conventionality

THE ROBBER BY ROBERT WALSER

I plod through life in a disgraceful manner, it is true. I approach every day as though it were a Sunday afternoon in midsummer. Even in relation to my writing, which I would like to one day make my career. So many times I have been encouraged to grab the tiger by the tail, and I agree that it would be in my best interests, and yet I never do. Instead, I gently rub its nose and admire its whiskers. In this way, many opportunities have passed me by, and I have watched them, sleepy-eyed, as though I was sitting on a warm and pleasant riverbank, and they were slow-moving sailing boats. For this reason, I have always related to Robert Walser’s protagonists, but especially the ‘layabout’, ‘good-for-nothing’, ‘hopelessly indolent’, but amiable Robber.

The Robber is a young man who, we’re told, is exceedingly poor and only able to live by virtue of the charity others bestow upon him, such as the money given to him by the Batavian uncle, and the attentions of a number of well-meaning women. In this way, he is very much like Simon, from The Tanners, who, early in that novel, is allowed to stay in an apartment beyond his means by a landlady who takes a particular shine to him. It would be tempting, in light of this, to see both men as ‘users’, as the sort who will gladly take advantage of others, and while that might be literally true, there is certainly no sense that they do so with conscious deliberation or, if you like, malice aforethought. Simon and the Robber are dreamers and drifters, rather than arch manipulators; there is something naïve, soft and kittenish about them, and so it is no surprise that people often take it upon themselves to look after them, to indulge them, in the way that one would a stray but friendly little animal.

For me, the Robber’s dominant character trait is a kind of gentle frivolity, lightheartedness or lack of seriousness. For example, when he finds out that Rathenau, a German statesman, has been assassinated he claps his hands;  he is, moreover, enchanted by unkind looks and delights at not being able to gain the esteem of gentlemen. From my experience, readers tend to find this precious otherworldly-ness, these quirks, either aggravating or charming. I cannot, of course, influence how any particular person will react, but I would argue that there is more to the Robber than mere whimsy, or silliness, although I suspect he would value both of those things. He is, without question, an genuine eccentric, someone who is not entirely sane, and, as such, he is rather vulnerable – Walser points out that he does not have any friends, for example – and this makes the flightiest of his flights of fancy touching.

“He resembled the leaf that a little boy strikes down from its branch with a stick, because its singularity makes it conspicuous.”

In this regard, his name is obviously significant, for a robber, like an eccentric,  is someone who has, in a sense, stepped outside of polite, conventional society by virtue of his behaviour. This outsiderness is further emphasised by the lack of steady occupation and also by his interactions with the middle classes. Indeed, class plays a subtly important role in the novel. For example, the respectable Stalder sisters want him to respond to their coquetry, to behave in certain predictable ways, to marry them, but of course he does not, for the Robber is disinterested in, or not familiar with, middle class duties, values, institutions, etc. Furthermore, there are a number of references throughout to narrowmindedness, where Walser, or the Robber, lament that those who are different, or behave differently, are not accepted or are bullied and criticised. Take the teacher with the ‘odd nature,’ who was told she knew nothing of her profession. Only with time and support is she able to become a productive member of society. The idea is, then, not that it is a good thing to be outside of conventional society, but that it is incumbent upon society to make everyone feel included and worthy. Which is, of course, a lovely sentiment.

Walser-Script-Sample-2.jpg

[One of Walser’s microscripts]

The Robber was Robert Walser’s last novel, and although it was written in 1925, it wasn’t published until the 1970’s. There was, I am sure, more than one reason for this, but it is worth noting, first of all, that The Robber is one of Walser’s microscripts, which means that it was written in pencil in tiny, almost indecipherable letters. I can just imagine how a publisher would react to being presented with such a manuscript. Moreover, the style of the novel is especially unusual. There is, for example, absolutely no plot, and precious little character depth and no development. Indeed, although it isn’t set out on the page in the same way, one might compare it to David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is composed of a series of declarative statements.

