Three Percent just posted my latest review, of Robert Walser’s The Walk. Despite appearances, I do occasionally read and even write about books not published by New Directions, though I will admit I have been mildly obsessed with the publisher ever since I was an intern there in 2009. Here’s an amusing factoid: James Laughlin started the press in the ’30s following the career advice of Ezra Pound, who, finding Laughlin a mediocre poet, told him to “do something useful” with himself. Pound may have been pleased to have inspired a publisher who would forever keep his own work in print. He was less enthused by Laughlin’s choice of a name, which Pound lampooned by shifting the space between “New” and “Directions” one letter to the right. (Say it out loud.) James Longenbach told me that story, who’s an expert in such matters (Pound and Modernism, that is).
Here’s the beginning of my review:
For the narrator of Robert Walser’s The Walk, walking is the better part of writing. Shortly before declaring his arrival at “something like the peak” of this 90-page Pearl from New Directions (translated by Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky—more on that in a second), Walser’s narrator delivers a brilliant defense of the writer’s habit of walking, which looks to too many observers like idleness but is, he declares, a vital part of his technique. “Do you realize that I am working obstinately and tenaciously with my brain,” he explains to a tax collector, “when I present the appearance of a simultaneously heedless and out-of-work, negligent, dreamy, idle pickpocket, lost out in the blue . . . ?” He goes on—and on; Walser did not write dialogue. His characters declaim, often through bizarre turns:
Mysterious there prowl at the walker’s heels all kinds of thoughts and notions, such as make him stand in his ardent and regardless tracks and listen, because, again and again confused by curious impressions, by spirit power, he suddenly has the bewitching feeling that he is sinking into the earth, for an abyss has opened before the dazzled, bewildered eyes of the thinker and poet. His head wants to fall off. His otherwise so lively arms and legs are as benumbed. Countryside and people, sounds and colors, faces and farms, clouds and sunlight swirl all around him like diagrams; he asks himself: ‘Where am I?’