An Excerpt from Robert Walser's The Tanners
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
Forthcoming from New Directions
It was snowing in the small village that morning. The children arriving at school had wet snowy shoes, trousers, skirts and heads and caps. They brought the scent of snow into the schoolroom with them, along with all sorts of debris from the muddy, sodden roads. Because of the snowfall, this horde of little ones was distracted, pleasurably agitated and not terribly inclined to attentiveness, which made the teacher a bit impatient. She was just about to start the religion lesson when she became aware of a dark, slender, mobile, ambulatory spot before the window, a spot that couldn’t have been made by any peasant, for it was too delicate and active. It went flying right past the row of windows, and all at once the children saw their teacher race from the room, the lesson forgotten. Hedwig now went out the door of the schoolhouse to throw herself into the arms of her brother, who was standing right before her. She wept and kissed Simon and led him into one of the two rooms she had at her disposal. “You come unannounced, but it’s good you’ve come,” she said, “take off your things and put them here. I have to go teach some more, but I’ll send the children home an hour early today. It won’t make any difference. They’re so completely inattentive today that I have ample cause to be annoyed and send them off earlier than usual.”—She arranged her hair, which had gotten rather out of joint during their impetuous greeting, said goodbye to her brother and went back to work.
Simon began to make himself at home in the country. His suitcases were delivered by mail, whereupon he unpacked all his things. He no longer had many possessions: a few old books he hadn’t wanted to sell or give away, linens, a black suit and a bundle of small items like twine, scraps of silk, neckties, shoelaces, candle stumps, buttons and bits of thread. The teacher at the next school over agreed to loan out an old iron bedframe and a straw mattress to go along with it: this was sufficient for sleeping in the country. The bedstead was transported from the neighboring village on a wide sled in the middle of the night. Hedwig and Simon sat down upon this strange vehicle; the son of the teacher who was Hedwig’s friend, a strapping lad who’d just finished his military service, guided the sled downhill into the hollow in which the schoolhouse was located. There was much laughter. The bed was set up in the second room and furnished with the necessary bedding and thus made ready for a sleeper who had no exaggerated demands to make of a bed, which of course Simon did not. At first Hedwig thought for a while: “Well, he’s coming to me now because he doesn’t have anywhere else to live in all the wide world. That’s what I’m good for. If he’d had somewhere else to sleep and eat, he wouldn’t have remembered his sister.” But she quickly dismissed this thought, which had arisen in a moment of defiant pride and had been pursued only because of the manner of its arrival, not because it was agreeable. Simon in his turn felt a little ashamed to be making claims on his sister’s kindness in such a way, but this feeling didn’t last long either; for habit soon swallowed it up, he quite simply grew used to all of this! He really didn’t have any money left, but right away, just a day or two after his arrival, he sent around a letter to all the notary publics in the region asking them to send him work, as he was a skilled copyist with a lovely hand. And why did one need money in the country! Not much was needed. Gradually all the fragile walls separating the two schoolhouse inhabitants fell away, and they lived as if they’d always lived together, joyfully sharing both deprivations and amusements.
