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Robert Walser: Geschwister Tanner (The Tanners)

The German title means The Tanner Siblings. There are five of them – Klaus, Simon, Kaspar, Emil and Hedwig – though we initially only meet three of the brothers (Emil is institutionalised and, though he is mentioned, we never meet him). Indeed, our first introduction is to Simon, who is the main character of the book. Simon seems to be both full of himself and thoroughly frivolous. He is applying for a job as a bookseller, by going into a bookshop and telling the owner that he wants a job. This is no polite request. Simon proceeds to tell the owner that he has always wanted to be a bookseller and that he has all the skills to be a good one. The fact that he has never held a previous job for more than a week and that he has no references to offer, not least because they would be poor, does not seem to him to be important. Because of his bravado, the owner does give him a job. A week later, Simon tells the owner that he considers the book trade to be awful and wants nothing more to do with it. The owner is surprised, as he thought Simon was doing well.

Meanwhile, Simon has received a letter from his elder brother Klaus. Klaus is a successful academic and is concerned about his brothers. Kaspar is a painter. Klaus wants Kaspar and Simon to be responsible and have proper jobs. Interestingly, it seems that Walser is clearly on the side of Simon and Kaspar, as he mocks Klaus (He was one of those people who feel so compelled to fulfil duties that they go plunging into great collapsing edifices constructed entirely of disagreeable duties simply out of the fear that some secret, inconspicuous duty might somehow elude them) but not the other two. Simon ignores the letter.

Simon drifts around from job to job, always convinced that he is the best person for the job but that the job is not suitable to his talents. But he is equally frivolous with people. He has a girlfriend – Rosa – but spends his time with her talking and not listening to her.

He turns up at a house, seemingly out of the blue, to rent a room in the house. The woman there, Klara, welcomes him. He says that the room is for him and his brother, Kaspar, though he seems to have lost touch with Kaspar. The room seems too grand for the two brothers and he declines but she is so eager to have him, that she reduces the rent substantially. By chance, he soon bumps into his brother and they take the room and become friends with Klara and her husband. Indeed, not only do they both become friends with Klara, they seem both (without any jealousy) to become more intimate with Klara. Her husband seems indifferent or, perhaps more accurately, irrelevant, though he is living in the same house.

The book continues in this way. Simon would appear to be based, at least in part, on Walser himself. He seems unable to settle down, either at a job, other occupation, relationship or anything else. The two things he seems to enjoy, like Walser, are long walks in the country and the beauty of nature, and writing, often about the natural world he has seen.

What is disturbing/original, depending on your point of view, is that Simon, in particular but also, to a lesser degree the other characters, seem involved in a relationship, whether friendly or romantic and, suddenly, without warning, they are off for no obvious reason. They live somewhere and then, in the next chapter, they are living somewhere else. Why? it is not clear. Simon has a job that seems to be going well enough and then we suddenly find him in a different job or without any employment. Why? It is never made clear.

These relationships/jobs are not always straightforward. For example, Simon becomes friends with Heinrich. Heinrich makes a homosexual approach to him. Simon rejects the approach but wishes (at least for the time being) to remain on good terms with Heinrich and cannot understand why Heinrich is upset. One day he is in a strange town when a woman approaches him, takes him home and offers him a job. The job involves looking after her invalid son but also a variety of other domestic tasks, including helping in the kitchen. She is very harsh with him but he seems not only to accept it but enjoy it in a masochistic sort of way. Of course, a few pages later he is somewhere else.

Simon is aware that he is a wastrel and should settle down but cannot bring himself to do so. I lie about daydreaming. Later ages will punish me for my malingering if intervening earlier ones haven’t done so already. Daydreaming seems to be a key part of his life. Time arrived so soundlessly and then withdrew without one’s noticing. In this way it actually moved fairly quickly, although before leaving it hesitated for a long while.

He is not the only daydreamer. Hedwig, his sister, has a friend Sebastian, a poet, who seems even less in touch with real life than Simon. Ironically Simon will find Sebastian’s body, dead, in the snow, as Walser’s own body will be found dead in the snow. Hedwig herself also seems to share the family trait to some degree. I almost have the impression there’s something like a thin but opaque wall cutting me off from life.

The Tanners are clearly based on Walser and his family to some degree. Walser also had a brother institutionalised and a brother who became a painter, though we learn little about the Tanner parents. In particular, it is clear that he based Simon on himself. Both liked long walks and enjoyed the beauties of nature. Both wrote. In particular, both men seemed out of touch with the world, drifting from place to place, unable to settle down and find a niche in the bourgeois world.

As a first novel, this is certainly an original work, even though the novel, like its author and its protagonist, seems to be rambling and it is never clear what Simon is doing or, more particularly, why he is doing it. Walser is happy to jump from one event to another, without any connection or explanation for significant changes. This makes it at times difficult to read but also is what makes the charm of this novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1907 by Cassirer
First English publication in 2009 by New Directions
Translated by Susan Bernofsky