Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Susan Bernofsky's "Clairvoyant of the Small"

Susan Bernofsky is a writer and a leading translator of modernist and contemporary German-language literature into English. She directs the program Literary Translation at Columbia in the MFA Writing Program at the Columbia University School of the Arts.

A Guggenheim, Cullman Center, and Berlin Prize fellow, she is currently working on a new translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

Bernofsky applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser, and reported the following:
If you open my book to Page 99, you’ll find yourself in medias res at the tail end of a story set in 1903, when a twenty-five-year-old Robert Walser has moved to the tiny town of W├Ądenswil on the shore of Lake Zurich to take up the post of assistant to an inventor/engineer/entrepreneur named Carl Dubler. This episode in Walser’s life would later provide much of the material for his second novel, The Assistant, published in 1908. On page 99 of my book, I wrap up a discussion begun on page 98: comparing Walser’s own professional activity during the period of his life described in the novel to the activity he attributes to the novel’s protagonist, Joseph Marti—who resembles Walser in many ways. I’d say the Page 99 test works moderately well in this instance: the reader landing here may at first be confused to find themselves reading the second half of a story without explanation or setup; but at the same time, this passage is fairly typical of my book in that it combines a discussion of a literary work by Walser with my own storytelling about Walser’s life and professional development.

It’s interesting (and typical of Walser) that he elides much of his own professionalism in this fictional transformation of his life. In 1903, he had not yet published his first book—only poems and short prose works in periodicals—but he was knocking himself out trying to get a manuscript assembled and placed. His fictional alter ego, by contrast, harbors no such ambitions, though he does dabble a bit in writing: one day he sits down at the table in his room and composes a little essay because he feels bored; when he’s done, he tosses it in the trash. Here we see a relatively young Walser already contributing—without fully realizing the implications of this, I believe—to the creation of an image of himself as far more lighthearted, flighty, impulsive, and romantic than in fact he was. This image (which would have its apotheosis in the figure of the journeyman) would come to haunt him later in his career.
Visit Susan Bernofsky's website.

--Marshal Zeringue