STAFF PICK: Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser

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The turn of the last century marked an explosion of continental European writing and a literary movement that would evolve into modernism, existentialism, and postmodernism. Many of the names in this scene comprise the familiar mainstays of the classics section at the bookstore, but then there is Robert Walser. More popular during his brush with fame than any of contemporary admirers – a roster that included Herman Hesse, Walter Benjamin, and Franz Kafka – but destined to die destitute on the frozen grounds of a Swiss sanitarium, he was the author of dozens of populist novels, short stories, plays, and essays that illuminate the lives of the servant class – those that, like himself throughout his life, were beholden to a benefactor in one capacity or another. A constant fixture in the continental art world, from contributing novelist to theatre painter, Robert Walser was a beloved if misunderstood talent, and, during his lifetime, it was more likely that Walser’s work be used to explain Kafka’s than the other way around. However, since his confinement in various European hospitals in the early 20th Century and his death in 1956, Walser’s writing has largely gone unexamined.

With the discovery of his Microscripts – bizarre, existential ciphers painstakingly transcribed in miniature during his stay in a German institution – and their translation and publication in the 1990s and 2000s, public scrutiny has again spotlighted this mysterious literary cryptid, buoying him as close to posthumous notoriety that he will likely get.

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Looking At Pictures – newly translated by Walser biographer Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton – captures Walser’s love for the visual medium and the frequently overwhelming beauty and power conveyed enigmatically by brushstroke. This collection contains fleeting, elegant literary sketches, whimsical and precise biographical essays, and simple, profound meditations on the nature of creativity. Gorgeously illustrated with obscure, classic paintings, the pieces in this compilation are all reactions to the strange and majestic concussion of abject emotion you get from looking at pictures. As Walser writes in “Saul and David (II)”, “Art is good, and the sound of truth is sweet – it’s just that one must welcome it, not hate it.”

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