cover image Looking at Pictures

Looking at Pictures

Robert Walser, trans. from the German by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton. New Directions/Christine Burgin, $24.95 (144p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2424-6

In this illuminating collection of short writings on paintings, Swiss author Walser’s rich brand of prose takes center stage. Walser’s older brother, Karl, was a famous artist who deeply influenced Walser’s life and appreciation of the visual arts. The first and most substantive essay in the collection looks at several line drawings by Karl Walser and reimagines the circumstances of their creation and the subjects they depict. Other essays in the book, most of which were written in the 1920s, consider the works of famous artists such as Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Fragonard, Cézanne, and Manet. Walser’s prose often does not directly review the painting at hand, but this technique shows the expansiveness and richness of Walser’s mind: when Walser meditates on Manet’s Olympia, he imagines the subject of the painting asking him to tell her a story. Walser then crafts stories about writers within the story, effectively shifting the focus of the painting back to himself as the viewer. The total assemblage and variety of pieces in this slim volume of feuilletons serves as an artistic manifesto for one of the 20th century’s most important writers and contributes to the recently revived interest in Walser’s work. Illus. (Oct.)