Yet perhaps the most trying, or amusing, aspect of the novel, depending on your tolerance level for this sort of thing, is its digressiveness. The first line is ‘Edith loves him,’ and in a conventional narrative one would expect that it would then be explained just who exactly Edith is, who the ‘he’ is, and that there would follow from that some discussion as to the nature of their relationship. But Walser promises ‘more on that later’ and throws in a random reference to a ‘famous’ hundred francs, which, of course, one has no prior knowledge of. And this is not, as noted, a one-off; he does it frequently, relentlessly, so that the story is constantly running down dead-ends [‘that hundred francs will come to nothing at all,’ he later writes]. The effect upon the reader is that it keeps one from ever finding a firm-footing; it is disorientating. As a writer, Robert Walser snatches away the tablecloth and sends all the plates and cutlery flying [but, ah, how beautifully he approached the table].

In 1929 Walser admitted himself to a sanatorium, upon his sister’s urging, and, I think I am right in saying, remained there until his death. With this in mind, there is a tendency to view The Robber as a manifestation of madness, but I think this would be simplistic, not to mention unfair to the author, because it, in a sense, deprives him of credit or complete responsibility for it, it is akin to saying that he wrote it despite himself or that he had no option but to write it the way that he did. I don’t believe that. One must remember that none of Walser’s novels have a strong plot, and they are all erratic, episodic and digressive, to a lesser or greater degree. That was his style. It is, for me, simply the case that The Robber is the most complete, the most sophisticated example of that style; it is what he had been working towards all along. It, in my opinion, expertly, deliberately, captures the stop-startingness, the circularity, the charming meaninglessness of everyday life.

THE MAHE CIRCLE BY GEORGES SIMENON

There is a British TV series, which I think aired in the 1970’s, called The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin. I watched it as a child, on one of those TV Gold type channels [I wasn’t around in the 70’s, of course]. As I remember it, the basic premise of the show was that Reginald fakes his own death, by leaving his clothes at the beach, as a means of escape, an escape from his sterile life, and then moves away and starts again, reboots himself, so to speak. I’ve long found this idea extraordinarily attractive. The show plays on my mind a lot. I’ve always had an anti-conventional mind-set, by which I mean that whenever I have been in a situation that one might call stable, or whenever my personal circumstances have been settled, I have instinctively rebelled against it. The most extreme example of this was when I was in relationship with a lovely girl, but I could not handle the stultifying daily grind of dinner with her parents, conversations about career goals, etc, and so, with no warning, up and left her and moved to London to be with a girl I had known only a few weeks. Yes, sometimes you have to try to escape; sometimes your social and family circle feels like a noose.

The Mahé Circle starts with a frown. As first sentences go, it is not particularly exciting, but it is significant, and strangely effective. The Mahé of the title is Doctor Mahé, who, when we meet him, is on a boat. He has, it appears, engaged a local man, Gene, to take him out fishing. However, Doctor Mahé, unlike his companion, isn’t doing well; most of the time he catches nothing, and when he does manage to tempt something onto his bait it is a diables, which is some kind of horrid spiny fish that, amusingly, you cannot touch with your bare hands and must be immediately thrown back. Ruefully, Mahé notes that, although he is a failure as a fisherman, he is doing exactly what Gene does, that their technique or approach is the same.

Disappointment, unease, and a strange kind of tension, permeates this evocative opening section. The doctor has a headache, the wine that was brought on board is warm, his wife is a smudge on the shore, and an approaching boat brings news that a local woman is near death. Indeed, Mahé is actually on holiday, but you wouldn’t know it, for nothing about his demeanour or circumstances suggests fun or freedom; it is, in fact, made clear that the climate and atmosphere of the mediterranean island of Porquerolles is hostile to him. However, as the narrative progresses, once Mahé and his family have returned home, it is revealed that there is something about that hostility that he craves, that it, in some way, makes him feel alive.

“In Porquerolles, things were hostile to him. He had tried in vain to lessen their impact. Down south, all the time, he had felt as if there was a tremendous chaos around him, a kind of life that was too vivid, so that the slightest contact with it made his blood pulse more quickly, and prompted a rising fever inside him.”

