Since his work began to be widely translated into English a few years ago, Robert Walser, the Swiss writer of odd stories and novels who died in 1956, has become a darling of the more artsy segments of the literary world. Appropriately enough, his latest book to appear in English is Looking at Pictures, a collection of short fiction and essays about art. In a review for Bookforum, Michael Miller writes that far from taking a distanced critical stance, Walser writes about art that "sets the author’s imagination in motion, inspiring him to concoct elaborate dramas that extend far beyond the confines of the scenes portrayed." Here's an excerpt from the review:
Many of the essays project audacious fantasies onto a particular painting. After offering some vague observations about the appearance of the peasant woman in van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne (“She wears the sort of skirt one sees all the time”), Walser’s description takes a hallucinatory turn: “The woman suddenly began speaking about her life,” telling him of her childhood, her parents, and school. In “Catastrophe,” probably about Albert Bierstadt’s The Burning Ship, ca. 1871, the author, never content to simply look at a picture, writes as if he has boarded the sinking ship himself. There, he finds two lovers who, in Walser’s increasingly unhinged fantasia, acquire an ornate back story: They have betrayed one another during the voyage but are now, facing disaster, reunited. They must all dive into the water, where they will drown. The final line is: “How our imaginations can run away with us!”
Other pieces here find traction in anecdotes that bear only a tangential relation to the artwork at hand. Lucas Cranach’s Apollo and Diana, 1530, inspires Walser to recall living in an apartment in Thun, where his landlord removed a reproduction of the painting that he had tacked to the wall, presumably because she was offended by the nudity. (He writes a “brash epistle,” but there is no rancor here; the landlady is soon, in a denouement that begs for psychoanalytic gloss, offering to mend Walser’s torn trousers.) An essay that’s supposed to be about Belgian art instead finds Walser rhapsodizing about a coffee shop, recalling a dream, and feeling “enlivened” by memories of a woman who has moved to the US. “How grateful I am,” he remarks, “that she once, with marvelous dignity, gave me a proper ‘dressing down’ outside a department store. ‘Dressing down’ is being used here to describe a certain breaking off of relations or rebuff.”
Image of Robert Walser via 50watts.com.