Robert Walser Turned Small Lives Into Incredible Fiction
An excerpt from 'Walks with Walser,' a revealing new book about the legendary Swiss writer.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Here's an excerpt from Walks with Walser by Carl Seelig, a new book about the great Swiss writer Robert Walser, out from New Directions later this month. Walser (1878–1956), whose stories appeared in the 2009 VICE Fiction issue, was known for his walking and his very beautiful, very short stories from the point of view of seemingly unremarkable characters such as the butler-in-training of his 1909 masterpiece Jakob von Gunten and the daydreaming bank employee of 1914's memorable "Helbling's Story," both of which were informed by Walser's own experiences, bouncing from job to job to support himself as he wrote.
Throughout his work, there is a unique and gleefully subversive celebration of qualities oft-maligned: sloth, sensitivity, even servility. "I know quite well that they consider me a fool," Walser writes of his coworkers in "Helbling's Story," "but I feel that if they have a right to suppose this then I cannot prevent them from doing so. Also I do actually look foolish, my face, conduct, walk, voice and bearing... I just stand there, at the desk, and can goggle into the room or out of the window for half an hour." After suffering from a mental breakdown in 1929, Walser lived out the remainder of his life in mental asylums, not writing but, in his words, "be[ing] mad." Within his work, the bold, unorthodox writer was a voice for insignificance but, in his own life, a victim of it.
Elegantly translated into English for the first time by Anne Posten, Walks with Walser is Carl Seelig's revealing and devoted account of his visits with the brilliant, eccentric friend for whom he served as a guardian and, eventually, literary executor.
—James Yeh, culture editor
From Walks with Walser
January 2, 1944
"Shall we pay our respects to Hölderlin today?" I ask. Robert replies: "Hölderlin? What a delightful idea! Hopefully we won't get as soaked as I did last Sunday afternoon, when a veritable deluge poured down on me. I returned to the asylum like the lousiest tramp." Today, too, despite the cold, he has brought neither overcoat nor umbrella. He looks rather raffish in his worn-out yellow-checked suit, gentian blue shirt, red-striped tie, and rolled-up trousers.
We strike out briskly on the lightly snow-covered street that leads to Goßau; a white weasel shoots past, burrows a bit in the snow and peeks curiously up at us, ears perked. We speak first of the bombing of German cities. I remark that I find it disgraceful to wage war in the interior of a country, against women, children, and sick people, regardless of what nation is doing it. The fact that Hitler's people bombed London does not entitle the Allies to employ the same inhumane tactics. Robert counters fiercely, saying that I judge the situation subjectively, and too sentimentally. Anyone who is threatened the way the Britons are must turn to the most ruthless realpolitik. Hitler's Huns deserve no better. Every nation, in merely deciding to exist, becomes brutally egotistical; in this even Christianity has to take a back seat. I: "Did the civilized peoples fight back when the Italians went at the Abyssinians with bomber squadrons?" —Robert: "Allow me the observation that the Abyssinians wouldn't have fallen into that position had they resisted the temptations of civilization and had remained loyal to tradition. It's a matter of loyalty to tradition, always and everywhere!"
"A famous person must not cause one to forget the unfamous."
With pleasure Robert shows me the beautiful old part of the village of Goßau. Most of the people are in church. It is very quiet: only a few sledding children and interned Poles in their yellow-green uniforms. We hike onward, now and then meeting a farmer's sleigh, the horse's harness jingling; the snow often comes to our knees. A farmhand shouldering a dung fork comes out of a stable. I call out: "Mornin'!" He doesn't answer, which prompts Robert to remark: "He's probably jealous that he's not out for a stroll like us!" In Arnegg we knock at the door of a tavern. But it remains deathly silent. Two hours later we are in Hauptwil, where Hölderlin was tutor to the Gonzenbach family around 1800. There is a baroque-style bourgeois house with a sundial containing the motto:
Work and wake, long as it's light,
For I don't tell the hours of the night.
