#38. “Walk I definitely must”: Robert Walser
Reto Sorg is director of the Robert Walser Centre in Bern, an institution dedicated to the work of Swiss author Robert Walser (1878–1956). Walser’s collected Berlin Stories, published in 2012 by New York Review Books, was (in the opinion of this website) among the best literary reissues of 2012. In the collection, Walser emerges as something of a happy-go-lucky flâneur, whose ‘joyous equanimity’ despite a cruel lack of success stems from his ability to live in, and appreciate, the moment, a rare gift in any age. Reto considers what Walser’s irreverent, uncynical and sometimes surprisingly profound worldview might have embraced in the present day.
Words: Reto Sorg
Robert Walser was a passionate walker. For him, the maxim “the journey not the arrival matters” applied to writing as well. He loved the subjective perspective of the nomad who wanders through the world in search of self-knowledge: a practice of absent-minded observation, involuntary experiences, resolute autonomy, self-involved storytelling.
“Walk,” was my answer, “I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could not write the half of one more single word, nor produce the tiniest poem in verse or prose. Without walking I would be dead, and my professsion, which I love passionately, would be destroyed.” (‘The Walk’, tr. Christopher Middleton)
The insights in Walser’s science of walking are as relevant to today’s urban developers and curators as to today’s writers (especially considering recent movements to consider ‘the human scale‘ in the context of the urban environment – ed.)
In Switzerland, modesty is a cardinal virtue. Perhaps that is precisely why Walser made himself the central focus and pivot of his writing. Constant investigations of the self have produced numerous “I-books” or first-person documents that hold up the mirror to the modern artist. Along with Kafka, Walser was a prominent early practitioner of what we today call “autofiction.”
“My prose pieces are, to my mind, nothing more nor less than parts of a long, plotless, realistic story. For me, the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. This novel, I am constantly writing, is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.” (‘A Kind of Story’, tr. Christopher Middleton)
Walser’s insistent egocentricity is more than merely opposed to modern mass society, so no efforts at social reconciliation will ever overcome the difference and fully replace egocentricity with conformity.
3. Distant Closeness
Walser left school to study business at age 14; he never had any higher education. His professors were literature and the theater, as well as his older brother, Karl, a painter, who taught Robert to see the world through an artist’s eyes. For Walser, sense perception is the standard of beauty, and every representation necessarily refracts reality through its medium, thereby setting reality at a greater distance.
“That which we would love to have close by peers gently and discreetly into closeness, it is distant, strange, though yet familiar and well known.” (‘Watteau’, tr. Catherine Schelbert)
The artwork as an expression of longing—this Romantic idea was one that Walser clung to in the age of mechanical reproducibility and would have surely have clung to in the digital age as well.
Walser wrote novels at first, but then turned away from longer forms and published to excess in newspapers and magazines. One of Walser’s American translators, Susan Bernofsky, has called this an early form of blogging.
When, occasionally, I found myself spontaneously authoring away, it may perhaps have looked a little ludicrous to the deadly serious among us; and yet I was experimenting in the linguistic realm in the hope that there might be some hitherto unknown liveliness or another in language, one which it would be a pleasure to awaken. (“My Efforts”)
For Walser, the great topics are to be found on side of the road, in the fleeting facts of everyday life.
Walser never lived in a place of his own, had hardly any personal possessions, and kept absolutely nothing. The actual use value of the everyday objects he wrote about so often and with such relish was enough for him, without any “deeper,” symbolic meaning.
“When ash is blown upon, that in it which refuses for a moment to fly away is not the least of its qualities. Ash is lowliness, negligibility, and worthlessness itself, and the most beautiful thing of all is that ash itself is steeped in the belief that it is good for nothing.” (‘Ash, Pin, Pencil, Match’)
Walser wrote about pants, pins, pencils, buttons, matches, stoves, nuts, and wine the way other people write about personal mementos, precious gemstones, and new technology.
Photo copyright by Robert Walser Foundation Bern