Simenon is at pains to stress that Doctor Mahé’s life, his life at home, away from Porquerolles, is a conventional one. He makes a comfortable living; he has a wife and children and he still lives with his mother. Moreover, his mother is said to still tell him when to change his underwear, she also chose his wife [more for herself, than for him, Mahé thinks], and this wife, with the bland smell, is described as being incapable of full-blooded grief [which is used a kind of criticism, as a way of highlighting her middle-of-the-road nature]. It is not difficult, then, to see how the island – with its extreme heat, scorpions etc – offers greater excitement, a sense of something other, something different. Placing cosseted or average men in a [comparatively] wild environment, making them literally and existentially confront the alien, is a trick often made use of by authors, but this is one of only two times [The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier being the other] that I have come across a protagonist that actually enjoys, yearns for that hostility.

There is, however, another reason why Mahé wants to return to Porquerolles, there is one other motivating factor. When, at the beginning of the novel, he is asked to attend upon the dying woman he sees, while at her house, a young girl, Elisabeth. From this moment onwards both the girl and the red dress she was wearing when he first saw her come to dominate his thoughts and, in turn, the novel. Initially, one thinks that the doctor might be concerned about her welfare, or even that he simply admires her for the way that she copes with the dire circumstances in which she lives, including dealing with her drunkard father, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has a more sinister interest in her. With each return trip he seeks her out, and on each occasion she has, of course, grown older, more womanly; yet she is, on each occasion, still wearing the same dress.

Throughout the novel Simenon makes use of a number of symbols, like the island of Porquerolles, which is a manifestation of Mahé’s increasingly dangerous, unconventional frame of mind. Elisabeth’s ever shortening and tightening dress is a symbol of Mahé’s lust [the colour red is itself a symbol of lust or danger] and, in a sense, mirrors the unravelling fabric of his life and, like the island, his mind also. Furthermore, a young girl is, of course, a symbol of independence, purity and youth. In one of the most significant episodes Mahé, like the two old men in Witold Gombrowicz’s great Polish novel Pornografia, encourages his nephew Albert to pursue Elisabeth, to sleep with her, in an effort to spoil or sully her. It should be pointed out that Mahé doesn’t really want or value any of these things for themselves, that they exist as symbols for him too; he doesn’t love the island, he doesn’t love the girl either [although the word is used towards the end of the novel it doesn’t convince], he is simply drawn towards anything that isn’t representative of his awful, common life, anything that will or could break the circle that he feels is closing upon him.

“He found that at thirty-five, here he was, too big, too fat, too full of rather vulgar life, with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week.”

I have read a number of Simenon’s Romans Durs [or hard novels] and while The Mahé Circle is not the worst, it certainly, contrary to a very positive review from John Banville where he compares it to Proust and Flaubert, isn’t one of the best either. Almost all of Simenon’s work is very short, and that often means that his novels are taut and concentrated. However, occasionally one wishes that he had spread his wings, and let the story breathe a bit. This is one of those. The Mahé Circle, while fun enough, and housing some interesting, if well-worn ideas, is simply too insubstantial to really get me excited; indeed, it feels a little rushed. For example, within 20 pages the Mahé family have been on holiday, returned and then gone back. Simenon moves through the gears too quickly, for my liking. In an ordinary thriller a fast pace would not be a problem, but here it seems at odds with the relatively uneventful story of a man questioning his life and slowly plunging into madness or obsession. Moreover, the author does too much telling, and not enough hinting or suggesting; he, in fact, does all the work for you. Again, this is mostly a consequence of length; the small number of pages means that he is forced to summarise or gloss over important events, or changes in Mahé’s thinking or mind-set. Yet, having said that, the structure is satisfying, especially the way that the narrative is circular, mirroring, of course, the title of the book.

