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.”