“On Christmas Day, 1956, the police of the town of Herisau in eastern Switzerland were called out: children had stumbled upon the body of a man, frozen to death, in a snowy field. Arriving at the scene, the police took photographs and had the body removed. The dead man was easily identified: Robert Walser, aged seventy-eight, missing from a local mental hospital. In his earlier years Walser had won something of a reputation, in Switzerland and even in Germany, as a writer. Some of his books were still in print; there had even been a biography of him published. During a quarter of a century in mental institutions, however, his own writing had dried up. Long country walks—like the one on which he had died—had been his main recreation.” (1)
One of the most remarkable and truly singular artists of the twentieth century, Robert Walser (1878-1956) has had a huge influence on a long list of literary, artistic and philosophical figures from Franz Kafka to Walter Benjamin and Herman Hesse, from W.G. Sebald to J.M. Coetzee; inspiring musicians such as Heinz Holliger, contemporary visual artists like Fischli & Weiss, Tacita Dean and Billy Childish, and filmmakers, like Percy Adlon and the Brothers Quay. (6)
Walser’s “walk” is many things at once: the walk of life as in Dante’s cammin di nostra vita; the fusion of a Romantic’s celebration of nature as the source of all knowledge and inspiration with a Modernist’s playful intertextuality and layering of language; the artistic process in conflict with the conditions of material existence. Palpable throughout the story are echoes of wanderers and outsiders that have always been suspect to settled society: the vagabonds, artisans, circus performers, journeymen, and nomads who were exempt from the duties and moral codes that order, tame, and impose limitations on human coexistence. I cannot help but suspect that Walser remained in the asylum to preserve his state of inner exile; in any case, there is ample evidence that he was anything but psychotic and that his nervous breakdown was in all likelihood caused more by the hopelessness of his professional, financial, and social situation than by inner demons. Walser must have sensed that he’d lost the audience receptive to his work and would not recover it, at least not in his lifetime. If his writing retained its mischief, whimsy and wonder, it also masked a defiant plea for the legitimacy of his vision and literary achievement. In an effort to have his taxes reduced, Walser’s walker/writer feels called upon to defend his profession and—by implication—justify his very existence: “There accompanies the walker always something remarkable, something fantastic […] by thinking, pondering, drilling, digging, speculating, writing, investigating, researching, and walking, I earn my daily bread with as much sweat on my brow as anybody. And although I may cut a most carefree figure, I am highly serious and conscientious, and though I seem to be no more than dreamy and delicate, I am a solid technician! Might I hope, through the meticulous explanations I have brought forth, to have convinced you completely of the obviously honorable nature of these endeavors?” (2)
I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable position, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free. . . . Large and difficult tasks I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-reaching sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I do not like to strain my intelligence overmuch. . . . Assuredly there exists in your extensive institution, which I imagine to be overflowing with main and subsidiary functions and offices, work of the kind that one can do as in a dream?—I am, to put it frankly, a Chinese; that is to say, a person who deems everything small and modest to be beautiful and pleasing, and to whom all that is big and exacting is fearsome and horrid. ” (3)
“If I were rich, I wouldn’t travel around the world. To be sure, that would not be so bad. But I can see nothing wildly exciting about getting a fugitive acquaintance with foreign places. In general I would decline to educate myself, as they say, any further. I would be attracted by deep things and by the soul, rather than by distances and things far off. . . . And I wouldn’t buy anything either. I would make no acquisitions. . . . I would walk about on foot, just as usual, with the consciously secret intention of not letting people notice very much how regally rich I am. . . . It would never occur to me to take a cab. Only people who are in a hurry or want to put on noble airs do that. But I wouldn’t want to put on noble airs, and I would be in no hurry whatever. ” (4)
This article was “ignited” by Thomas Schutte’s sculpture, “Walser’s Wife”, which I saw recently in Serpentine Gallery in London. I did not know of Walser until the time I saw his imaginary wife’s sculpted head. I figured that if an artist like Schutte was so moved by Walser that he went all the way to invent the wife and sculpt her head, it might be worth having a look at what this guy was all about. In the video clip below, Thomas Schutte, talks about Robert Walser in Chicago, back in February 2012.
Walter Benjamin, in an essay from 1929, made the ingenious suggestion that Walser’s cheerful people must all be convalescents; only recovered health could explain the intense pleasure they take in absolutely everything. More recently, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben offered a gloss on the flatness, the thus-ness, of Walser’s frequently very matter-of-fact prose: this, he says, is how the world of left-behind objects and people will look after the Messiah has come and gone, abandoned in what Agamben calls the Irreparable. That works, too, for much of Walser’s writing, though it doesn’t cover the ironic moments. In these, it truly seems as if Walser has been laid under a curse: permitted only to speak well of the world, he is forced to express any sorrow or rage he feels in terms of the most unequivocal praise. The resulting sense of torment, endlessness, and absurdity puts one in mind of Kafka again. (5)
“Approximately ten years ago I began to first shyly and reverentially sketch out in pencil everything I produced, which naturally imparted a sluggishness and slowness to the writing process that assumed practically colossal proportions. This pencil system, which is inseparable from a logically consistent, office-like copying system, has caused me real torments, but this torment taught me patience, such that I now have mastered the art of being patient. . . .
This pencil method has a great meaning for me. The writer of these lines experienced a time when he hideously, frightfully hated his pen, I can’t begin to tell you how sick of it he was; he became an outright idiot the moment he made the least use of it; and to free himself from this pen malaise he began to pencil-sketch, to scribble, fiddle about. With the aid of my pencil I was better able to play, to write; it seemed this revived my writerly enthusiasm.” (7)
Susan Bernofsky, the translator of many of Robert Walser’s from German to English, talks about his Microscripts.
Her Not All Her is a play about, from, and to the great Swiss writer Robert Walser, by the great Austrian writer and Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek. It highlights what Jelinek calls ‘the fundamental fragmentation’ of Walser’s voice, revealing Walser as ‘one of those people who, when they said “I”, did not mean themselves’.
Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.
1. The New York Review of Books, The Genius of Robert Walser
2. The Rumpus: The Walk (Der Spaziergang) by Robert Walser
3. Robert Walser, “Job Application”, quoted in (5)
4. Robert Walser, “Jakob von Gunten”, quoted in (5)
5. The New Yorker, Still Small Voice, The Fiction of Robert Walser
7. From a letter written by Walser in 1927 to editor Max Rycnher, quoted in the Quarterly Conversation