Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Tanners, by Robert Walser
Reviewed by Gary Lain
Intro. W. G. Sebald. Trans. and afterword Susan Bernofsky. New Directions, 2009. 368 pp. Paper: $15.95.
Robert Walser's early (1907) novel The Tanners concerns the autodidactic rebel Simon Tanner and his family. A coming-of-age story, it details Simon's intense and illuminating relationships with his brothers Klaus (an academic) and Kaspar (an artist), as well as his sister Hedwig (a school teacher). It’s a curious sort of bildungsroman, however: there is little character development and Simon is never successfully integrated into society. Between odd jobs, Simon contemplates nature, engages in homespun (though insightful) philosophy, and is a student of human society (always from the position of a resolutely, almost absurdly cheerful outsider). But Simon is a young man of ability: he is articulate, bold, and engages the interest of powerful people. He talks his way guilelessly into the home of the wealthy and sympathetic Klara, who falls in love with Simon’s brother Kaspar. There they live together, Simon and Kaspar, unemployed, violating social norms (thought not sexual mores: The Tanners is a chaste novel). And class relations here are always clear. In fact, Simon works briefly as a servant for an overtly cruel mistress. These relationships are dynamic, however: characters rise and fall from riches as in Smollett, including, ultimately, and most movingly, Klara herself. This is one indicator of modernity: social fluidity as opposed to a vestigial aristocracy; any other markers for modernism in The Tanners are more thematic than formal, as the novel is episodically structured, and its prose, while beautifully rendered (as translated by Susan Bernofsky), poses no real formal challenges. In the final analysis, Simon’s cheerful refusal to acknowledge the pain and suffering inherent in human social life is a refusal to assume the emotional and spiritual burdens of life as officially constituted, framing these burdens as normative rather than intrinsic to human experience. Simon is in his way courageous: the unassuming hero of a remarkable and compelling novel.