Do You Know Meier?

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Robert Walser (1878-1956) was a Swiss essayist, poet, clerk, novelist, short-story writer, dramolettist, servant, theater-lover, microgrammatist, and inveterate walker. His light touch and disarmingly unsophisticated prose (particularly in early works such as Fritz Kochers Aufsätze, essays written from the perspective of a school boy on such topics as “Nature” and “Art”) conceal, but only ever partially, a melancholy restlessness, a lonely, erotic longing, and above all, a fierce pleasure in—and uncompromising dedication to—language.  It is this dedication and pleasure that has him follow language down the most twisted of corridors and into the densest of thickets, even when it threatens to dissolve the object he is describing (“everything he has to say completely fades in importance compared to the meaning of writing itself” Walter Benjamin claimed of Walser); it is this pleasure and dedication that drives his peculiarly jointed phrases, his sly neologisms (it is no accident that a listing of his occupations contains an invented word or two), and the persistent self-reflexivity with which he questions, mocks, and at times applauds his own choice of metaphor or semantic construction within the text. Walser is an enchanted and enchanting observer of a fleeting world in which he himself—as a commuter on a tram, as a pedestrian in the park, as a writer—is one of the most carefully scrutinized and deconstructed phenomena.

I mentioned the neologisms—a delight for the reader and a torment for the translator, who must find a way to render Walser’s game with the German compound noun and separable prefix verb in another language, in this case English. In the following piece, written in 1907 during his early, optimistic Berlin period, he came up with two gems: heraussteinklopfen and emporhosenbeinen. The former appears in one of those conversations with himself where he second-guesses his own writing: he is a fool for not being able to come up with a better word to describe how hard this Meier makes him laugh, for not being able to heraussteinklopf a better turn of phrase from his writerly head. This lovely word is a combination of the verbs herausklopfen, literally to knock something out of something, figuratively to wake someone abruptly, with steinklopfen, to break up rocks or stones. The image it evokes is of a metaphor being rather violently broken out of a stubborn, stony, authorial head, perhaps it is even sleeping (like a rock) and needs to be jolted awake to do its job (it is generally prisoners who are made to break stones). At the same time, there is the intimation of a more patient, precise work, that of shaping rough, formless rock into something that is usable, perhaps even beautiful: the jumbled heap of words in the writer’s head as the rock that has to be hewn into a vivid, apt simile. I finally went for "stone-chisel," but in the spirit of Walser I’m now having second thoughts: would "stone-knock" perhaps have been better, preserving more of the violence of the original? Or should I have been more daring, eschewing the timid hyphen and reproducing the exaggerated compactness of Walser’s German: "stonechisel"?  Oh fool, not to be able to stone-chisel a better equivalent out of your translator’s head!  (Die Treppe emporhosenbeinen, by the way, became “to trouser-leg up the steps”).

Another tricky moment in the text is its very refrain: "Meier spelled with an I," Meier mit ei Our main character, our star, has a name as common as they come, just as his profession, that of a beer-hall clown, was a dime a dozen in Walser’s early twentieth-century Berlin.  But Walser has a knack for taking the banal and quotidian and transforming it into the quixotic and peculiar just by looking at it very closely. And so Meier is not simply Meier but  "Meier spelled with an I" rather than a Y, an E rather than an A, and he is a clown who not only makes you laugh but makes you roll up in a laughing ball and shudder tragically on top of that. Walser emphasizes the specific spelling of Meier’s name several times throughout the short text, playing with the sound of the diphthong, which in German is also an interjection expressing mild surprise (my dictionary translates it as “hey” or “oho”). While my choice sacrifices the joke in the final sentence, where a list of scary sounds meant to frighten and alarm (“ha,” “nah”; hu, ) ends in the reassuring gentleness of Meier’s ei, it does underscore the way in which Walser constantly circles back on himself, the way in which the first person peeps out from behind the third person in his mischievously layered texts.

