On Robert Walser’s Idiosyncratic, Whimsical, Sly, and Enchanting Works

Walser's attentiveness to the world's capacity for beauty and kindness in a time of brutality is the most interesting aspect of this book.

“Better an honest shadow than to triumph in life and be a genius.”

— Robert Walser

The brief biography provided in the New York Review of Books edition of Robert Walser’s Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories is as intriguing as one of Walser’s microstories. Born in 1878 to a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland, it says that Walser “left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence”. It concludes by saying that in 1933 Walser stopped writing and “entered a sanatorium — where he remained for the rest of his life”.

It’s a quiet, modest biographical statement; the kind that befits the writer of the 81 idiosyncratic, whimsical, sly, and enchanting prose pieces and feuilletons that are collected in this book, translated from the German by Tom Whalen with assistance from Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner. But it was during these years, when it seemed he did nothing but lead a wandering, precarious existence, that he wrote the novels for which he is now known, like Jakob van Gunten (1909), The Robber (Der Räuber, 1925), and The Tanners (1907).

Having never read his novels or poems or plays or dramalets or short stories (his oeuvre is surprisingly vast and prolific for a man who consistently writes about stopping to smell the roses), I entered the Walserian world fresh and without preconceptions or expectations. While working a series of jobs after an unsuccessful attempt to become an actor, Walser wrote poems and stories that began appearing in newspapers and magazines. He became known for these brief, allusive sketches.

The sketches that are presented here were written between 1907 and 1933. It opens with the irreverent and cheeky “The Morning”, which depicts with a satirical eye a Monday in the working life of bank clerks. It immediately conveys the spirit of a more impish Bartleby as reenacted in the character of Helbling: “He sighs; only ten little, tiny, thin, delicate, spiky minutes have trickled past, and before him loom fat, indifferent hours. He tries to see if it’s possible to grasp the idea that now he must work. The effort fails, but at least it’s shifted the face of the clock a little.” The Walserian spirit is captured in the sentence: “He tries to see if it’s possible to grasp the idea that now he must work.” It’s not a mere retelling of a character’s dislike of work, or his unwillingness to work, but of a character’s attempt to think his way out of his obvious dislike of a particular kind of work.

In this way, Walser’s prose sketches are an attempt at representing the act of thinking. Many of these pieces seem conventional or suitably literary; the contemplation of the beauty of nature, for example, or a keen flâneur’s eye trained on the customers of a coffee shop, but what makes them different and off-centre is a kind of gleeful energy that runs through them. Walser writes not so much to give definitive judgments or pronouncements, but to capture his mood or thoughts about the subject in the very moment of its formation.

Walser’s writing is bird-like, ambiguous, flitting from one idea to another. The tone is light and swift-footed, but it’s a fugitive kind of lightness; underneath, Walser is burrowing into some deep stuff and can often be unsettling. It’s necessary to read him closely or one is likely to miss altogether the swift dips and turns of his mind. In “The Philosopher”, for example, Walser writes: “Some consider him unique among his peers. He lives, yet it’s as if he’s dead. Whoever woke him up probably would deserve a reward.” The piece concludes with a seemingly modest but weighty sentence: “A pity that his long reflections made him lose so many things.”

What struck me the most at this point was that many of the pieces in the first half of the book were written during the First World War, but Walser does not once write about it. Instead, there are constant references to the beauty of nature, of the minuscule things one notices on a daily basis, and most importantly, the kindness of people. In the Walserian world, a sense of being in the world is enhanced when people and nature itself are friendly, gentle, and tender. “A heaven opens when people are kind to one another,” he writes in the hopeful yet elegiac “Autumn Afternoon”, where he recounts the delightful, affirming sights of the countryside. “In the wonderfully resounding countryside, everything becomes more and more beautiful. Each step led into another loveliness. It was as if I were writing, dreaming, fantasizing.”

Suddenly, the reader is not sure of what’s at work in this piece — memory or imagination. Walser concludes this sketch by suggesting that there might not be a difference: “They were glorious sounds, at least so I imagined. How easy it is to imagine something beautiful on a quiet evening walk.” The pieces that dwell on beauty in the midst of war might have been an act of memory or imagination or both. It performs a certain kind of work for the reader that the reader might not have been able to perform for herself: it thinks of a world where, as he writes in “Lake Piece”, “the whole world was like kindness itself, and one could no longer find fault with life, with human existence.” In one of the only pieces where he dwells in the dark, written in 1917, he says, “And the people were poor, pale, sick, storm-driven slaves lashed into terror. No one trusted anyone anymore.” For Walser, hope ends when people stop being kind to one another.

It feels naïve and childish, a sort of idealist and daydreamer’s version of peace, but because these were written in the midst of carnage, it suggests a stance, a resolute notion to believe in people. This typical Walserian focus on kindness and a general sense of hospitality is a kind of salve. Far from being a retreat from serious matters and “real life”, it seems to suggest a commitment to people and the world at a time when it would have been easy to simply write about how bad things were. This recommitment to the world and an alert attentiveness to its capacity for beauty and kindness in a time of brutality is the most interesting aspect of this book and Walser’s particular worldview.

As his biography states, he entered a sanatorium in 1933 after suffering bouts of anxiety, and “stopped writing”. We can’t be entirely sure of that. To be more precise, it would be better to say that he stopped writing for publication. “Better an honest shadow than to triumph in life and be a genius,” he writes in “Shadow”. Dispensing with ambition, he wanted to be with the people, as Tom Whalen explains in his afterword, by simply existing as just another patient in the institution. In one of his best sketches, an effortless piece of “confessional” writing titled “Walser on Walser”, he writes: “Thus I wish to go unnoticed. Should one nevertheless want to notice me, I for my part won’t notice the noticers.”

RATING 9 / 10