Wednesday, November 11, 2009

no reason to be uncivil

The author of The Tanners has his characters explain themselves to one another with long stories that grow sweetly more reasonable and more mad as they go on - reasonable, because the teller follows his thoughts logically step by step as he goes, and mad, because he (in this book it's usually a man named Simon) inevitably, with manic fixation, discovers kindness in everybody, as if he, and as if the author, the over-voice, have decided to will kindness into existence, create it, force it, as if the whole book is a lonely spell concocted in order to replace every bit of anger in the world with wistfulness and tolerance, a self-humbling loving-kindness. One example? Toward the end, Simon, heterosexual, realises that another man, who is not, as he imagined, also heterosexual, is about to kiss him, and he is repelled, because it is 1907 and because the man is not attractive, but he reasons with himself: "What's the harm in it?"

"I see no reason to be uncivil to this Heinrich, who is otherwise so nice, over such a small thing!" And he yielded up his mouth and let himself be kissed.

Simon is always yielding up. He is in a quite deliberate state of abdication. If people won't ask him to abdicate then he abdicates himself. I think, "With the characters making long speeches after short prompts, it's as if Robert Musil had decided to rewrite The Man Without Qualities after receiving a knock on the head. The idea is that all the pieces of your mind that might be devoted to elevating yourself, lowering others, and passing irritable judgment on the world, are instead reversed, and so instead of seeing bad government and cowardly people, you see kindly politicians doing the best they can in a tough position, and wounded individuals acting on emotions they can't avoid. Simon is not Ulrich, but there are similarities, if you twist the characters a little and look at them from another direction …"

The introduction to Susan Bernofsky's English translation of The Tanners was written by W.G. Sebald, who tells us that the author, Robert Walser, made a deep impression on him. In Sebald's books I've noticed a long process of creeping and accumulating similar to Walser's. When I tried to remember something Walser-whimsical in Sebald, the first passage that came to my mind was this, from The Rings of Saturn:

During the summer months we would sit outside on the steps in front of the house as it was getting dark. Father would fire his shotgun at owls, and we children and mother would look across at the black tree tops of the forest

Owls are naturally ludicrous, just the word is ludicrous, as Walser can be ludicrous. 'Owl' opens you up into a long 'ow' and then shuts you up almost immediately with 'l', leaving your 'ow' homeless, as if someone has clipped you across your open mouth, sneering: Did you really think we wanted you to say that syllable? If you were Simon, you would decide that the person had hit you for some very plaintive reason and end up feeling sorry for them. The cornerstone of ludicrous humour is an expectation denied. At the same time an owl has gravity, which is denied to other ludicrous birds, chickens, for example. Francis Kilvert's diary anecdote might have worked with a chicken.

Tuesday, 8 February, 1870

From Wye Cliff to Pont Faen. Miss Child in great force. She showed me her clever drawings of horses and told me the adventures of the brown wood owl 'Ruth' which she took home from here last year. She wanted to call the owl 'Eve' but Mrs. Bridge said it should be called 'Ruth'. She and her sister stranded in London at night went to London Bridge hotel (having missed the last train) with little money and no luggage except the owl in a basket. The owl hooted all night in spite of their putting it up the chimney, before the looking glass, under the bedclothes, and in a circle of lighted candles which they hoped it would mistake for the sun. The owl went on hooting, upset the basket, got out and flew about the room. The chambermaid almost frightened to death dared not come inside the door. Miss Child asked the waiter to get some mice for 'Ruth' but none could be got.

But the same bird could not have done duty both there and in Titus Groan.

His eyes had lost focus. Fuchsia dropped the cone from her hand and came to his side.

"What is it," she said. "Oh father! father! what is it?"

"I am not your father," he replied. "Have you no knowledge of me?" And as he grinned his black eyes widened and in either eye there burned a star, and as the stars grew greater his fingers curled. "I live in the Tower of Flints," he cried. "I am the death owl."

"I am the death chicken," would have been merely funny. On the other hand the Misses Child could have put a chicken in the basket, let it flap around the room, and searched for seed instead of mice.


  1. Very interesting, thank you. Thumbs up. Bernofsky is a great translator as well.

  2. Thank you, and yes she is. I'm wary of German translations because I've come across so many that seem stiff, but The Tanners moved along naturally, no stiffness at all.