indolence

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 MAIAS BY JOSE MARIA DE ECA DE QUEIROS

There are certain experiences that grow in stature, that become more significant, after, or outside of, the event; for example, imagine that you manage to bag a date with a movie star. This movie star might be insufferably boring, and so the date itself may be a let down, but before and after the date your perception of the event might be that it is/was a momentous occasion; it may even become more enjoyable as you think about it, or talk about it with friends. The thing is, you are able to appreciate some things differently in retrospect, or in anticipation. Certain novels are like that too. The Makioka Sisters is one of them. Cards on the table, reading Tanizaki’s novel was something of a chore. It almost completely lacks drama and the prose is utterly prosaic. However, after reading it, at some remove from my reading, my opinion of it is that it is beautiful and moving. It is very strange, but it is true that thinking about The Makioka Sisters moves and interests me far more than the experience of reading it ever did. The Maias by Eca de Queiros is similar in the sense that I feel an affection for it, and a growing appreciation, now that I have finished it, and yet for long stretches, particularly in the middle section, it struggled to keep my attention.

To be fair to The Maias there were significant sections of the novel that did fully engage me, by which I mean in the moment, not solely in retrospect. In fact, it bursts out of the blocks, telling the story of Afonso’s marriage, his emigration to England, his return to Portugal, his wife’s death, his son’s marriage, the birth of his grandchildren and his son’s death. The first 60 pages boast more action, drama and excitement than the following 600; in fact, they boast more of those things than most full novels. It is almost as though the author wanted to clear the decks, to get all the, uh, conventional plotting and stuff out of the way so that the book could settle into a comfortable, rocking-chair atmosphere. In a way it is a shame as I would have loved some of that stuff to be developed, lingered over; yet it clearly did not interest Eca de Queiros enough. The abrupt drop in pace, the almost complete absence of tension and action until close to the end, was all necessary for him to make the kind of points he wanted to make about Portuguese society.

Although the title of the book gives the impression that The Maias will be a multi-generational family chronicle similar to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks it is not at all. After those initial 60 pages the Maias, as a family, fade from view, and one man, Afonso’s grandson Carlos, comes to dominate the book. I do not think that Eca de Queiros was unaware that the title of his novel is misleading or gives a false impression; I think he knew exactly what he was doing, and that the name he chose is an ironic one, one that hints at an aspect of the book that provides its biggest shock. However, to explain what I mean by that, to discuss how one could understand the title differently, would involve serious spoilers.* In any case, once Carlos takes over the narrative The Maias essentially becomes a kind of buddy comedy, which in turn serves as a gentle satire of Portuguese life and culture.

Carlos is what we call idle rich; he is more than capable, but his tremendous wealth and, Eca de Queiros would argue, the laid-back Portuguese mindset, takes away all his drive and ambition. Initially he desires to be a doctor, but once he has lavishly furnished his practice he loses interest in it. Instead, he spends his time with his friends, laughing and joking and making plans that never come to fruition. The most notable of these friends is the Wildean and foppish Joao da Ega, a man who, like Carlos, has charm, ability and big ideas, but never actually achieves anything. Throughout the text he talks about founding an Arts publication and, most amusingly, actually reads passages from his forever unfinished novel, the ludicrously ambitious Memoirs of an Atom. I was also particularly fond of Alencar, an old poet who was also a friend of Carlos’ father. Alencar, a staunch romantic, spends almost of all his time reciting his own bad poetry and making wistful asides about his youthful conquests.

The point of all this is that Eca de Queiros wanted to show that [his] Portugal is populated by amiable but aimless, intelligent but indolent people. This, he seems to say, is what it means to be Portuguese. Indeed, the characters often criticise Portugal, and by extension themselves. The crux of the problem with the middle section of the novel is that following the non-adventures of a bunch of charming, but mostly lazy and disinterested young men who accomplish nothing, was never likely to result in a page-turner. This middle section, which spans 300-400 pages, is lovely and readable and occasionally very funny, but is, necessarily, terribly unexciting. In order to develop his themes, in order to show Portugal as a place where nothing of any note ever happens, Eca de Queiros had to suck all the drama out of his narrative. Ironically, one falls into the same kind of languid state as the characters, into a kind of happy but half-attentive frame of mind, as you read.

