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Monday 15 December 2014

Robert Walser: A Biedermeier Story


A simulated sex protest against the UK’s new restrictive porn laws staged outside parliament
: photo by Jacob Rawlings/Cartel/REX via the Guardian, 12 December 2014

In the Biedermeier period, thus during the time when, let's say, a Lenau brought to the shaping stage his ineffably delicate and beautiful verses, at his ease, and slowly, as he raised them up out of the silent depths of not yet having been written down, there lived, unless my presence of mind forsakes me entirely, a housemaid, of whom and in whose hearing, albeit she was in her way an excellent person perhaps, more young than old, and more nearly beautiful than fundamentally hideous, some were apt to say she was a beast.

If her hair was a fair match for her eyes, she also enjoyed the not particularly nice reputation of being a glutton, which could have been an insult of such unwarranted slightness that, living, moving, and standing as I do in my own epoch, I am most gratefully astonished by it.

Vatican City. The wind lifts the skull cap of Pope Francis as he addresses the crowd during his general audience in St Peter’s Square
: photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP via The Guardian, 10 December 2014

During the time when, as is well known, the Russian general Gorkachov practically dominated the European scene, there existed with the upper and lower middle class, to set ladies' maids' fingers flying, corsets, or bodices. Everyone knows that Biedermeier women were laced to the utmost tightness when they went to their soirées.

 Supermodel Behati Prinsloo is interviewed while a hairdresser prepares her for the Victoria's secret London fashion show
: photo by Graeme Robertson for the Guardian, 2 December 2014

The moment this housemaid, due to the prevailing servant hierarchy, received a blow on the head, she would say of the punishment that had been inflicted on her, yes, insofar as she would smile politely, that is to say, with impertinent civility.

She worked in a nimble way, but her lover became, with more success than was welcome to his fellows, a criminal, who did with wondrous precision things I shall not mention.


London, UK. Ed Sheeran performs as Adriana Lima takes her turn on the catwalk at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show: photo by David Fisher/Rex via The Guardian, 4 December 2014

While misdeed upon misdeed accrued to his credit, or, in slightly different language, good prose pieces galore seemed to drip from his pen, his conduct toward the housemaid was so beneficial that she believed she was right to think of him as a man whose goodness had no bounds.

The maid, true, though this emphasis is only incidental, had a habit of eating Schabziger, as they call it, a variety of herb cheese. More and more difficult did it become for him to kiss her on the lips. He once took the risk of indicating disapproval thereof; she begrudged him this.

Lima, Peru. An Indian man walks though a tunnel decorated with several murals during the Climate Change Conference
: photo by Rodrigo Abd/AP via The Guardian, 1 December 2014
With a nobly casual air as befitted his rank as a war lord, General Gorchakov, who only comes into this sketch of mine for local color, commanded his armies.
Once the housemaid had performed her tasks, instead of going out for a walk, which certainly would have done her no harm, she went to her room, sat down at the table, and started to write.

Protesters outside parliament: photo by Andy Rain/EPA via the Guardian, 12 December 2014
If it was letters she wrote that reached her lover safely every time, perhaps the window was open and a sparrow, or chaffinch, would be fluttering on the sill.

All the songs of singing birds heard by people such a long, long time ago!

Robert Walser (1878-1956):
A Biedermeier Story (1928-29), translated from the German by Christopher Middleton in The Walk, 1982

Protesters outside parliament: photo by Vianney Le Caer/Rex Features via The Guardian, 14 December 2014


billoo said...

Great blog, Tom. Stumbled here looking for some Walser.



Anonymous said...

enjoy reading...thanks!