Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"The Battle of Sempach" by Robert Walser (1908) includes full story in translation

I am happy to be once again participating in German Literature Month.
.  In the link below you will find lots of great reading ideas.  Caroline and Lizzy's only real rule is the work must be originally written in German.

The hosts are hoping this year to have an even balance of male to female authors as in prior years it had been very male author dominated. They have a schedule (but you are free to post on  any German work).  Here is the official announcement:

So far I have read and posted on these works, all but Kafka are new to me writers. 
The Tin Drum-by Gunther Grass
"The Judgement" by Franz Kafka
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque -very powerful war novel 
"A Letter from an Unknown Woman" by Stefan Zweig. 
The Death of the Adversary by Hans Klein - a work of genius
"The Job Application" by Robert Walser 
Chess Game by Stefan Zweig-I will read much more of his work
I hope to read, among others
The Death of Virgil by Herman Broch
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Yesterday I read my first ever work by Robert Walser, one of Kafka's favorite writers, "The Job Application". I also posted this work. If it came out today it would be called flash fiction.  I fear I will feel a need to read much more of his work.  (I like to study pictures of writers when young and compare them to years later.)
"The Battle of Sempach", another near flash fiction length work, is told in the first person by an Austrian foot soldier marching into a battle against the Swiss.  The date is July 9, 1386.  The Austrians are In a festive mood.  They see it just as a punitive battle against some rebellious vassals. To the Austrians it is a chance, they think, to show how brave they are, have some fun killing people and if they are lucky get in a rape for good measure. They are drinking wine and eating chicken as they march happily into battle.   There are very nice class distinction markers in the story I enjoyed.  People well read in Walzer say he often writes about the absurdity of blind obedience. I had an idea I needed to find out what happened at The Battle of Sempach so of course I Googled it.  I suggest if you read this story and your grasp of Austrian history in the 14th century is no better than mine, you do the same.  

"The Battle of Sempach" is a seering account of the absurdity of war, about the petty vanity and just plain stupidity behind most military conflicts. 
I read this story on Project Gutenberg which licenses its posting as long as credit is given. It was translated by Michael wood.  
"The Battle of Sempach"

By Robert Walser
One day, in the middle of high summer, a military expedition was advancing slowly down the dusty country road that led towards a district of Luzern. The bright, actually more than bright, sun dazzled down over swaying armour serving to cover human bodies, over prancing horses, over helmets and parts of faces, over equine heads and tails, over ornaments and plumes and stirrups as big as snowshoes. To the right and to the left of the shining military expedition spread out meadows with thousands of fruit trees in them up as far as hills that, looming up out of the blue-smelling, half-hazy distance, beckoned and had the same effect as light and carefully painted window dressing. It was before noon and the heat was already oppressive. It was a meadowy heat, a heat contained in grass, hay and dust, for thick clouds of dust were being thrown up that sometimes descended like a veil over parts and sections of the army. Sluggishly, ploddingly, carelessly the long cavalcade moved forward. Sometimes it looked like a shimmering and elongated snake, sometimes like a lizard of enormous girth, sometimes like a large piece of cloth, richly embroidered with figures and colourful shapes and ceremoniously trailed as with ladies, elderly and domineering ones as far as I'm concerned, accustomed to dragging trains behind them. In all this military might's method and way of doing things, in the stamping of feet and the clinking of weapons, in this rough and ready clatter lurked an "as far as I'm concerned" that was uniform, something impudent, full of confidence, something upsetting, slowly pushing to one side. All these knights were conversing, as far as their iron-clad mouths would allow them, in joyful verbal banter with each other. Peals of laughter rang out and this sound was admirably suited to the bright tones emitted by weapons and chains and golden belts. The morning sun still appeared to caress a good deal of brass and finer metal. The sounds of tin whistles flew sunward. Now and again one of the many footmen walking as if on stilts would tender to his mounted lord a delicate titbit, stuck on a silver fork, right up to his swaying saddle. Wine was drunk on the move, poultry consumed and nothing edible spat out, with an easy-going, carefree amiability, for this was no earnest war involving chivalry they were riding to, but more of a punitive expedition, a statutory rape, bloody, scornful, histrionic things. Everybody there thought so and everybody saw already the heap of cut-off heads that would redden the meadow. Among the leaders of the expedition was many a wonderful noble young man splendidly attired, sitting on horseback like a male angel flown down from a blue uncertain heaven. Many a one had taken off his helmet to make things more comfortable for himself and given it to an attendant to carry. By doing so he displayed to the air a peculiarly finely drawn face that was a mixture of innocence and exuberance. They were telling the latest jokes and discussing the most up-to-date stories of courtly women. The serious ones in their company they tolerated as best they could; it seemed today as if a pensive expression was deemed to be improper and unchivalrous. The hair of the young knights who had taken their helmets off, shone and smelt of oil and unguents and sweet-smelling water that they had poured on it as if it had been a matter of riding to visit a coquette to sing her charming love songs. Their hands, from which the iron gauntlets had been taken off, did not look like those of warriors, but manicured and pampered, slender and white like the hands of young girls.

Only one person in the wild procession was serious. Already his outward appearance, armour that was deep black broken up with tender gold, indicated how the person it covered thought. He was the noble Duke Leopold of Austria. This man did not speak a word and seemed completely lost in anxious thoughts. His face looked like that of a person who is being pestered by a fly that is impudently flying round his eye. This fly may well have been a presentiment that something bad was going to happen for a smile that was permanently both contemptuous and sad played over his mouth. He kept his head lowered. The whole world, however cheerful it looked, seemed to him to roll and thunder angrily. Or was it just the thunder of the trampling hooves of horses as the army was now passing over a wooden bridge that spanned the river Reuss? Nevertheless something foreshadowing misfortune hovered horribly around the duke's bodily form.

End of story

Robert Walser (1878–1956) was born into a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser’s works available in English are Jakob von Gunten andBerlin Stories (available as NYRB Classics), The TannersMicroscriptsThe AssistantThe Robber,Masquerade and Other Stories, and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932. From The New York of Books.  

Please share your expereice with Robert Walser with us.

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