Scott Esposito on Walser's The Tanners, a discursive meditational novel about siblings going about each of their lives, the harsh evolution into adulthood, and the obstacles to survival at the turn of last century in Europe all with little or no noticeable traditional plot- an extremely good read:
It is the mark of a novel’s necessity when it hangs so strongly together, feels so absolutely essential in every last, smallest chunk, despite the fact that it offers the reader very little of what is generally construed as novelistic. In Search of Lost Time is perhaps the best example of this: it is a novel that is seven times as long as any novel should be, a heavily digressive work packed with belabored extended metaphors and absent all but the slowest plot momentum. Nonetheless, this bulky, misshapen beast continually takes flight before our unbelieving eyes, we have scarcely sat down with Proust than we have grown immersed, not so much for the ever-widening world or the vivid characters as for the singular logic of the prose.
So it is with Robert Walser’s first novel, The Tanners. The book is nothing more than the tale of a ne’er-do-well, idealistic young man who bounces from job to job, home to home, person to person, his life less a tidy arc than an oscillation gently tightening around what might be peace, albeit surely temporary. The book breaks rule after rule of novelistic writing: Walser takes it as his right to introduce major plot points on the flimsiest of pretexts, and he abandons them pages later once his attention has been diverted elsewhere; there is always the sense that Walser has his characters do certain things just for the excuse to muse for pages on end upon the nature and pleasures of, say, ballet, or walking; and his characters are scarcely capable of saying “pass the salt” without erupting into pages-long, quasi-philosophical speeches that espouse their meditations on life.
The novel should collapse under its own weight, it should fail for at least five different reasons. It doesn’t. It glides by like clouds escorted by sunbeams, and it leaves in its wake a series of jaw-dropping scenes, indelible images, sentences and phrases that will stop you cold. Whatever world The Tanners takes place in it is clearly not our own, and yet the book speaks to so much that is plainly human, and it does so in such a soft, solemn voice that reaches right out from the page.
The Tanners comes to us in the midst of a miniature Walser renaissance, the kind of thing that can occasionally happen with literature in translation when there is a happy confluence between savvy marketing, journalistic interest, and popular imagination. Walser’s bona fides were perhaps assured as far back as the 1920s, when Kakfa, Walter Benjamin, Musil, and Hesse all registered their admiration. (Per John Taylor in Context, Kafka was even once called “a special case of the Walser type” by Musil.) More recently, the esteemed Spanish postmodernist Enrique Vila-Matas has enshrined Walser in his modernist pantheon, and J.M. Coetzee has frequently written admiringly of Walser’s work. The publication of The Tanners means that now all four of Walser’s surviving novels are simultaneously in print in English (with plenty more miscellaneous works to go), and if Walser has not attained the altitude of W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño, the two other phenoms in translation to which he bears comparison, his achievement is possibly more remarkable for the fact that his books are not only translated but also rescued form the dustbin of history.