Across from it lies the Zum Leuen inn. We get excellent coffee and sharp Tilsit cheese. Robert asks me: "Don't you think that the proprietress comes from southern Germany? I suspect it from her dialect. Perhaps Hölderlin brought Württembergians here with him." We stop in front of the ample patrician house of the Gonzenbach family, who settled here at the beginning of the seventeenth century and grew rich in the canvas business, admiring the little tower through which the street passes, and the Venetian balconies, the quiet courtyard, the peaceful facade of the stately home with its double staircase and weathervane. The estate is now occupied by a school of home economics run by a charitable society, but Robert finds that the house has kept its painting-like quality, its grand and dreamy feel. I: "Shall we look at the Hölderlin plaque they put up last year?" Robert waves off this idea: "No, no, let us not bother with such placard nonsense! How repugnant are things that make a show of reverence. And by the way, Hölderlin's was only one of many human fates to play out here. A famous person must not cause one to forget the unfamous."
We stand gawking for a good quarter of an hour, and as we turn on a side street toward the wooded hill that separates Hauptwil from Bischofszell, we ask an elderly man who is shoveling snow in front of his house whether there are any remaining descendants of the estate's former owners. He looks at us through his right eye—the left is blind—and answers: "Yes, there's one. But he's nearly deaf and has gone a bit soft," and after a bit he adds, "People don't deserve such a splendid house, now, when they're dropping bombs on everything." I say: "Perhaps they'll improve, gradually..." The man: "Them, improve?" I: "Perhaps they'll be forced to improve!" He: "Indeed. That could be. We can only hope!" and Robert nods.
It's now close to noon. During the hike I finally tell to Robert (it has been on the tip of my tongue for a while but I wanted to wait for a psychologically opportune moment, so as not to upset him) that his sister Lisa, who lies fatally ill in a Bern hospital, had expressed the wish that he and I might come and visit her one last time. He refuses immediately: "Eh, more of this to-do! I neither may nor wish to travel to Bern again, after being thrown out, so to speak. It's a point of honor. I have been staked down in Herisau and I have my daily duties here, which I do not wish to neglect. Only not to attract attention, not to disturb the order of the asylum! That I cannot allow myself... Anyway: sentimental requests leave me cold. Am I not also sick? Do I not also need my rest? In such cases it is best to remain all on one's own. Nor did I want it otherwise when I was admitted to the hospital. In such situations simple people like us must behave as quietly as possible. And now I'm supposed to 'trot off' with you to Bern, of all things? I would embarrass myself in front of you! We'd stand there like two idiots with poor Lisa, maybe we'd even make her cry. No, no, as fond as I am of her, we mustn't give in to such feminine fripperies! It is for us simply to take walks together, don't you think?" I: "But things are bad with Lisa, very bad. Perhaps you'll never see her again...!" Robert: "Well then by God, we'll never see each other again. Such is human fate. I too will have to die alone one day. I'm sorry about Lisa, of course. She was a wonderful sister to me. But her sense of family borders on the pathological, the immature." Later: "We Walsers are all so excessively fragile and hung up on family ties. Haven't you ever noticed: childless couples—and we Walsers are all childless—usually remain somewhat childlike themselves. A person (at least a healthy one) grows up when he cares about other people. Cares give his life depth. Childlessness in our family is a typical symptom of overrefinement, which is also expressed, among other ways, in maximum sensitivity." We eat at a butcher shop in Bischoffszell, after taking in the grandiose town hall. A miniature Christmas tree still stands in the dining room. There is meat soup, veal in mushroom cream sauce, peas, a kind of pommes frites, salad, and fruit compote. Accompanying it, the spirited red Nußbaumer wine of the region. We are served by the proprietor's very pregnant wife. Robert tells me that a sergeant from the unit that he served in, now a bookkeeper in Basel, had sent him cheroots for Christmas. How could he have known the address? They had heard nothing from each other for decades. But the little package had awakened many memories. And then on New Year's Day a farmer from Glarus in his ward had sung old folk songs, including a romantic courtly ballad from the middle ages. Robert had however withdrawn as much as possible from the actual communal Christmas festivities, and from the church service; it was too much activity for him.
Train ride from Bischofszell to Gossau, where we feast on sweets in a pastry shop. I tell Robert about reading Erich Eyck's three-volume work on Bismarck, which contains the remark, concerning the year 1852: Bismarck wanted to destroy the big cities with their revolutionary inhabitants wholesale. I tell him that I am increasingly of the opinion that Bismarck was a forerunner of Hitler's people: a cynical pettifogger and, when it suited him, a brutal power politician and warmonger. Admittedly, Bismarck was a hundred times more clever and cultivated than the Nazis. Robert agrees and says that Mussolini strikes him as an Italian version of Count Bismarck. National socialism really began with Frederick the Great.