BUDDENBROOKS BY THOMAS MANN

I’ve always found the plight of the panda both moving and somewhat amusing. It truly is an animal not made for these times, an animal not meant to endure. It can’t eat, can’t procreate; it almost seems as though it wants to die. Its situation is made sadder by the fact that at some point it must have flourished. Anyway, whenever I think of pandas, or when I see one on TV or something, I am always put in mind of Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. It is a novel that deals with a family that were once prosperous, but that, like the panda, are ill-suited to the times they eventually find themselves in; the Makiokas are a family tied to archaic systems, ways of life, and values. This is why the novel packs an emotional punch, because there is something horribly inevitable about the fate of the characters, about their increasing irrelevance and ultimate insignificance.

Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks is often grouped together with books like The Makioka Sisters under the heading of novels about decline. However, as a novel about decline Buddenbrooks isn’t particularly thought-provoking, and it certainly doesn’t deal with the subject as inventively as Tanizaki. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that Mann was all that interested in it as a subject, despite subtitling the work the decline of a family. Buddenbrooks is a family saga, spanning many generations, and therefore decline is a consequence of the natural passing of time, is of the kind that you would expect from any similar novel of significant length; the decline experienced by the family is the kind that comes to us all, through old age, failing energy etc.

“The Ladies Buddenbrook from Breite Strasse did not weep, however – it was not their custom. Their faces, a little less caustic than usual at least, expressed a gentle satisfaction at death’s impartiality.”

To return to The Makioka Sisters as a comparison, in Tanizaki’s novel the change in fortunes has already occurred prior to the events being described, the Makioka’s heyday has already been and gone; it is what gives it its elegiac atmosphere. Everything in Tanizaki’s world is coloured by this change in fortunes. But that is not the case with Buddenbrooks. In Mann’s novel the fortunes of the family ebb and flow; there are successes and failures. Both The Makioka Sisters and Buddenbrooks are concerned with values, ways of life etc that are not relevant to us [or most of us] now; they are both novels that focus on disappearing worlds, but Mann’s novel simply recreates that world, rather than saying anything meaningful about why it disappeared/is disappearing. The Makiokas are out of time, but the Buddenbrooks, for the most part, are very much of theirs.

So while the subtitle is not exactly misleading, because it is literally true, it might be considered unfortunate for it seems to dominate the thoughts of readers and reviewers, meaning that they overlook what are, in my opinion, the more engaging aspects of the novel. What I was far more taken with were the fascinating, and often moving, things that Mann has to say about family and class and the world of business. The patriarch Johann Buddenbrook is a merchant, and a successful one at that. He is also exceedingly bourgeois; he believes in the overriding importance of the family and the reputation of the firm; he believes in the entitlements of his class and position, in the absolute nature of social hierarchy. It is possible, then, to view the Buddenbrooks as intolerably snobbish; they, it is fair to say, have a very high opinion of their worth and standing.

For me, it is these attitudes that dominate the novel and the characters, and that, in some cases at least, ultimately leads to their unhappiness. Take the issue of marriage, Johann admits near the beginning that he didn’t chose his wife for love, and he passes on the idea that marriage is a duty to the family to his children. Tony, his daughter, is the one who suffers most in this regard. In one of the finest sections in the novel she is pursued by a suitor, Bendix Grunlich, who, in her own words, she cannot stand. She rejects Grunlich numerous times, but he refuses to take no for an answer and essentially gangs up on the girl with her father in order to force her to submit. Johann sees the match as a good one and appears to be unaware of how grotesque his behaviour is. Yet to be fair to him, while it may seem unfair to us now, in the 1800’s and amongst the appropriate classes marrying for commercial or social reasons was not out of the ordinary. In any case, Tony relents, taking pride in her submission, in doing something for the family. In one poignant scene she makes a note of her engagement, before she has verbally accepted Grunlich, in the old family ledger where the history of the Buddenbrooks is recorded. In another, as she is about to be driven away with her husband she jumps out of the carriage, throws her arms around her father and asks him, are you proud of me, papa? The tragedy is that Tony is worth so much more, she is a lively, vivacious and charming girl, yet she is categorically her father’s daughter, she is, fatally, in terms of her own happiness, a Buddenbrook; Tony is incapable of compromising on what she thinks is due to her, in word and deed, as a member of that distinguished family.

