began as follows:
“A writer took a wife—after already having been married once and coming to the conclusion that he should declare it better for himself to remain unwed—for a second time, tying the knot with a girl from a good family who planned to train to be a singer, to which end she spent her hours like a little songbird, trilling away all day long. How I laughed when her predilection began to hamper his writing.”
“Do you know anything else?” asked Olympia, for this was her name.
I went on, saying:
“Not long ago, a luminary in the field of novel-writing died, a sort of trailblazer who got across above all to kitchen maids. He was so successful at making an impression on them that they all felt moved to march behind his coffin, which they did in high style. How I laughed when I saw them.”
“That was very nice of those girls,” the mistress of my will was pleased to say, not batting an eyelash at what I had recounted but instead gazing upon me with goddess-like immaculacy. Once more I began, relating:
“Once there was a young fellow, as handsome as he could be. His lack of intelligence was almost more delectable than his charming appearance: it might have vied with a church tower in its magnitude. Many a girl would have liked to kiss him. His mouth appeared to them to have been made for kissing, but it would never have occurred to this fellow to imagine himself attractive. How that never-once-kissed mouth of his made me laugh.”
“He was no doubt very modest,” said Olympia. Leaving her remark unanswered, I began to expound on an unusual manner of spending one’s life.
“There was often something to buckle on or buckle off, we spent most of the time wearing something or other. Daily I wound up dirty and had to scrub myself down. After I bathed, people would praise my rosy appearance. Each evening we gathered beneath trees to hear what was being communicated to us. There were sometimes more of us, sometimes fewer, we dispersed and then were reunited. From time to time I would be instructed to stand still until I was relieved and someone else came to stand in my place. They all considered me quite refined and took pleasure in this circumstance, which I myself found fairly risible. They were stronger than me, and better natured. All of us, by the way, made terrible fun of ourselves on occasion. Our exercises sometimes struck us as droll. Each of us bore a sort of insignia upon his shoulder. The fruits of autumn tumbled into our hands, sometimes almost into our mouths. Nagging would have struck us as pointless—our tranquility was impervious to all dissent regarding our manner of being. Daily we grew weary, but these wearinesses contained new elasticities. At night, we all slept side by side. Our assignment consisted above all in becoming and remaining so strong that nothing could shake our composure. There is something almost magnificent about reduced sensitivity. Sensibility makes us small. So-called higher sentiments would have been a burden to us. I dwelt as my circumstances warranted and allowed, but also received many gifts in the form of all sorts of enjoyments. Constantly I had something tasty in my mouth and something cajoling in my head—in my thoughts, I mean—and this is what matters in the end. I am called egotistical by those who wish to emulate me but cannot manage it. But why was I most often seen as contented when I was looking well-to-do? A great deal of emphasis was placed upon seeing me happy. Only occasionally was my appearance such as to displease them. Once we arrived at a sort of institution. As we were entering, I saw a gentleman speaking with a lady. Both seemed to me quite elegant.”
“Didn’t you have to laugh at that also?” Olympia asked.
“No! Laughter was not customary among us. We were, in a manner of speaking—lowly as we might otherwise have been—too well-brought-up for this. A faint pride suffused us, by which I do not mean to claim we were exemplary. Being quiet signified for us something like a feast, and then we were almost always occupied with something or other.”
“Beautiful souls,” that gentleman said to the lady at the portal over whose threshold we stepped, “look approvingly but also disregardfully upon all these thoughts that fly so swiftly past them.”
First published November 1925 in the newspaper Prager Presse.
Born in Switzerland in 1878, Robert Walser worked as a bank clerk, a butler in a castle, and an inventor’s assistant while beginning what was to become a prodigious literary career. Between 1899 and his forced hospitalization in 1933 with a now much-disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia, Walser produced as many as seven novels and more than a thousand short stories and prose pieces. Though he enjoyed limited popular success during his lifetime, his contemporary admirers included Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Robert Musil, and Walter Benjamin. Today he is acknowledged as one of the most important and original literary voices of the twentieth century. This fall New Directions will publish his book Looking at Pictures.
Susan Bernofsky directs the literary translation program in the School of the Arts MFA Program in Writing at Columbia University. She has translated over twenty books, including seven by the great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Hesse’s Siddhartha and, most recently, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. Her many prizes and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, as well as the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize and the Hermann Hesse Translation Prize. She blogs about translation at www.translationista.net.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.