A Schoolboy’s Diary brings together more than seventy of Robert Walser’s strange and wonderful stories, most never before available in English. Opening with a sequence from Walser’s first book, “Fritz Kocher’s Essays,” the complete classroom assignments of a fictional boy who has met a tragically early death, this selection ranges from sketches of uncomprehending editors, overly passionate readers, and dreamy artists to tales of devilish adultery, sexual encounters on a train, and Walser’s service in World War I. Throughout, Walser’s careening, confounding, delicious voice holds the reader transfixed.
The most striking aspect of Swiss author Walser's stories is how modern they seem, both in form and content, given that they were written nearly 100 years ago. Most are very short, fitting comfortably into the flash fiction genre, though distinct in their directness and lack of irony. The writer/narrator, who emerges as the main character in every story, even when he is writing about something else, feels very young; energy and the joys of discovery and sharing passionate views runs through every piece. The book is divided into three parts, each offering subtle structural differences (yet the three sections are similar in tone and content). As assembled by Searls, the first part, "Fritz Kocher's Essays," is from Walser's first published collection; it strings together short reflections on the natural world and intellectual riffs on subjects like "Poverty," "Politeness," and "The Fatherland." An introduction to this section from the fictional publisher explains that the author, young Fritz, died soon after leaving school. The second part includes dozens of stand-alone stories ("Greifen Lake," from 1898, was Walser's first published work; "A Model Student" was one of Walser's last), more wide-ranging but similarly buoyant, describing a mountain, an adventure on a train, a loutish local scoundrel, etc. "Hans," the single long story that comprises the third part, originally published in 1919 in Lake Country, reads like a looser version of the other sections. Hans's odyssey resembles a pleasant ramble, and Walser provides joie de vivre in small, ingenuous doses.