The Tanners by Robert Walser

by Scott Esposito

The TannersRobert Walser (trans. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 360pp, $15.95.


It is the mark of a novel’s necessity when it hangs so strongly together, feels so absolutely essential in every last, smallest chunk, despite the fact that it offers the reader very little of what is generally construed as novelistic. In Search of Lost Time is perhaps the best example of this: it is a novel that is seven times as long as any novel should be, a heavily digressive work packed with belabored extended metaphors and absent all but the slowest plot momentum. Nonetheless, this bulky, misshapen beast continually takes flight before our unbelieving eyes, we have scarcely sat down with Proust than we have grown immersed, not so much for the ever-widening world or the vivid characters as for the singular logic of the prose.

So it is with Robert Walser’s first novel, The Tanners. The book is nothing more than the tale of a ne’er-do-well, idealistic young man who bounces from job to job, home to home, person to person, his life less a tidy arc than an oscillation gently tightening around what might be peace, albeit surely temporary. The book breaks rule after rule of novelistic writing: Walser takes it as his right to introduce major plot points on the flimsiest of pretexts, and he abandons them pages later once his attention has been diverted elsewhere; there is always the sense that Walser has his characters do certain things just for the excuse to muse for pages on end upon the nature and pleasures of, say, ballet, or walking; and his characters are scarcely capable of saying “pass the salt” without erupting into pages-long, quasi-philosophical speeches that espouse their meditations on life.

The novel should collapse under its own weight, it should fail for at least five different reasons. It doesn’t. It glides by like clouds escorted by sunbeams, and it leaves in its wake a series of jaw-dropping scenes, indelible images, sentences and phrases that will stop you cold. Whatever world The Tanners takes place in it is clearly not our own, and yet the book speaks to so much that is plainly human, and it does so in such a soft, solemn voice that reaches right out from the page.

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