Reading Robert Walser

Literature I’m sitting in an office, learning German reading Robert Walser

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For Reading Walser (2012) by Olof Olsson in the exhibition "Incremental Change" at gallery NON in Istanbul
For Reading Walser (2012) by Olof Olsson in the exhibition "Incremental Change" at gallery NON in Istanbul

Foto: Olof Olsson

Walser was from Switzerland and lived 1878 – 1956. He was an important influence for Kafka, who liked to read Walser aloud to his friends. Both Walser and Kafka grew up bilingual, which might explain that nothing in their texts seems completely certain. And both have the same kind of confused young men as heroes (often office workers, like Walser and Kafka themselves). But Walser’s heroes are not quite as tragic as Kafka’s. They somehow find a way to survive, through irony.

There are 26 books published of Walser’s work. Some are novels or collections of poems, but most of them contain short prose texts, somehow in-between stories and essays, or like something from a diary. But the storyteller is always fictive, sometimes, it seems, even to himself.

In 1933 Walser stopped writing. With the Nazi takeover in Germany, he could no longer be published there. And for decades he was almost forgotten.

Walter Benjamin has suggested that Walser’s figures must be convalescents, who have recovered from an illness,
and therefore take pleasure in just being alive.

Or like fairy-tale characters, who need to go on living in a real world, once the tale has ended.

There’s something unfailingly superficial about them, as if they must be careful not to fall back into whatever they came from.

When I read Robert Walser, and I meet a word I don’t know, I look it up in my dictionary and write it down on a piece of A8 paper, with the translation on the back.

I have 8000 pieces of A8 paper, which is the amount one gets when dividing 500 A4 papers in half, four times.

I count on using them all, since the 26 books have about 8000 pages, and I presume I need to look up one word per page.

In the beginning I will of course have to look up many more.

It took two hours and fifty minutes to cut the 500 A4s into 8000 A8s.

To read the 26 Walser books and learn the words in them will take 320 days – if I’m able to memorise 25 words per day.
Or 400 days – if I’m able to memorise 20 words per day.
Or 533 days – if I’m able to memorise 15 words per day.

These might sound like pessimistic calculations. But when working in an office, it’s not as simple as one can only administer whatever one is to do there. One needs also, so to say, to administer the administration.

In the end I will presumably acquire some fluency in German.
But, will I, apart from having a Scandinavian accent, sound any different from other people speaking German?

Will I, having learned German by only reading Robert Walser, somehow end up sounding like him?

The performance takes place at gallery NON from November 17 – December 24, 2012 in the exhibition "Incremental Change" (Meriç Algün Ringborg, Olof Olsson, Pilvi Takala, Erdem Taşdelenthat) at gallery NON in Istanbul and will be touring afterwards. NON is devoted to artists who embrace non-disciplinary art practices – resulting in new languages and artistic experiences.

In his youth Olof made attempts in journalism, documentary photography, and as a radio disc jockey. After having studied languages, philosophy and translation theory, Olof finally ended up in art school. And after various undertakings in ‘conceptual art’ for 15 years, Olof started performing in 2007.

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