Robert Walser: Selected Stories

About a year into this blog – which recently passed its fifth birthday, but like all in middle age, doesn’t like to draw attention to the fact – I wrote about Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant. It attracted a surprisingly high number of page views and comments, though perhaps not so surprising when you consider that Walser is one of those badly kept secrets of literature, admired by Kafka then and Coetzee now. (And Hesse too: “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.”) It was the response to my blog post more than any appreciation I had for The Assistant that made me get this selection of his short prose shortly afterwards. And now, four years later, I have finally read it. (I’ve just had a shudder-inducing thought about what this means for the five hundred or so unread books I have at home. Let’s move on.)

I bow to no one – and it’s a crowded field – in my admiration for NYRB Classics, but even by that imprint’s exalted standards, Walser’s Selected Stories must be a high point. Ditto by their exalted design standards: look at that cover, the delicate green and purple like colorizing effects on a black-and-white film. And the composition, or cropping, of the photograph itself: the subject – the author – to one side, as though standing proudly (or tentatively?) by his title; or, not quite in the middle of the road; or, just about to go for a walk.

Walser loved to walk, or it might be more accurate to say he walked a lot, like Mr Sommer in Patrick Süskind’s story. He died walking, in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, a short distance from the sanatorium (“for people who were mentally not altogether at their best”, as he described such a place in one story) where he spent the last 23 years of his life, having given up writing. “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” (If I squeezed in the word ‘microscripts’, then the preceding sentences would contain all the keywords you’ll see in any potted biography of Walser.)

His contradictions are retained in the title of this volume, which more accurately would be called Selected – what? – Things. But who can blame NYRB? Just as novels are more saleable than stories, so too must stories be more saleable than things. (Robert Walser’s Things. I’d buy it.) The author referred to them as sketches: “For me the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The 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.” That description accounts for the vertiginous feeling the new reader has on encountering what is apparently the author himself talking casually as he assembles the narrative of each sketch. He ponders to himself, reflects, wavers and settles. “I think he must have walked across a tiny bridge…” “As I believe I have been able to stress…” “Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years ago.” The ‘I’ in the sketches is always there, just out of sight and then appearing briefly with a disarming charm:

I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation on them; even as I write, a desirous grin, I can feel it, is spreading over my entire face.

It has a similar effect on the reader. The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected. Unlike many writers, he lays his uncertainties before the reader. (Thomas Mann: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”) This is sympathetic to the kind of character – or the aspects of himself – Walser presents in several of the pieces here. One narrator describes himself as “a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force”, without ambition. “The passion to go far in the world is unknown to me.” Another, Helbling, is “a small, pale, timid, weak, elegant, silly little fellow, full of unworldly feelings, and would not be able to endure the rigor of life if things ever went against me.” He is “not of coarse enough cut for this life.” These characters are observers, patients rather than agents, and it’s no surprise to have Walser himself as narrator take a similar line. “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” When he writes about Cézanne, he imbues him too with similar unworldly qualities.

This is not to say that the writing is either fey or insubstantial. The longest piece here, ‘The Walk’, has sharp satire and a Pythonesque absurdity as the narrator enters a bookshop and asks to be provided with the most popular and critically acclaimed volume, which the bookseller does.

I considered the book, and asked: “Could you swear that this is the most widely distributed book of the year?”

“Without a doubt!”

“Could you insist that this is the book which one has to have read?”


“Is this book also definitely good?”

“What an utterly superfluous and inadmissible question.”

The story, as its title indicates, is a long walk, full of similar encounters. “On a lovely and far-wandering walk a thousand useful and usable thoughts occur to me.” But for Walser’s walkers, not too much action is desired. When, in ‘The Street (1)’, a man finds himself pulled along in a crowd, he finds that “in the midst of the unrelenting forward thrust I felt the urge to stand still. The muchness and the motion were too much and too fast.” This pace distresses him: in ‘A Contribution’ he refers to “the civilized world, which one might also call the impatient or rushing world.” Susan Sontag in her introduction calls Walser a “heartbreaking” writer, and we can see why: for his charm and innocence, his seeming struggle to fit, his determination to make the best of it regardless.

Walser and his various alter egos are unsure of their place, not just in the world, but in literature. “I have written books,” he writes in ‘The Walk’, “which the public unfortunately does not like, and the consequences of this oppress my heart.” Indeed, as Coetzee reports in his excellent essay on Walser (published in Inner Workings), what little income he was able to earn from his writing dwindled almost to nothing after the first world war, when the public appetite for Walser’s writing, “easily dismissed as whimsical and belletristic,” declined. His mental health became more precarious, and he attempted suicide. “I couldn’t even make a proper noose.” There is a desperation chiming with this under the surface of Walser’s stories, but it’s certainly tempting to accentuate a more cheerful reading of his books. And the portion of the public that fortunately does like his writing still persists, and shows no sign of disappearing. My own reaction to these odd, quixotic little pieces, satisfying and disarming, is in keeping with Walser’s more optimistic aspirations expressed elsewhere in ‘The Walk’: “I hope that this sentence pleases all and sundry, inspires satisfaction, and meets with warm applause.”