It was early spring. Already you could leave windows standing open with less hesitation, and the stoves scarcely needed stoking. The children brought Hedwig entire bouquets of snowdrops, so that soon they were at a loss what to do with them all, as there weren’t enough small containers in the schoolroom. The air in the village was heady with the first fragrant hints of spring. People were already taking walks in the sunshine. Imperceptibly, as if in passing, Simon had become known among these simple folk, no one asked many questions about who he was, people said he was one of the teacher’s brothers, and this was enough here to gain him respect. He’d be staying a little while, as a visitor, they thought. Simon walked around looking fairly tattered, but with a certain offhand elegance that became him and attractively concealed the squalor of the fabrics he wore. His torn shoes didn’t attract much notice. Simon found it enchanting to walk about the countryside in faulty shoes; he felt this to be one of the greatest advantages of country living. If he were to get some money, he might begin to consider whether to have his footwear set to rights, but these would be only the faintest, most unhurried deliberations. Perhaps he’d hesitate for a fortnight first; for what is a fortnight in the country? Back in the city you always had to do everything right away, but here you had the lovely obligation to defer everything from one day to the next, indeed, things deferred themselves of their own accord; for the days arrived so softly, and before you could even think about it, it would be evening already, followed by a fervent night, a veritable slumber of a night, which was then quietly woken again by the day, woken gently and with tenderness. Simon also loved the more often than not muddy village roads, the narrow ones that led you over hillocks of debris, and the wide ones where you sank into the muck if you didn’t watch your step. But that was what he liked about it! Walking on these roads gave you the opportunity to watch your step, you could show off as a city slicker who was accustomed to picking his way with great attentiveness and a slightly trumped-up look of horror when presented with mud. The old farmwives could then think to themselves what a tidy, cautious young man he was, and the girls could laugh at the great leaps Simon executed to avoid the moats and puddles. The sky was frequently encircled with clouds, dark puffy fat clouds, and delightful storms were often blowing, agitating the forest and hurtling across the moss where people were at work cutting sod, their horses patiently standing by. Oftentimes too the sky would be smiling so that all who saw it were instantly compelled to smile as well. Hedwig’s face would take on a joyous expression, and the teacher who lived on the upper floor would poke his glasses inquisitively out the window, in his way enjoying the exquisite treat of this balmy sky. Simon had gone into a little shop to buy himself an inexpensive pipe and some tobacco. It appeared to him beautiful and fitting to smoke only pipes in the country, for a pipe could be filled, and filling the pipe was a gesture that accorded well with the open fields and the forest where he spent almost the entire livelong day. In the warm midday sun, he would lie in the pale yellow grass beneath the splendidly gentle sky, stretched out on the riverbank, and was not merely allowed to dream, he was compelled to. But he didn’t dream of faroff, distant, beauteous things but rather contented himself with contemplations and daydreams pertaining to his immediate surroundings; for he knew nothing more beautiful. Hedwig, the one closest to him, was the object of his dreams. He had forgotten the entire rest of the world, and the pipe tobacco he was smoking only served to bring him back to the village, the schoolhouse, Hedwig. Of her he imagined:
“She is sitting in a boat with a man who’s abducted her. The lake is no larger than a pond in a park. She keeps peering into the large black brooding eyes of the man sitting utterly motionless in the boat beside her and thinks: ‘How his eyes gaze into the water. At me he does not look. But the entire huge surface of the water is gazing at me with his eyes!’ The man has a shaggy beard of the sort robbers are in the habit of wearing. He can be gallant like none other. He is capable of taking gallantry to the point of losing his life without blinking an eyelash and most certainly without placing his hand on his heart to boast of his deeds. This man is no boaster. He has a warm, wonderfully masculine voice, but he never uses it to pay a compliment. Never does flattery of any sort cross his proud lips, and he ruins his voice intentionally to make it sound harsh and heartless. But the girl knows he has a boundlessly good heart: nonetheless she doesn’t dare appeal to his heart with a request. A string resounds across the water in long sound waves. Hedwig thinks she might die in this resounding air. The sky above the water looks exactly like this weightless, water-hued sky currently floating above me: a floating hovering lake high above me, that fits perfectly and the trees in the picture correspond to the region’s tall, swaying trees—there is something manorial, park-like about them. But in the picture everything is cramped and condensed, and now I am strolling