“Thomas Buddenbrook’s existence was no different from that of an actor – an actor whose lfe has become one long production, which but for a few hours for relaxation, consumes him unceasingly.”

The Buddenbrooks are ruled by their sense of duty and honour, their conventionality. To a certain extent, the book reminded me of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In that novel the advice appears to be that it is not always wise or prudent to forsake the solid, the familiar for the glittering and exciting. In Mann’s novel the message isn’t clear; it is not obvious where his sympathies lie, but he often contrasts the conventionality of the strongest members of the family with the impulses or character of the artist or the imaginative or romantic [in the Brochean sense] person. Christian, for example, is lambasted, by his brother Tom in particular, for being a buffoon, for shaming the family by taking up with actresses. Poetry, novels, romance are all things that are described as youthful folly, as the kind of things you engage in briefly before settling down; and Tony gives up the one genuine love of her life to fall in line with family policy. Ultimately, the Buddenbrooks have no freedom, even though that is mostly a self-imposed state of affairs.

Tom is the epitome of conventionality, the poster boy; his immaculate manners, his refined bearing, his diplomacy is a large part of what defines him. After a while he comes to dominate the narrative, and the family itself. His rejection of Christian, his antipathy towards him, is based entirely upon what he sees as his brother’s tactlessness and inability to understand what their status as Buddenbrooks demands. In one scene towards the end he flares up at him because he wants to marry someone of low-birth; Christian accuses him of lacking feeling or empathy. What is most interesting about Tom is that he chooses for a wife one who is artistically inclined; yet, tellingly, he does not love her for her passion, or appreciate it in-and-of-itself, but rather he sees it almost as a charming, albeit inconsequential, decoration, like a lovely piece of jewellery. One of my favourite passages in the novel is when Tom’s wife accuses him – patronisingly, arrogantly – of having no musical feeling, of only liking the most easily-digestible, populist tunes. Tom responds with incredulity, for he cannot comprehend why he is being disparaged for enjoying music that he finds stirring or gently moving. To put this in a modern context, Tom likes Angels by Robbie Williams and his wife likes Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You Black Emperor.

This tension between the conventional or bourgeois attitude and the imaginative or artistic is greatest when Tom has a son. Hanno is even more precious than his mother, even more sensitive and dreamy. For Tom Hanno is too indulged, too coddled and, most alarmingly, too feminised by his wife and nanny/governess. Tom laments that his son isn’t more active, more manly; he sees art, he sees expressions of feeling in fact, as womanly. Hanno is, in this sense, not a true Buddenbrook; he is not, as far as Tom is concerned, a model son, is not the kind of son he had hoped for. The ideal son would be one who is reserved, but strong and proud; he would grow up to be a merchant, and one day take over the family business. What Tom gets instead is a sissy who loves music; because of this both the father and the son suffer. Perhaps Mann’s ultimate aim was to show how hard it is to be an artist, or to be unconventional, in bourgeois society, but more movingly, more interestingly, Buddenbrooks reminds us how most families consist of a bunch of people who are very different personalities, who, because they are tied to each other by this incredibly strong bond, have to try and rub along, have to try and understand each other.

In terms of style, Mann wrote in a relatively simplistic manner. The sentences are short, the language not very difficult and, unlike both Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain, there are no long philosophical passages. One of the things that Mann’s work is most often criticised for is how detached, how arch and ironic, the narrative voice is. Mann tended to write as though he had a wry smile on his face; he made it abundantly clear that his characters are characters, not in a meta or post modern way, but by making sure that, like Dickens, his third person impersonal narrator was always a presence in the text, offering droll asides etc. Having said that, Buddenbrooks is Mann’s warmest work; it is the closest he got to producing characters that we believe in, that we fall in love with, that don’t exist primarily as ciphers. This is a truly wonderful book, which confirms that Thomas Mann was one of the great geniuses of world literature.