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book review

Robert Walser was a German-speaking Swiss writer.

REVIEWED HERE: Selected Stories, by Robert Walser (translated by Christopher Middleton et al.; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 194 pages, $17); Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson (translated by Damion Searls; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 255 pages, $17)

A good story has a tangible landscape (however illusory). Read a vibrant novel or animated collection of stories and you should feel the width of their streets, hear the tone and volume of their noise, see their twilight hues. Two new translations of continental fiction from the fraught years of Europe before the Second World War immediately take us into distinctly troubled landscapes.

Fiction arbiters Farrar, Straus & Giroux supplement their introduction of emerging talent like Jonathan with European masters – Robert Walser's Selected Stories and Life Goes On, the first novel of Holocaust-fleeing, Nazi-banned author Hans Keilson. Each of these latter breathes life into a vivid landscape of half-submerged danger and multifaceted worry.

In fiction, voice is as difficult to define as sexy is in romantic life. We know voice when we meet it, yet how to parse its ingredients? Walser's stories are, in many cases, pure voice, and what a voice it is. Like Don DeLillo, the Swiss Walser (1878-1956) is one of those prose virtuosos you smoke or drink as much as you read.

In the opening story of this collection, unavailable for more than 30 years, a more senior artist advises a younger, "It doesn't take much to show love, but at some time or another in your, praise God, disastrous life you must have felt, honestly and simply, what love is and how love likes to behave." Walser praises "disastrous life" repeatedly throughout pieces that are more properly vocal sketches than short stories.

Think of, as the late Susan Sontag puts it in her affectionate foreword, "a good-humored, sweet Beckett," not Alice Munro. The plotlessness of many of these two-page stories is entirely redeemed by their pitch-perfect ear. People in cramped tenements "slide lizardlike down the stairs." Elsewhere, "a light gleams, melodious, yellow, morbidly beautiful."

These newly collected shorts allow Walser more vocal freedom than his four extant novels. Many of these short-shorts concern characters who are writers or artists, but Walser always animates them with genuine and revealing voices, not pretension or naked, authorial fantasy.

The telescoping consciousness so admired in critic James Wood's How Fiction Works is caught, seemingly effortlessly, in the travails of one Walser writer. His nimble prose teleports into and out of the working writer's head: "What's that? Not sure? Tear it up. Something new, wilder, more beautiful." Writing about writing can seem tired or masturbatory in lesser hands, yet Walser makes it sing. A young poet "wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet: the best thing is for me to be destroyed as quickly as possible." Beauty-drunk lines like that are eerily prophetic for a Walser who spent the last 23 years of his life in hospital for mental illness.

Like Walser, Hans Keilson (1909-2011) investigates self-willed isolation. Keilson's debut novel, Life Goes On, inhabits the hyperinflation, rampant unemployment and political strife of Germany between the wars. Beyond its covers, the novel is notable for being accepted when Keilson was just 23, then banned (and burned) by the Nazis in 1934.

This strained Bildungsroman translates the economic hardships of Weimar Germany into the fraying domestic relationships of a few struggling families. Better known for his later novels, Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary, Keilson shows here a budding novelist's, and future psychotherapist's, eye for the revealing gesture. When Albrecht's father is caught between suppliers demanding payment and customers begging credit he gets a "strange, bitter, stubborn pleasure" from making a mess of his own stock, then fastidiously re-tidying it.

Later, a maturing student realizes that the "help" his classmates have been giving him for years has actually disabled him. Keilson's best passages read like Herman Hesse without the hashish: gestures are embryonic, settings are revelatory, characters are full of ripe contradictions.

However, few novels by 23-year-olds are independently (and lastingly) impressive. Too often, Keilson's characters are both removed and contained: We observe them like ants (however busy) in an ant farm instead of living alongside them. The penury plot may work for those drawn to the literature of suffering, but bad-to-worse narratives governed by external forces are never as dynamic as self-imposed challenges.

Late in his long life, Keilson wrote, "Literature is the memory of humanity. Anyone who writes remembers, and anyone who reads takes part in those experiences." These books help us remember.

Darryl Whetter's most recent book is Origins, a collection of poetry about evolution, energy and extinction. In the fall, he will release a novel of love, death and smuggling.