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review 2017-03-19 09:22
The Inkblots
The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and The Power of Seeing - Damion Searls

This title immediately interested me, even though I've always been skeptical about the Rorschach test. I've however never taken one, and I hold a degree in neither psychiatry nor psychology. But I'm a scientist, so the parts where Rorschach is optimizing his test (stating he needs many more subjects both healthy and diseases, blind interpretation of tests and a standardized form of scoring good and bad answers) were among my favorites, as it seemed quite far ahead of his time.

The book however, is more of a dual biography of Rorschach but especially his test. I liked the first part (also see above) which focused on Rorschach as he's developing his test. After his untimely death in the 1920s (which is only halfway through the book) the focus changes to what happened to the test afterwards.

This latter part had great trouble to hold my interest. It seemed to contain a series of always new people quarreling about who is the new Rorschach. It is here that the test starts to falter in the hands of people who all want to prove themselves (some trying to standardize it but resulting in over diagnosis of most everyone), although I was quite shocked to find out it can be used as evidence in court (since it is not an unquestioned test). This part is also filled with quite a lot of other test and terms from personality testing, not all of it is explained well enough that it is not confusing.

All in all, I really enjoyed the biography of Rorschach, I didn't quite like the one about his test as much.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Edelweiss for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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review 2014-10-30 00:00
Her Not All Her: On/With Robert Walser
Her Not All Her: On/With Robert Walser - Elfriede Jelinek,Damion Searls This is the sort of writing that demands more of me than I am. It is obvious to me that Elfriede Jelinek is one of the most gifted and intelligent writers working today. She is a treasure and should be read if not listened to. Stop all the feminist connections as she is much more than that. There is not a suitable box to fit her in. So there. And Robert Walser fans, pseudo or otherwise, might want to prepare themselves some time for a reading of this fine little book.
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review 2014-08-31 07:08
Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson
Life Goes On - Hans Keilson,Damion Searls

How can you pass up a book that was banned by the Nazis? Hans Keilson's rediscovered debut novel, Life Goes On, was published in 1932 (the last title by a Jewish author until the end of World War II) and was banned in 1934. According to the author's note at the end of the 2012 paperback edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Life Goes On is partially autobiographical. The family at the center of the book, the Seldersens, are not identified as Jewish, but the son, Albrecht, goes to university and makes a sort-of living as a musician as Keilson did before he emigrated to Holland...

 

Read the rest of my review at Summer Reading Project.

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review 2013-08-15 00:00
A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories - Robert Walser, Damion Searls (Translator), Ben Lerner (Introduction) Faced with the prospect of reviewing a collection of short stories, which is probably my least favorite writing chore ever, I am choosing the easy way out. I am so taken with the tranquil, understated beauty of Walser's writing that I am most unwilling to disassemble his short stories into separate assessing criteria like style, essence, prose, theme, imagery and so on.
So what I'll do is convince you, dear uninitiated reader, to pick up this little gem, flip through its pages and discover for yourself the treasures embedded within without trying your patience by going into excruciating detail. And I'll let Walser speak on my behalf.

The initial few short stories are written from the point of view of a school boy in the format of short essays on various topics ranging from school, poverty, careers to friendship, politeness, nature and so on.
It is astonishing to note that despite the glaringly trite nature of these subjects, Walser manages to bring something new to the stories by adding a distinct touch of his own. His tone fluctuates between mildly sardonic and wistful to complacent and observant but unassuming.

Sample what he has to say about "School" -
"School is the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelery indeed. What a burden we would be to our parents, workers, passersby, shop owners, if we didn't have to go to school!"

And this is what he says about "Politeness"-
"The more big and important a polite person is, the more benevolence his civility has."

His astute observations on anger and conflict -
"Not only boys can bear grudges against other boys in such a way, so too just as well can grownups against grownups, mature adults against mature adults, and I would venture to say, nations against nations. A vengeance or revenge can collect in the heart of a nation due to self-regard that has been injured in various ways, and it grows and grows, without end, becomes more and more pressing, more and more painful rises up like a high mountain no longer to be cleared away, obstructs any mutual understanding, inhibits warm, healthy, reasonable reciprocal communication, turns into twitching nervous fury, and is so tyrannical and degrading that it can one day no longer be reined in and cries out wildly for bloody conflict."

