The Robber

By Robert Walser; translated and with an introduction by Susan Bernofsky
University of Nebraska Press, 141 pages, $15

May 17, 2000 at 4:00 am

If you favor straightforward storytelling, books strong on what is called through- line in the publishing business, then bye. This is not the book for you. But if you love the destination as much as the journey, the storyteller as much as the story, if you get pleasure from well-intentioned mischief and indirection, then The Robber will steal your heart or, at least, some delightful hours of your leisure time.

Nothing much happens in this story, and what does happen doesn't happen for long and reaches no conclusion. The narrative voice is jittery and easily distracted, forever skipping scenes with promises to return that go unfulfilled. The ghosts of plot that drift through the novel mostly concern the robber's comic and unconsummated dalliances with various ladies. The title, of course, leads one to expect plenty of plot, lots of dashing criminal escapades, so the reader quickly figures out, when nothing much happens and the robber robs no one, that this is really a story about storytelling.

I know, I know. Yawn. Cloying postmodern graduate-student stuff. And it doesn't matter that Walser was playing these narrative tricks long before they got played out because we are discovering him when this story has long gone stale. What does matter, though, is the thrilling, charming, infectious energy of Walser's voice, and the disarming points of view that peek out from between the narrative high jinks. This novel might be reducible to a synopsis that sounds overdone, but the voice is fresh and hilarious, and it powers a like-minded reader page by page to the nonconclusion.

We come to love this sly, indecisive robber. And a philosophy in praise of indirection emerges to justify, in a sense, the narrative mode. Yes, there still exist persons, the robber tells us, who are continuing to grow and haven't managed to come to terms with their inner and outer lives with terror-inspiring speed or in a trice or a twinkling, as if human beings were merely breakfast rolls that can be produced in five minutes and then sold to be put to use. One still finds, thank God, doubters, and those inclined to waver. Thank God, indeed. And Robert Walser. And Susan Bernofsky.