I recently had the pleasure of reading two novels from Central Europe, written in the early part of the Twentieth Century. First is The Tanners by the Swiss novelist Robert Walser, which was written around 1908 and is published in a new translation by Susan Bernofsky and with an essay on Walser by no less than the great W. G. Sebald (which is alone worth the price of admission) (New Directions Publishers, 24.95).
Walser was a very strange character, born and raised in a smallish Swiss city and then resident in Berlin for many years, but somehow always detached from his surroundings, a quality very apparent in his novels and stories and which led them to be much admired by the likes of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin. The Tanners (a literal translation of the German title would be "The Tanner Siblings") tells the story of a rather dispersed family, mostly focusing on a young man named Simon, who seems to have an endlessly good heart but is unable to maintain any attachment or any job for very long. He has an immense--and hilarious--gift of gab and talks in endless sentences justifying and explaining his current condition (whatever and wherever it is), even if what he is saying is directly contrary to the equally lengthy discourse on the prior location or the next one.
At times he loves only the lively action of a city, then only the beauty and calm of the country. Of special interest to me, of course, is the very opening of the novel in which Simon is applying for a job in a bookstore and spins a lengthy tale to the proprietor of how bookselling is the most important position in the world, how he is ideally suited to it (even though he has never held a job for any length of time), etc. He gets the job but then leaves it a few days later, as he quickly came to find it boring and oppressive.
Simon has one brother who is a successful businessman and another who is an artist, and a sister who is a teacher and his relationship with each is explored in loving detail (the story is apparently quite autobiographical).
It may be of interest to mention that Walser spend the last 20 years or so of his life in a mental asylum, where he was apparently quite happy. The strange and apparently indecipherable writing that he did in those years is evidently going to be published soon, as scholars have finally been able to read it. I very much look forward to this, but in the meantime do yourself a favor and become acquainted with this highly unusual and interesting writer.
The other book is Skylark by the Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi, written in the 1920's and now published in translation by the wonderful publishing arm of The New York Review of Books (14.95). Set in a small town in Hungary at the end of the 19th Century, this is the story of a family of rather modest means, a mother, a father and a daughter; the latter, known as "Skylark", is already in her mid-thirties and is apparently so homely that they have given all hope of marriage for her.
In the meantime she quite dominates the daily lives of her parents, as she does the cooking and cleaning and largely runs the household. When she goes to visit some relatives in the country her parents are initially bereft at the prospect of being without her for a week, but the sudden need to eat in restaurants puts them back in touch with the society of the town, from which they had all but withdrawn many years before, and engages them in new (or at any rate long-forgotten) activities. This book is an absolute charmer, the characters described with sly wit but always with affection. The comparison with Chekov (made in the introduction to this volume among other places) is very apt.
Isn't it wonderful that two publishers have remembered what publishing is about and have given us the gift of these two wonderful books?
-- Jeremy Nussbaum