I am not sure why this has only occurred to me, perhaps because there is a new Robert Walser translation just out (A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, NYRB Classics). This is excellent news, of course. I love Walser’s work, and I think Jacob von Gunten one of the most fascinating pieces of literature I have ever read. But this new translation reminds me that so many people think of Walser when they think of Swiss literature. This is interesting to me simply because of my work with Ramuz —whom most people have never heard of.
Walser was born in 1878 and died in 1956. Ramuz was born in 1878 and died in 1947. These men were perfect contemporaries, writing incredibly avant-garde literature (although both in their own unique way) at exactly the same time. They both started publishing their work around the same time, and had similar professional trajectories in that they lived both inside and outside of Switzerland, were befriended by various “high-up” literary people, lived both reclusively and in the company of others. The biggest divergence between them would be Walser’s continuing mental troubles.
What is so curious for me when comparing these two men is how one came to be “exported” and not the other. You could even argue that at the time they were publishing, Ramuz was the more famous and had much more of an international audience. Ramuz was translated into German and a few other languages during his lifetime, including a handful of English translations that were done in the 20s (three, I think, not more). But Walser, with only one book translated into English in his lifetime, has become the canonized writer (in an international way) and Ramuz not. Although Ramuz is on Switzerland’s 200 franc bill, so symbolically he is a “national treasure.” I am genuinely curious about the how and the why of this, and can only explain it to myself with the idea of an accident of history.
I’ve been reading Ramuz’s journals again – slowly, and loving them – and yesterday, in the middle of an antique book shop where I’d gone to hunt down some Julia Daudet and Clarisse Francillon (but found neither), I got stuck inside two volumes of Ramuz’s letters. I have found no mention of Walser in the letters or the journal. Did Ramuz know of Walser? Did he read him? I have no idea if Walser was translated into French in his lifetime. But Ramuz made it into German. So did Walser read Ramuz? These things are fun to think about. They were, in a way, both writing about similar ideas, both obsessed with individual solitude and nature’s effect on that individual. Walser much more interested in bureaucracy and institutional questions, Ramuz much more focused on nature and village life.
I assume that somewhere out there – in Switzerland or beyond – there are academics looking at these two men in parallel. I think it would make for a fascinating comparison – from a critical perspective as well as biographical.