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New Walser

This November sees the release in paperback of Robert Walser’s Selected Stories (FSG Classics, $15), with a peculiarly pleasing semi-plasticized cover-stock. It includes well over thirty of Walser’s often very short stories and essays, including pieces about aviators, pimps, and poets, the last of which recounts his knowledge of “a poet, the author of most captivating verses, who lodged for a time in the bathroom of a lady, which tempts one to ask, if one may so ask, of course, whether or not he decently and promptly withdrew when the lady herself chose to take a bath.” The book’s forward, by Susan Sontag, who deems “Walser’s virtues… those of the most mature, most civilized art,” and Christopher Middleton, who is credited only inside, along with “others,” as the translator, ends the book with an illuminating postscript, which includes some discussion of the other Walser translations available in English.

Paul North’s translation of Answer to an Inquiry (Ugly Duckling Press, $20), a short story presented as illustrated book, presents Walser’s terse second-person with an increasingly uneasy mania, culminating in self-violence. Friese Undine’s black-and-white engravings mimic a children’s book—dark, realistic, and decidedly contemporary, with computers, satellites, and televisions. North’s postscript “Note to the Reader” praises Undine’s images for their “develop[ing] a violent tendency in the text that might otherwise have been obscured by the reverence into which Walser’s writing has recently fallen.” He compares the book to Frans Masereel’s illustrated novels, whose work this resembles in the best way, while simultaneously standing on its own as a creepy liturgy. Its greatest success? That it transcends homage or text-plus-this-somewhat-arbitrary-extra-illustration to engage with and extend the original work—Undine’s work, as Paul North’s translation, is literature itself.

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