naivety

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.

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[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.

EUGENIE GRANDET BY HONORE DE BALZAC

I’ve never met a miser, or certainly not one that could be said to meet the standards of the great 19th century authors. I have not, so far, come across anyone who, regardless of the size of their fortune, counts every penny, scrimps and saves and hoards. Perhaps it is simply that times have changed. The 21st century, it strikes me, is about ostentation, about displaying your wealth like peacock feathers. What is the point, we feel, of having money if you don’t spend it, if other people don’t know that you have it? Indeed, even the people who have little often attempt to convince others that they have greater means; they covet and even mimic, as much as possible, the lifestyles of the rich.

This kind of attitude would be completely alien to Monsieur Grandet, Honore de Balzac’s chief miser. Grandet was once a lowly cooper, who made his money through his own ingenuity [although his wife also brought with her a large income]. Yet, as with many people skilled in business, he is not exactly brimming with virtues; indeed, he is crafty and manipulative, affecting a stutter and partial deafness in order to bamboozle competitors and, when asked a difficult question, maintains that he must discuss it with his wife [who in reality is entirely subservient]. Moreover, despite his eye-watering wealth, he would rather the world thought him poor, because that way one is more likely to pick-up bargains and can avoid having to give charity to others [including his newly arrived nephew, Charles]. This is not to say that he is entirely successful in this regard; other misers can nose out one of their kind, and it is said that hours gazing at his huge mound of coins has given his eyes a noticeable yellow, metallic glitter. Balzac, in one of the book’s best metaphors, describes Grandet as something like a cross between a tiger and a snake. The old man, we’re told, is adept at lying in wait for his victim, ready to pounce and kill, and, once he has his prey, opens wide the mouth of his purse to swallow his bounty.

“Grandet unquestionably “had something on his mind,” to use his wife’s expression. There was in him, as in all misers, a persistent craving to play a commercial game with other men and win their money legally. To impose upon other people was to him a sign of power, a perpetual proof that he had won the right to despise those feeble beings who suffer themselves to be preyed upon in this world. Oh! who has ever truly understood the lamb lying peacefully at the feet of God?—touching emblem of all terrestrial victims, myth of their future, suffering and weakness glorified! This lamb it is which the miser fattens, puts in his fold, slaughters, cooks, eats, and then despises. The pasture of misers is compounded of money and disdain.”

However, it should be noted that Grandet is not entirely villainous, or is not grotesquely, exaggeratedly so. Often 19th century bad guys are without redeeming features, are cartoon figures, but that isn’t really the case here. We are told that the cooper loves his daughter dearly, although he certainly doesn’t spoil her. Furthermore, he was the only landowner prepared to take in and employ the ugly, warty big Nanon. Yes, one could say that is this instance he simply spied an opportunity, and that he has had more than his money’s worth out of her. Yet it is also true that she is genuinely devoted to him as her benefactor, and he treats her with some kindness [he gives her his watch, for example]. Were the old man overly cruel or excessively unpleasant Eugenie Grandet would be a different book, a tragedy; as it is, with Grandet being tight-fisted but recognisably human, it is more of a light, domestic comedy of manners.

The title character begins the book as a naïve, but happy young woman. Grandet hides his wealth from her, and so she has no reason to complain about her situation, about the unglamorous, and often tough, nature of her existence. What Balzac does with Eugenie is very clever. She is a kind, caring and selfless soul, who thinks little of her own comfort, and therefore it takes the arrival of someone who she wants to make happy and comfortable to open her eyes to her father’s attitudes and behaviour. She wants to give her cousin nice things to eat, to arrange his room, to treat him, essentially, as befitting an honoured guest. Of course, all this hugely irritates old Grandet, who charges the girl with wanting to ruin him financially. For the first time, Eugenie notices how unreasonable he is, as he argues over a lump or two of sugar; more significantly, she is exposed to his callousness when he shows his nephew no sympathy in his grief, stating that it is more upsetting to lose a fortune than to lose one’s father. Charles is, in this way, the catalyst for Eugenie’s awakening, he, or rather her love for him, allows her to see her world differently.

