Answer to an Inquiry
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)
Talk about suffering for the sake of art. The prescription for a fully realized performance on the stage offered by the Swiss author Robert Walser (1878–1956) involves you, the actor, emitting a “lion-like roar” and disgorging a “fiery-green snake” from your “pain-warped mouth,” then sticking a knife in one eye. And in an agonizing crescendo of a final act, he instructs you to bring the scenery crashing down upon yourself, burying your decimated remnant of a body beneath a heap of “steaming debris.” How better to communicate Job-like expressions of anguish to an audience than by actually inducing those feelings upon oneself with the most extreme means possible? Never has the self-destructive nature of the artist been amplified with such ferocity.
Walser’s deadpan 1907 short prose piece “Answer to an Inquiry” gets a strikingly presented new edition with a fresh translation from the original German by Paul North and illustrations by Friese Undine. Written from the perspective of a master thespian giving advice to an inquisitive aspiring actor, this brief letterform story has always been graphically bold, but the picture book drawings from Undine provide it with a wry explication of sorts. The inquirer’s request for an idea in the form of a drafted sketch is answered with a literal rendering, as each empty maxim and every ludicrously repulsive on-stage act suggested by the dramatist-mentor is accompanied by an equally absurd visual aid. The effect is a grotesque yet ironic and self-consciously silly commentary on the preposterousness of the wisdom being imparted. When the instructions for the pupil are, “Stick your finger in your nose and dig around with it intently,” and the obedient man in the illustration does just that, the darkly comic elements already animating Walser’s writing finally take physical shape, albeit in cartoon form, and the heretofore hypothetical performance actually takes place before the reader’s eyes.
The sarcasm conveyed in the drawings blends nicely with the words of a gifted caricaturist like Walser, who could never be taken entirely in earnest. In “Answer to an Inquiry,” he describes the process of overly dramatic artistry with mocking exaggeration, presenting a heightened level of misery that seems to carry with it traces of authenticity and knowledge gained through lived experience. Given Walser’s precarious mental state, it’s difficult not to find evidence of the author’s own apparent inner torment and self-destructiveness in his work.
Due in large part to his psychiatric struggles and his retreat from a society that failed to understand him, Walser died in obscurity. The reality was also that there were few outlets for the brief feuilleton literary sketches that he preferred to write later in his career. Yet many writers have taken inspiration from his uniquely playful prose in the years since, including W. G. Sebald and J. M. Coetzee. Fifteen years after the publication of “Answer,” Kafka, one of Walser’s biggest fans, would offer his own take on the art of suffering for the sake of art in “A Hunger Artist.” To many, though, the Swiss author is a forgotten talent, lost among the more widely heralded German language writers of his era. Thankfully, this new publication carries on the legacy of one of literature’s unique voices.
With such supreme sacrifice called for, there are probably few would-be artists out there willing to follow Walser’s recipe for an unadulterated representation of suffering. But the author for his part led by example, gradually making a disappearing act out of his life and work. Beginning in the 1920s, he wrote in the form of millimeter-tall pencil microscript. He stopped publishing his work as well, becoming smaller and smaller in the eyes of the world as time moved forward. Yet the vanishing act was a failure in the end. To many inquiring minds looking for answers in art, the old master remains larger than life.