There are references to nature, changing seasons and vivid descriptions of lush, green landscapes in the Swiss countryside aplenty.
"Autumn was beautiful, with its brownish melancholy that seemed attractive and happily right to me, while in May the blossoming trees and all the singing and wonderful smells plunged into sadness."

The short stories included in the latter half of the book seem to be written from different perspectives like that of modest young men about to enlist in the army or confused, lost writers trying to seek validation in a life fraught with failures and rejections. (This is vaguely autobiographical I believe.)
"Restlessness, uncertainty, and a premonition of a singular fate may have been what led me, in my sequestered isolation, to pick up my quill and attempt to create a reflection of myself."

Here are a few of his excellent ruminations on reading -
"A book bewitches and dominates us, it holds us spellbound, in other words it exerts a power over us, and we are happy to let such tyranny occur, for it is a blessing. Anyone captivated and gripped by a book for a given time does not use that time to initiate gossip about his dear fellow man, which is always a great and crude mistake."

And ahem, book snobs please do take note of the following-
"I have sometimes heard people talk about so-called harmful reading, e.g., infamous Gothic novels. That's another story we shall avoid getting into but we can say this much: the worst book in the world is not as bad as the complete indifference of never picking up a book at all. A trashy book is not nearly as dangerous as people sometimes think, and the so-called really good books are under certain conditions by no means as free of danger as people generally like to believe. Intellectual things are never as harmless as eating chocolate or enjoying an apple tart or the like. In principle, the reader just has to know how to cleanly separate reading from life."

Walser's short sentences gave me the impression of beads of morning dew collecting on blades of grass, the evanescent beauty of which evaporates away before we even have time enough to bask in its resplendence. But for as long as the novelty lasts, it is the most exquisite thing in the world.
He is not overly pedantic yet his writing reflects his keen understanding of nearly every topic under the sun and exudes immense charm and clarity.
"But soon enough he was cheerful again. Love of humanity and the sorrows thereof, a lust for life and the pain therefrom, rose exquisitely up like tall ghostly shapes in the pale, golden air of the summer evening. Softly the figures seemed to wave to him."

To conclude, this is a thoroughly delightful collection but I'll hold out on that 5-star rating until I read a full-fledged novel of his.

**A big thank you to netgalley for the digital ARC**
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review 2013-07-27 00:00
A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories - Robert Walser, Damion Searls (Translator), Ben Lerner (Introduction) Reading Robert Walser can be a dizzying experience. The Swiss writer, who was born in 1878 in Bern and died on Christmas day, 1956 in Herisau, Switzerland, lived through a period of intense social, cultural, and political change, during which traditional ways of life in Europe began to give way to modernism, provincialism was increasingly at odds with the development of urban cultures, and respect for authority and obedience gained a sinister aspect. In a series of brilliant novels and short prose pieces, Walser leaves behind a body of work formed in the crucible of these changes. His voice is singular, his style immediately identifiable to anyone who has read even one of his works.

Although Walser lived for decades at the end of his life in asylums, withdrawn from the world, in his earlier life he lived right at the fault lines of these changes. He served as an apprentice in a bank and later left that safe existence to live as a wandering writer. He experienced life as a successful writer in Berlin, but later left the flurry of urban life behind him, secluding himself and writing a string of novels, one of which, [b:Jakob von Gunten|513275|Jakob von Gunten|Robert Walser|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320554619s/513275.jpg|2004083], remains the best starting point to explore his work. In 1913, Walser left Berlin to return to a quiet provincial life in Switzerland. He continued to write briefly, but he had difficulty adjusting to cultural and social changes which were accelerating after World War I. Although he continued to write sporadically, his transient lifestyle and inability to find the equilibrium to carve out a life for himself led him to be committed to a sanatorium in Waldau. He was transferred from Waldau to another asylum in Herisau in 1933, where he lived until his death. (See the wonderful review by J.M. Coetzee, "The Genius of Robert Walser" in the New York Review of Books for more details about his life and work: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2000/nov/02/the-genius-of-robert-walser/?pagination=false)