Furthermore, there is the suggestion that the real action, that real life in fact, is happening elsewhere and is being kept from you. The characters voice this idea in relation to their own lives, but the book itself reads that way. For example, Maria Eduarda’s story – which takes place in France mostly – would be very interesting, could [like the beginning of the novel] have been unfurled over 100’s of pages, and yet we only get it in truncated form during conversation; likewise Ega’s trips to Celorico, and Ega’s and Carlos’ trips abroad, Ega’s affair with Raquel Cohen and so on. There was so much scope for extending the range of the novel, for introducing more conventionally engaging plotlines, but, unfortunately, to do so would have diluted the impact of the author’s message. Even the action that does promise to take place during the narrative eventually comes to nothing, like, for example, the numerous duels that are called for and planned, and the various beatings that characters vow to administer to each other.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Maias, for a modern reader, or this modern reader anyway, is Eca de Queiros’ claim that Portuguese culture is stolen, or imported, from other countries. When a house is redecorated early in the novel it is done by an Englishman in a myriad of continental styles, a house in Olivais, which plays an important part in the later stages of the novel, features a kind of Japanese extension; throughout the book there are mentions of Japanese screens and vases; there are English horses; and in one of the most amusing scenes Ega turns up in sunny Portugal wearing a thick Russian coat. This importing or appropriating of culture from elsewhere doesn’t just involve art and décor and fashion, but also attitudes, behaviours and mannerisms. For example, Damaso, who is the closest the novel comes to having a villain, believes in the superiority of the French and attempts to live like a Frenchman. He is an entirely ridiculous figure [and therefore not particularly villainous], whose catchphrase is to label everything of which he approves ‘chic.’ My favourite Damaso moment is when he turns up at an important horse racing event [which itself is an import, the national sport being bullfighting] wearing a veil. When everyone wonders why on earth he is wearing such a thing Damaso lambasts the Portuguese for being philistines!

The reason that this stuff interests me so much is because I see it myself, in my time and in my country. I often lament the lack of genuine culture, not just English culture, which to my mind no longer exists, but world culture. I am not talking about immigration here, which I am in favour of, but, as Eca de Queiros does, the importing of ideas and behaviours etc from abroad, mostly from America. I dunno, maybe I need to lighten up, but it pains me to hear English people talking about going to Starbucks or eating bagels for breakfast or the horrific recent development of secondary school or college Proms. Don’t get me wrong, I think an understanding or appreciation of other cultures is a nice thing, but that is not the same thing as appropriating other cultures, or allowing them to dominate others so that what you end up with, what we have ended up with, is one homogenous culture. That I find depressing.

So far I have probably given the impression that The Maias is entirely about negation, but that is not strictly the case. In fact, the narrative pace picks up [relatively speaking, anyway] in the final 200 pages, when Eca de Queiros concentrates on the love affair between Carlos and Maria Eduarda. In a way, it was a strange decision on the author’s part, because it is the only time in the novel that he gives the reader full access to the dramatic events relative to a particular storyline. The Carlos and Maria affair feels, in this way, somewhat incongruous. If I had to guess as to why Eca de Queiros does give us full access to Carlos and Maria’s relationship I would argue that, as with the title of the work, it is an example of dramatic irony. Throughout the majority of the preceding 500 pages we are kept at arm’s length, and then suddenly, towards the end, we are let in; here, with Carlos and Maria’s intense love, is an example of the life that we have been repeatedly told only happens elsewhere. Yet the author cannot allow this lofty, beautiful love to flourish, to act as evidence against his themes; he, instead, brings it crashing down to earth with a sordid, shocking revelation. It is almost as though he set up Carlos and Maria purely to show just how ridiculous it is to expect anything genuinely noble to take place in Portugal. However, perhaps the joke is on Eca de Queiros, because the greatest irony is that for a novel so insistent on the cultural bankruptcy and idiocy of a particular country at a particular time, he makes it seem so thoroughly attractive.

*I think The Maias does not refer to Afonso, Carlos, Pedro etc, but to the two incestuous lovers, Carlos and Maria.