live, and therefore knows nothing aboutnthem. Many of the poems in True Stories,npublished simultaneously with DancingnGirls, are rife with references to womennbeing tortured: “They sewed her face/nshut, closed her mouth/ to a hole thensize of a straw,…” There are referencesnin both the stories and the poems tonmen tying together the legs of women innlabor, as if the practice were as commonnas polishing shoes. And of course therenis that perpetual feminist favorite, thenwoman who “punctured herself withnkitchen skewers/and bled to death on angreasy/oilcloth table, rather than bear/n” ‘Dancing Girls’ is a stunning collection.nand contradictions of ordinarv life.”nagain and past the limit.” What does MissnAtwood know about bearing past thenlimit? Has she ever even met anyonenwith more than two children?nTo be fair. Miss Atwood is a talentednwriter. Though her themes are trite, shenendows her work with interesting insightsnand good detail. The metaphorsnand similes, so central to her poetry,nenhance her fiction with their accuracy.nShe observes her prey, whether thenwomen of her stories or the equallynunattractive land crabs of her poems,nwith a trained eye. Part of her “Sunset I”nis exemplary:nTonight there’s no crescendonin the sun either, no brilliant redncatastrophes, no slashednjugulars; merely a smudged egg.nBut the other side of these adroitlynrecorded perceptions is that Miss Atwoodninsists on casting some of our favoritenimages against type: sunsets, Christmasn(she doesn’t care for the part about thenbaby), love, democracy, motherhood.nSurely there are worse forces at work innthe universe. Is there no sense of wondernin this woman? What one wouldn’tngive, by the end of it all, for a quiet recitationnof “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or ankind word for a poppy.n16nChronicles of CultttrenKobert Walser, an alienated man,nlived and wrote under the shadow ofnmental disintegration, and thereforenSusan Sontag, who contributed thenforeword to his volume of stories, hasnseen in him the seeds of genius. Alienationnhas long been considered a virtuenby the left, but Walser’s brand is one ofncranky weirdness rather than of principlednindividuality. In this volume, thenauthor manages to distinguish himself asna curiosity and not much else. The 40oddnentries in his Selected Stories are innfact more essays than stories, and moren. she manages to convey the complexitiesn—New York Times Book Reviewntherapeutic ramblings than essays.nBom in Switzerland in 1878, Walsernwrote several novels and many shortnworks of fiction before committing himselfnto a mental hospital in 1929 andnending his career as a writer. He wasnfound dead on a hill near the sanatoriumnin 1956, having gained neither popularitynnor profit for his efforts. His historynrators are often lonely, socially ineptnwriters looking for a clean place to sleepnand a little kindness. But, as Walser saysnof himself, “People who have no successnwith people have no business withnpeople.” Judging from these essays,nWalser never tried very hard, for hisnrealm of interest seems to begin and endnwith himself Though the stories representnthe years 1907 to 1929, Walsernappears peculiarly unfazed by worldnevents. He prefers to draw attentionneither to his own personal and financialnproblems, as in “Helbling’s Story,” annexamination of a pathetic man withngrandiose dreams but ordinary skillsnwho alternates between self-knowledgenand self-delusion, or to his real ornimagined enemies.nWalser, a volatile personality undernany circumstances, goes out of controlnwhen describing rich people. In “ThenWalk,” for example, an essay in partndefending the exercise as labor necessarynfor a writer’s inspiration, Walsernunleashes an abusive harangue on annunidentified man of means without anynknown provocation. In other stories, henautomatically equates the rich withn”Robert Walser was a writer of considerable wit. talent and originality’.”n—New York Times Book Reviewn”Walser is one otitic most remaikAHe and ftilly realized stylists in modern literature…nif we could have all of Walser’s writings togethtT… it would lie possible to… see thenworld as it has never been seen Ix’fore.”n—TheNfttionnexplains why the stories, arranged innchronological order, began to slip innquality after 1917. By 1925, they arendownright bad.nWalser’s themes are the classic ones:nindividual isolation, the decline of standardsnand values, dreams versus reality,nand so forth, but they are addressed in ansurprisingly superficial, utisophisticatednway. Furthermore, his style is staccato,nperfunctory, and repetitious. “Civilizationnstill seems to be an unfinished task”nis a typical example of the depth ofnWalser’s perception. But then civilizationnis not Walser’s long suit. His nar-nnnmoral depravity and contrasts theirnundeserved wealth with his own poverty.nThis is insight? A better writernmight have at least attempted to examinenthe effect of material comfort on character,nwith all its ambiguities.n1 he author is at his best recordingnimages of nature: “The Alps have comento life and dip with fabulous gesturesntheir foreheads into the water.” OfnCezanne, he notes, “The things to whichnhe gave shape looked back at him as ifnthey had been pleased, and that is hownthey look at us still.” There are, in fact, an