  1. I love Robert Walser. I’m currently making my way through Berlin Stories, which NYRB recently put out — you better get it quick so you can get it into its proper place in your queue!

    He always seems to vibrant, even when he’s writing about sad things (which seems strange considering the images we have of his later life — and I’d say that picture seems tentative, though his words certainly are not).

  2. Thanks Trevor and courseofmirrors. Rather unhelpfully, I noticed today that the edition I have reviewed seems to be out of print and is only available for an arm and a leg. Perhaps NYRB will reissue it…

  3. A fine review John. This was one of the first NYRB editions I bought, and like Trevor I’ve just started on their recent collection of Walser’s Berlin Stories. We have much to thank the folks at Hudson St for.

    Walser seems to me an enormously accessible and symapthetic writer, yet also in some essential way removed from us and the world. Things bounce off him in a strange way, and the result is the distinctive tone and energy of his writing.

  4. Out of print?! That’s terrible news! And the cheapest new copy on Amazon is, what — $276?! Is no one out there buying this gem?

    I swear I saw a copy of it just the other day in a bookstore somewhere around here, so I think there are a few copies floating around still. $276??

    Sounds even more urgent that you get a copy of Berlin Stories, if you haven’t already!

    On another, but kind of related, note, the next book I’m going to be reviewing from NYRB Classics is Amsterdam Stories, by Nescio. Again, there’s something about the energy behind the prose, some type of celebration in the face of life’s swift passage, that is unique (yet reminds me of Walser, sort of). It’s just been published, but if Walser is going out of print . . .

  5. Thanks Trevor. I’ve heard about Nescio – Chris Power (who does the terrific Brief Survey of the Short Story on the Guardian Books Site) was talking about him the other day.

    I believe that the reason Walser’s Selected Stories is out of print is because the licence owners haven’t permitted NYRB to renew it. So there will likely be another edition soon, just not the beautiful NYRB one shown above.

  6. I did some digging this morning and found that a new edition coming out in October from FSG. Now, I like FSG, but they poach a lot of books and authors from my favorite publishers. At least the book will be available again for people who don’t want to pay such so much!

  7. Okay, I retract, and I look forward to seeing FSG get this out to more people. Hopefully that will pave the way for even more Walser.

  8. I have to repent further.

    I was listening to this new podcast (which talks briefly about Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories), and in it Lorin Stein talks about acquiring Bolaño’s two major works, The Savage Detectives and 2666, for FSG (though New Directions had been publishing Bolaño’s work for a while). It was Bolaño’s estate that wanted these two books to come out from FSG and not necessarily a case where FSG outbid ND, and apparently it was a little bit awkward.

    Stein said that, while awkward, the hope was that the release of these two works from FSG would increase attention to Bolaño’s back catalog, thus benefitting ND as well, and that’s surely what happened. As sad as it is, it’s hard to imagine these books getting the same attention (and even acclaim) had they come from New Direcitons, though it always makes me sad.

    I just hope they keep hold of Aira’s works for a lot longer; he is also getting more and more attention these days, so surely some publisher with more money is planning an attack.

  9. I was recently rereading the Walser collection, ‘Speaking to the Rose’ (“The Cave Man” is a particular favorite), so it was nice to happen upon this post. I’m looking forward to the Bernofsky biography that keeps teasing my eyes.

    Check out Peter Altenberg’s ‘Telegrams of the Soul’ for a somewhat similar voice and outlook – it is also thoroughly enjoyable.

  10. Thanks for the links, James. Today I received post from Abe books – Berlin Stories (Quartett) and Masquerade and Other Stories (NYRB), both translated by Susan Bernofsky. Took myself to sit in the sunshine and started reading in the latter, with a wonderful introduction by William H. Gass. From ‘A Flaubert Prose Piece,’ …. where the narrator revives his past … How quickly strange things have become familiar, how the things I know now estrange me … Thanks, John, for reminding me of this stimulating writer. Warm applause to him. Next, I’m going to order ‘Der Spaziergang’ in German.

  11. What a thought: it never occurred to me to wonder what the world would be like if there were more readers of a certain book.

    Probably wouldn’t make a difference, but it’s nice to think so.

  12. I notice from the FSG catalog Sam linked to that FSG is also publishing Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams and Rose Macaulay’s Towers of Trebizond this fall, so if you want NYRB Classics editions of those, better act quickly. That said, the FSG cover of Towers of Trebizond is fun and perhaps matches the book’s tone a bit better even than the NYRB Classics one does.

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