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  • Poetik der Kindheit. Literatur und Wissen bei Robert Walser by Mareike Schildmann
  • Charles Vannette
Poetik der Kindheit. Literatur und Wissen bei Robert Walser.
Von Mareike Schildmann. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2019. 497 Seiten + 8 farbige und s/w Abbildungen. €59,90 gebunden, €47,99 eBook.

One of the most interesting and important art events of 2019 was Thomas Hirschhorn's Robert Walser-Sculpture. Sprawling across a plaza opposite the Robert-Walser-Platz in Biel, Hirschhorn's large, Beuysian social sculpture dominated the cultural life of the city for three summer months. The sculpture included lectures and readings, digital recordings, sexual fetish exhibits, calligraphy courses, and mountains of Styrofoam 'snow.' Among all of this was a large space dedicated to children's programs. Likewise, the sculpture itself had something of a childish quality, in its unfinished state of perpetual evolution and exploration.

Childhood is a central theme in Robert Walser's works. Many of his most well-known characters are children or youth (Fritz Kocher, Jakob von Gunten), while others are adults who seem to have never fully matured (Simon Tanner, Joseph Marti, or der Räuber). Of course, Walser's most well-known novel is set in a school that employs a most peculiar pedagogy. Despite the important position that childhood plays in Walser's works, it is often overshadowed in reception by images of the flâneur, the servant, or themes like madness, language experimentation, or Modernism. Mareike Schildmann's book Poetik der Kindheit: Literatur und Wissen bei Robert Walser succeeds in filling this void.

Schildmann's work stands in the tradition of a few important Walser scholars who have embedded the author's work in the broader historical and cultural context of its time. Peter Utz's fundamental text Tanz auf den Rändern (Frankfurt 1998) is worth noting here. Schildmann reads Walser's works for their engagement with—and reflection of—discourses surrounding childhood and childishness during the early twentieth century. As childhood, and the corollary concept of Bildung, are principal considerations not only of pedagogues, but also of nineteenth-century philosophy, psychology, the German literary tradition, and the very conception of bürgerliche Identität, Schildmann's path is necessarily broad and sweeping. [End Page 153]

The intellectual contexts that Schildmann engages are myriad, so it is perhaps understandable that she narrows her focus when discussing Walser's writing. With a few exceptions, her consideration is limited to Walser's most well-known works: Fritz Kochers Aufsätze, Geschwister Tanner, Der Gehülfe, Jakob von Gunten, and Der Räuber. Readers familiar with Walser will recognize that this list includes all of the author's surviving novels, which reflects Schildmann's treatment of the tradition of the Bildungsroman.

Throughout the book, Schildmann traces the significance of two common figures in Walser's stories: the precocious child who appears to have matured too quickly, and the childish youths and adults who are underdeveloped and whose immaturity comes across as absentmindedness or as a symptom of some greater deviancy. As is characteristic of much of Walser's writing, which eschews clear definition and distinction, Schildmann notes that these figures deviate from a post-Enlightenment model that sought to draw a distinction between childhood and adulthood, and which saw the transition from the former into the latter (through Bildung) as constitutive of bourgeois social identity. Walser's children, she argues, present a mixed existence and a locus of potential disruption, which she labels their "soziales Störpotential" (14).

Combined, the first two chapters of Schildmann's book produce a discussion of Walser through the prism of reform pedagogy and the Lebensreform movement of the early twentieth century. These movements, which looked to a romanticized purity and vitality of the child as a means of rejuvenating a society suffering from the ills of bourgeois values, were widespread and influential throughout the German-speaking world. Schildmann demonstrates that Walser's children—both the precocious children and the childish adults—reflect the anti-bourgeois energies of both reform movements yet fail to offer any sense of originality or purity, and provide scant access to anything resembling an unadulterated, natural state.

Chapters Three and Four both pivot away from pedagogy and towards...