“In the pure and monotonous life of young girls there comes a delicious hour when the sun sheds its rays into their soul, when the flowers express their thoughts, when the throbbings of the heart send upward to the brain their fertilizing warmth and melt all thoughts into a vague desire,—day of innocent melancholy and of dulcet joys! When babes begin to see, they smile; when a young girl first perceives the sentiment of nature, she smiles as she smiled when an infant. If light is the first love of life, is not love a light to the heart? The moment to see within the veil of earthly things had come for Eugenie.”

As with nearly all of Balzac’s major works money is the principle theme and primary motivating factor for many of the central characters. Grandet’s obsession with coin is clear, but he is not the only one. The des Grassins and Cruchots are, from the beginning, engaged in trying to win Grandet’s esteem and, in the process, win his daughter – a potentially very rich heiress – and draw her into their family. Even the foppish Charles is not without blemish in this regard; he too, at least initially, sees Eugenie as a way to secure his future following the bankruptcy and death of his father. Balzac, ever the psychologist, makes an interesting point about how, for Eugenie, Charles’ grief in some way obscures his real motives, that she sees in his tears proof of a loving, sensitive soul, not realising that sensitivity in one area does not preclude calculating behaviour in another. What is unusual about Eugenie Grandet, in comparison with the other Balzac novels I have read, is that the money eventually ends up in the best hands, but, this not being Dickens, the outcome is not a happy one, for the person who possesses the multi-millions is the one person in the book who least values it, who least craves it, who is not satisfied in owning it.

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[Eugenie Grandet, directed by Mario Soldati, 1946]

I wrote previously that Eugenie Grandet is not a tragedy, but I guess that it is, in a way, because the good do not prosper, they suffer instead. Balzac makes no secret of his admiration for Eugenie, who is the most warmly described and exaggeratedly praised of all his saintly women [and there are quite a few of them throughout La Comedie]. However, for all that, and to my surprise, I did not find her excessively irritating. I think the reason for this is that, unlike Eve in Lost Illusions, she is not absolutely blind to the faults of others, is not essentially a doormat. She is, in fact, rather strong-willed and brave and perceptive, certainly after falling in love. For example, she stands up to her father on more than one occasion, takes a husband on her own terms, and  so on. I must also admit that I found her devotion very touching, and not unbelievable. Yes, there was very little substance to her affair,  and the cynical amongst us might scoff at the idea of holding a candle for someone for seven or more years, but one must remember that it was her first love, and those are incredibly potent, and that Eugenie was not exactly a socialite. Indeed, that is another of the book’s themes: the provincial attitude in comparison with the Parisian attitude, the worldy vs the cloistered.

While Eugenie Grandet lacks the fire and fevered genius of his later novels, it was nice to encounter the good-natured, the less intolerant and judgemental Balzac. Yes, he was, even at this early stage, fond of generalising but the book is mercifully free of the unpleasant comments about women [the old maid stuff in Cousin Bette, for example, where the title character is likened to a savage] or other races [the deplorable anti-semitism in Cousin Pons] that mars some of the work he produced towards the end of his life. Moreover, the focus of Eugenie Grandet, whose action takes place for the most part in one or two rooms of the Grandet house, is much narrower than most notable 19th century novels, including Balzac’s own Lost Illusions, which I consider to be his masterpiece, giving it a pleasing intimate feel. Indeed, the book has the sweet simplicity, melancholic undertone, and slow place one often encounters in Japanese literature or even Jane Austen [it does, in fact, remind me strongly of her Persuasion]. Personally, I prefer my Balzac strung out on coffee, unrelentingly cynical and melodramatic, but there is space for this sort of thing too, for tenderness and sentimentality and gulping down the odd tear.