NYRB has played an instrumental role in the Walser renaissance, which continues in their upcoming release of this collection, A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories (release date September 3, 2013). In it, editor and translator Damion Searls brings together short prose pieces and stories that cover most of Walser's writing career. Some pieces are short sketches. Others are stories. And some are written in the form of brief essays by schoolboys. The selections are well-chosen, and provide an extraordinary perspective on some of the elements that make Walser a unique, important, and beloved writer.

Some of the elements of Walser's style and approach that I appreciate the most are visible in this collection. One of his favorite themes is that of unquestioning obedience by schoolboys and apprentices. In a pure, simple style Walser shows through sudden mood swings and contradictory assertions the irrationality of an authoritarian social and educational system. In the schoolboy essays of Fritz Kocher, Walser gives full, and often humorous, voice to a cultural system that celebrates obedience and punishment. In the essay "Poverty," Kochler writes: "Someone is poor when he comes to school in a torn jacket. Who would deny that? We have several poor boys in our class. They wear tattered clothes, their hands freeze, they have unbeautiful dirty faces and unclean behavior. The teacher treats them more roughly than us, and he is right to. Teachers know what they're doing." In the essay "Man," Kocher follows a stream of consciousness trail that leads him to ask to be punished: "Secretly, I love art. But it's not a secret anymore, not since right now, because now I've been careless and blabbed it. Let me be punished for that and made an example of." In the essay "School," Kochler abrogates all responsibility for certain topics to authority figures:

"In fact I'm surprised we were even given this topic at all. Schoolboys cannot actually talk about the value of school and need for school when they're still stuck in it themselves. Older people should write about things like that. The teacher himself, for instance, or my father, who I think is a wise man. The present time, surrounding you, singling and making noise, cannot be put down in writing in any satisfactory way. You can blabber all kinds of nonsense, but it's a real question whether the mishmash you write (I allow myself the bad manners of describing my work in this way) actually says and means anything. I like school. Anything forced on me, whose necessity has been mutely insisted upon by every side, I try to approach obligingly, and like it. School is the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelry indeed!"

In addition to his focus on obedience, Walser also writes beautiful prose describing country scenes, some of which seem to relate to a fairy tale past that is more and more difficult to see with the onset of modernity and urbanization. In "Ascent by Night" (1914), Walser writes: "I was taking the train through the mountains. It was twilight and the sun was so beautiful. The mountains seemed so big and so powerful to me, and they were too. Hills and valleys make a country rich and great, they win it space. The mountainous nature struck me as extravagant, with its towering rock formations and beautiful dark forests soaring upward. I saw the narrow paths snaking around the mountains, so graceful, so rich in poetry. The sky was clear and high, and men and women were walking along the paths. The houses sat so still, so lovely, on the hillsides. The whole thing seemed to me like a poem, a majestic old poem, passed down to posterity eternally new." As he continues on foot, the narrator keeps banging his head on trees in the dark forest, but he laughs at the pain.

In the story "Hans" (1919), Walser conveys the clash between the freedom of a wandering life, and the looming call of Duty in the form of military service. Hans has lived the free life of a wanderer, rambling through the countryside, in his view living just as well as a baron because he can swim, he can walk where he chooses, he has the freedom to enjoy the beauty of nature and the goodness of others. Hans' response to a military mobilization represents, in a few short paragraphs, the profound ways that world War I transformed life in Central Europe. The story is beautifully written, with a jarring ending that brings home the irreversible changes of life in Europe after WWI.

For the quality of the writing, the temporal scope of the pieces, and the themes it presents, this collection is highly recommended to fans of Robert Walser, new and old alike.
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