Robert asks me if I would mind if we take a path through the meadows from Gossau to Herisau to cool our wine-fogged heads. I agree. We trudge through deep snow toward a wooded area on a hill; between sturdy blackish trees we stumble upon the stone that marks the border between the Cantons of Appenzell Outer Rhodes and St. Gallen. Robert brushes it tenderly and asks twice: "Was this not a nice day?" In Herisau we still have an hour and a half until my train leaves. We dither about whether to go to the station restaurant. I suggest we go up to the village instead. Robert agrees gladly. We decide on the pub Drei Könige in the old part of town. There is only one waitress, who sits writing a letter. It's cozy: warm and dim. Robert feels well taken care of, and his face looks refreshed and alive. He drinks three "large darks," one after another, and smokes the sergeant's cheroots. He talks for almost an hour of Bern: "Yes, I lived there for nearly eight years, until I was hauled off to Waldau, where I stayed three and a half years and even wrote a bit at first—not much, just enough to continue to serve my clientele: in the Bern years that included above all the Berliner Tageblatt, which paid princely sums, and the Prager Tageblatt, which paid poorly. But they took everything of mine, and that trust was worth more to me than the better honoraria I got from the Swiss newspapers, whose editors often grumbled about my pieces. In Biel I wrote mainly for various magazines. You see, every time I went to a new city, I forgot my past and adapted completely to the new milieu. In Bern I had to fight hard, for years. At my age it's no small thing to forge a new home for oneself. I came to Bern as poor as a church mouse, since the few thousand marcs I had put away in a bank went straight down the drain thanks to inflation. Yes, I lived quite alone, and changed lodgings often. Surely over a dozen times. Sometimes the places were truly shabby. My most frequent companions were waitresses and the daughter of a Jewish publisher, as well as the librarian Hans Bloesch and sometimes the writer A. F., who was completely shameless. I should have socked him. I made a tremendous effort to get back on my feet and to hunt down pretty bits of inspiration. But I also let a lot of alcohol flow down my gullet, which meant that here and there I soon found myself unwelcome." I: "Oh, did you go on some real benders?" Robert: "Certainly! The majority of what I took in as honoraria I washed down again in alcohol. What one won't do when lonely! Over the weekends or at holidays I would sometimes go to my sister's in Bellelay; but other than that I rarely saw my family."
"Dependence has something good-natured about it; independence inspires enmity."
I ask Robert whether it is true that in Berlin he burned the unpublished manuscripts of three novels. "That is quite possible. In those days I was hell-bent on writing novels. But I came to understand that I had set my heart on a form that was too expansive for my talents. So I withdrew into the snail shell of short stories and feuilletons... By the way: It is up to the author alone to decide which literary genre he should turn himself to. Perhaps he writes such novels only so that he can finally have enough air to breathe. It is quite irrelevant whether the rest of the world says yes or no. If one wins, one must also be able to lose... If I could start over, I would do my best to eliminate subjectivity, and write for the good of the people. I gave myself too much liberty. One must not try to sidestep the people. The terrible beauty of Green Henry stands before me as an example."
"In Herisau," Robert adds, "I stopped writing. What for? My world was shattered by the Nazis. The newspapers I wrote for are gone; their editors have been chased away or are dead. And so I've become practically a fossil."
Three remarks: "Human reason awakens only in poverty."
"Writers of genius foretell world history like prophets."
"Dependence has something good-natured about it; independence inspires enmity."
On the way to the train station I tell him that on New Year's Day I saw a French farce in Zürich. The infidelity motif of Parisian boulevard authors, now long pat, came off as rather clunky in German, however. Robert: "I'm sick to death of this motif. But perhaps the infidelity is there to keep the women awake. Otherwise they would get sleepy." During the conversation we pass a child pulling a sled, who looks at us with big eyes. Robert asks me: "Did you see his eyes? It's as if he guessed our mischievous mood!"
As we part he says: "Until next time—if we survive that long!" I: "Are you in doubt? We may both live to be ancient." Robert: "Hopefully... and we'll still have many beautiful times together. Beauty usually offers itself to those who seek it."
Carl Seelig (1894–1962) was a Swiss editor and writer and Robert Walser's friend, guardian, and literary executor. He was a selfless supporter of countless other writers, and was also Albert Einstein's first biographer.
Arranged with permission from New Directions Publishing Company. Walks with Walser will be published on April 25. Translated from the German by Anne Posten.