The May 10, 2007, The New York Review of Books featured an entertaining article on the state of the novel, written by Hermione Lee. The closing paragraphs caught my attention:
The novels that haunt me are those that give the effect of the journey continuing beyond the edge of the book: Isabel Archer going back to her prison at the end of The Portrait of a Lady; the lovers walking away into the crowd in Little Dorrit and disappearing into everyday humanity; the lonely narrator, all storytelling spent, looking out at the burning stars at the end of I Married a Communist; the reunion of the son and the father, coming through the utmost humiliation, impoverishment, and abjection, on the last page of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.
Having reread many of Robert Walser’s works in English recently, it occurred to me that many of his books and stories end exactly like that.
Here’s the original ending of his novel The Assistant (1908), translated by Susan Bernofsky:
The houses resembled slumbering children, and the sky lay, friendly and weary, upon all things. Joseph sat down on a rock beside the road and gazed back at it all for a long time. Fleetingly he thought once more of the woman, the children, the garden and all those mornings, noons, evenings and nights, the voices that for so long he had found so familiar, Tobler’s voice, the smells wafting from the kitchen that had given him such pleasure, all this he now saluted in his thoughts, and then the two of them walked on.
And from the end of his novel Jakob von Gunten (1909), translated by Christopher Middleton:
I’m packing, Yes, we two, the Principal and I, we are busy packing, really packing everything up, leaving, clearing out, tearing things apart, pushing and shoving. We shall travel. Well and good.
And from his story, “The Walk” (1917), also by Middleton:
The situation obliged her to travel, and she had gone away. Perhaps I would still have had time to convince her that I meant well with her, that her dear person was important to me, and that I had many beautiful reasons for wanting to make her happy, and thus myself happy also; but I had thought no more about it, and she went away. Why then the flowers? “Did I pick flowers to lay on them upon my sorrow?” I asked myself, and the flowers fell out of my hand. I had risen up, to go home; for it was late now, and everything was dark.
And from his story, “Frau Wilke” (1918), Middleton too:
One afternoon after her death, I entered her empty room, into which the good evening sun was shining, gladdening it with rose-bright, gay and soft colors. There I saw on the bed the things which the poor lady had recently worn, her dress, her hat, her sunshade and umbrella, and, on the floor, her small delicate boots. The strange sight of them made me unspeakably sad, and my peculiar state of mind made it seem to me almost that I had died myself, and life in all its fullness, which had often appeared so huge and beautiful, was thin and poor to the point of breaking. All things past, all things vanishing away, were more close to me than ever. For a long time I looked at Frau Wilke’s possessions, which now had lost their mistress and lost all purpose, and at the gold room, glorified by the smile of the evening sun, while I stood there motionless, not understanding anything any more. Yet, after standing dumbly for a time, I was gratified and grew calm. Life took me by the shoulder and its wonderful gaze rested on mine. The world was as living as ever and beautiful as at the most beautiful times. I quietly left the room and went out into the street.
Incidentally, my review of The Assistant will appear in an upcoming issue of Scott Esposito’s online journal The Quarterly Conversation. The book itself comes out on July 27. Check out my Walser blog, where I’ll likely be more active than here for the next few months.