—Millay Hyatt

Meier spelled with an I? You don’t? Well, in that case, I would like most humbly to permit myself to draw your attention to this man. He is presently performing at the Café Bümplitz, which is on I cannot remember exactly what street. There, amidst foul and inappropriate tobacco smoke, rough talk and clanking beer glass lids, he performs night after night, until perhaps someday a wise manager will come pick him up, which I actually do not doubt for a moment will happen in the near future. This man, this Meier, this fellow is a genius. Not only can he make you laugh like twenty people in their added-up lives haven’t laughed, til you burst, what am I saying, til you roll up in a ball, what, til you die, oh fool, not to be able to stone-chisel a better simile out of your writer’s head, not only that, but rather that, am I muddled, yes, that’s right, but rather that the entirely natural excitation of a tragic shudder is nothing impossible to him, but an all too easy thing. Am I actually finished with my sentence or not? If not, then it’s just the thing to continue.

Meier also sings satirical songs with a fabulous devil-may-care attitude, and the language he uses is probably the most incontestable there is. For he lets it fall, so to speak, piece by piece, so that it might occur to someone listening to go up to the man and gather up the things at his feet. The sound of this voice, I have studied it only too carefully, gives approximately the same impression in terms of tone as the movement of a snail makes on the eye, it sounds so marvelously slow, so lazy, so brown, so very crawly, so slimy, so mushy, and so very IfIdon’tcometodayI’llcometomorrow. A pleasure, quite simply. I can recommend it with the best conscience.

This Meier, one should know, if one doesn’t know already, plays a stagehand, his signature role, a character with dreadful pants, a high hat, a stuck-on nose, a box under the arm, holes in the elbows, a cigar in the mouth, a yap instead of just plain cheek, and a bundle of bad jokes on his clumsy tongue. This character is a delight. For myself I’ve seen him now almost, wait a minute, fifty times I believe and am far from tired of it. One just never tires of seeing excellence.

A small stage, dazzlingly lit, a table on it, a chair next to it; this is supposed to represent the office of a director. The director herself, a slim, youthful woman, announces that she now has everything necessary to start a cycle of performances, just that she’s still missing one of those stagehands, but she has already had ads inserted in the papers and is eager to see who will answer.

Enters who, like a spirit flown from the underworld? Meier. Aye, the devil, of course, we expected it, but you see, the wonderful thing is, one still finds oneself surprised to the highest degree by the innovation with which Meier with an I is able to trouser-leg up the steps, so that one in fact has to suppose he must have done something it would be improper to discuss in polite company.

He announces himself to the startled woman, who has certainly read Oscar Wilde, with an awkwardness befitting only him, asks questions, does something silly, asks again, starts to take off, turns back, leaves again, only to come right back—with ever more impudence, ever more indecency in being, word, manner, gesture, tone, and posture. But in all that he has the astounding talent of saying something smutty at the right time, and how does he say it? Well, that you just have to hear for yourself. Every night twenty or thirty hear it, Saturdays and Sundays eighty, a hundred, a hundred and fifteen, or one more.

I have already said that Meier can also appear tragic. In order to pull this off, he simply changes his voice and throws up his hands, a method that has helped but every time. Thereupon he is a madman, a King Clear; not Lear, but Clear, because during this production everyone does what is contained in the verse: And they all went swiftly home. I alone am in the habit of staying in my seat. That is when I find out what it is to have a fright, when suddenly the voice of a person becomes a house as tall as a tower, as Meier’s does, from whose open windows and doors some unknown monster is bellowing. How I shook with fear, every time, and how glad I was when Meier with a horrible oho or ha or nah turned back into Meier with an I.

—translated by Millay Hyatt

Millay Hyatt is a writer and translator based in Berlin. Her short fiction has appeared in the literary journal Bordercrossings Berlin. In 2006 she received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Southern California with a dissertation on the utopian and anti-utopian in Hegel and Deleuze.