through this scene once more, giving no more thought to its correlation with myself and this region: the man now seizes the oar and gives the boat a cavalier thrust. Hedwig senses he might be doing this to offset his own warmth and love—to him, feeling love and tenderness is an affront, and he punishes himself mercilessly for having allowed himself to harbor such affectionate sentiments in his breast. He’s so unnaturally proud; not a man at all, just a cross between a boy and a giant. It doesn’t hurt a man to find himself overwhelmed by sentiment, but it hurts a boy who wants to be more than a man with honest feelings, a boy who wants to be a giant, wants to be only strong and not at times also weak. A boy has chivalric virtues that a man whose thoughts are sensible and mature will always thrust aside, seeing them as superfluous in the festival of love. A boy is less cowardly than a man since he is less mature, for maturity can easily make one dastardly and selfish. You need only observe the hard, cruel lips of a boy: this outspoken defiance and the exemplified insistence on a promise he’s secretly given himself. A boy keeps his word, a man might find it more appropriate to break it. The boy finds beauty in the severity of this word-keeping (as in the Middle Ages) and the man finds beauty in replacing one promise he’s uttered with another, which he promises like a man to keep. He is the promiser, and the boy is the enforcer of the promised word. Curls dance about his youthful forehead, a defiance unto death upon his curved lips. Eyes like daggers. Hedwig trembles. The park’s trees are so soft, they are dissolving in the light blue air. There beneath the trees sits the man she despises. This man who sits beside her, loveless—him she must love, though he promises nothing. He hasn’t yet opened his mouth to make a promise, he’s had the gall to abduct her without, in compensation, whispering even a single sweet nothing in her ear. Whispering is the business of that other one; this man doesn’t know the first thing about it. Even if he did, he wouldn’t do so, or he’d do so on some occasion where others wouldn’t dream of uttering anything at all. But she is giving herself to him, without knowing why. She has nothing to gain from this, has nothing to hope for, as women are so fond of doing, she has only inconsiderate treatment in store for her, the violent moods a master freely inflicts upon his property. But she feels happy when he speaks to her in a curt, heedless voice, as though she were already his. And she is his, after all, and the man knows this. He pays no more heed to what is his already. Her hair has come undone, splendid hair that plunges down her narrow, red cheeks like liquid cloth. ‘Tie it back,’ he commands, and she struggles to obey. She is in raptures as she obeys, and of course he’d see this even with his eyes shut; for then he would hear a moan cross her lips such as only those who are happy can give voice to, those hastily performing a task that is perhaps burdensome to their hands but a joy to their hearts. They get out of the boat and go ashore. The earth is soft and gives way slightly beneath their steps, like a carpet, or like several carpets placed one atop the other. The grass is the sparse yellowed grass from the year before, just like the grass here where I am smoking my pipe. Then suddenly a girl appears on the scene, a quite small, pale, gloomy-eyed girl. She appears to be a princess; for her garments are magnificent and puff out at the sides in a heavy arc from which her breast protrudes like a small burgeoning bud. The garments are a deep red, the hue of dried-out blood. Her face has a transparent pallor, it’s the shade of a wintry evening sky in the mountains. ‘You know me!’ With these words she addresses herself to the dumbfounded man, who stands there paralyzed. ‘You still dare to look upon me? Go, kill yourself. I command you!’ This is how she speaks to him. The man looks as though he means to obey her. How does he look? Well, the way one looks when there is something irrevocable to be done. In such cases a grimace is customary. The face trembles, and one must bite and knead it into submission with the full force of one’s will. It wants to break apart. A piece of nose is about to fall off. At any rate, this is the sort of thing to expect on such occasions. But I don’t wish to go on sharing this madman’s intentions to kill myself; for this must be done with a long knife, and I believe I have only a tobacco pipe, not a knife. I was liking my dream at the beginning, but now I see it’s starting to degenerate, and this doesn’t suit Hedwig at all; for Hedwig is gentle, and when she suffers, she suffers in a more beautiful, silent way. She’d no doubt just laugh at my man there in his shaggy beard if he attempted such insolence. The landscape I sketched out was quite nice all the same, but only because it was mostly borrowed from the countryside that surrounds me. One should never lose the natural ground beneath one’s feet while dreaming, especially about people, for otherwise one soon arrives at the point of making one’s characters utter words like: ‘Go, kill yourself.’ And then one of them will have to wear a facial expression that is ridiculous and well- suited to spoil even the loveliest dream!—”
Simon went home.
Robert Walser is a radiantly original author.