Everyone knows the best conversations come on long walks, where speech naturally matches pace, and where silences are almost always comfortable. Walking was thus the ideal way for Seelig to draw out the reticent and mistrustful Walser. —Dorian Stuber
Walks with Robert Walser
Translated by Anne Posten
New Directions, 2017
$15.95; 127 pages
For years readers seemed regularly to be rediscovering the work of the idiosyncratic Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser (1878—1956). To be sure, Walser had always had his partisans—readers who delighted in the syntactical and tonal shifts of his quicksilver and devious prose. Already in 1929, for example, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin made Walser the subject of a perceptive and still influential essay. More recently, W. G. Sebald included a lyrical meditation on Walser in his collection of linked essays, A Place in the Country. Yet Walser remained relatively unknown. Even though the great Austrian writer Robert Musil once described Kafka as “a special writer of the Walser type,” Kafka not Walser became a literary and cultural adjective.
In the last decade, however, Walser has become a fixture, not least in the English-speaking cultural world. (This is a turn Walser himself, who never travelled further than Germany in his whole life, and who wondered, “Why should writers travel, as long as they have imagination?” could surely never have anticipated.) Yet I don’t think it’s right to say Walser is now canonical. Something more interesting has happened to him. He inspires creative homage rather than dutiful respect. His most ardent admirers aren’t academics but rather contemporary filmmakers, visual artists, and of course writers. This resurgence has been made possible by the dedication of translators like Damion Searls, Tom Whalen, and above all, Susan Bernofsky, who have made more of Walser’s work available in English than ever before.
But perhaps nothing demonstrates Walser’s unlikely ascent more than this edition of Carl Seelig’s Walks with Robert Walser, first published in 1957 and now translated into English by Anne Posten. English-speaking audiences are getting not just Walser’s own books but also books about him. And this book is definitely worth it. To use a word much favoured by Walser himself, it’s delightful. In it, Seelig resurrects the nearly forgotten Walser and lovingly shows him in all his contradictory but mostly charming moods.
Born into a wealthy family, Seelig was a writer, editor, publisher, and patron to writers across the German-speaking world. His correspondents included Joseph Roth and Kafka’s close friend Max Brod. In 1949 he helped Albert Einstein compile a best-selling autobiographical volume.
Undoubtedly, however, his greatest legacy is his friendship with Walser. Seelig, who became Walser’s literary executor, orchestrated the first Walser rediscovery: the current revival wouldn’t have been possible without Seelig’s attention to the man and his work.
Seelig first corresponded with Walser in 1922. But they didn’t meet until 1936. In the intervening years, Walser had been admitted to the psychiatric clinic Waldau near Bern and then transferred to a sanatorium in the Appenzell. He had written nothing since entering Waldau. Seelig, who “felt the need to do something for his work and for him personally,” arranged with the head doctor to be able to go for a walk with Walser.
Over the next twenty years, until the writer’s death on Christmas Day in 1956, Seelig and Walser met several times a year to go for extensive day-long rambles across eastern Switzerland. Walks with Robert Walser records their itineraries, their conversations and, indelibly, their meals. Walking in Switzerland, then as now, is a civilized affair: even on the remotest mountaintop a refreshing inn or a café awaits.
Walser had always been a passionate walker, as he described in his brilliant autobiographical novella The Walk (1913). In the 1920s, as his mental health frayed and his writing began to dry up, Walser ever more desperately sought solace in walking. He once made it from Bern to Geneva in a single night without stopping, and, another time, again in the middle of the night, from Bern to the top of a mountain in the Bernese Oberland, where, as he later told Seelig, he “blithely devoured a piece of bread and a can of sardines.”
Walking was thus the ideal way for Seelig to draw out the reticent and mistrustful Walser. Everyone knows the best conversations come on long walks, where speech naturally matches pace, and where silences are almost always comfortable. In his description of their first walk, Seelig called silence “the narrow path on which we approach[ed] each other.”
Seelig seems to have been a true mensch: gentle, kindly, and unassuming. We never see him make demands of Walser or expect anything in return for his interest other than the pleasure of the older man’s company. Seelig’s literary talents seem to have been fairly modest, but in Walks with Robert Walser he wisely sticks to a straightforward style and, as his title suggests, focuses his attention firmly on his companion rather than himself.
For the most part Seelig lets Walser be himself, though he can’t help but occasionally prod the older man to resume writing, suggesting for example that the asylum would surely make great material for a novel. (Walser dryly responds, “I should hardly think so.”) Later he asks again: if it could be arranged for Walser to leave the asylum, would he start writing again? Walser is categorically and characteristically evasive: “There is only one thing to do with this question: not answer it.”
Over and over, Walser declares himself satisfied with his life: “In the asylum I have the quiet I need… It suits me now to disappear, and inconspicuously as possible.” He rejects Seelig’s proposal to arrange for Walser to have a room to himself: “ I wish to live with the people and to disappear with them. That is the proper thing for me.” He takes seriously the work asked of him in the asylum—sorting lentils and gluing together paper bags, among other menial tasks—and becomes grumpy when it is interrupted by anything other than the chance to go walking. He seems reasonable, interested in the world, eminently sane.
Yet he is also withdrawn, sometimes moody, unresponsive to the news of the deaths of his brother Karl and sister Lisa, the siblings he was closest to. He vividly describes the tribulations that led him to be institutionalized: “During my last years in Bern I was plagued by wild dreams—thunder, shouting, a choking in my throat, hallucinatory voices—so that I often woke screaming.” And when Seelig asserts Walser’s literary importance, the writer becomes so agitated—“Quiet, quiet! How can you say something like that! Do you really think I believe your society lies?”—that Seelig has quite a job of it to soothe him.
Seelig has more success getting Walser to talk about what he has written than anything he might write in the future. Walser proves a shrewd, though sometimes harsh reader of his own work: “That is the error of my novels. They are too whimsical and too reflexive, their composition often sloppy.” He describes his writing process, explaining he couldn’t write to commissions: “Everything must simply grow out of me without being forced.” He speaks admiringly of writers, like Dickens and Gottfried Keller, about whom “one is never quite sure whether to laugh or cry.” When Seelig rightly suggests Walser is such a writer himself, Walser begs him not to make such comparisons: “Don’t even whisper it. It makes me want to crawl into a whole, being named in such company.”
Yet Seelig is right, both about sudden shifts in register that characterize Walser’s prose and its general brilliance. Although he also wrote four novels, Walser is best known for the hundreds of miniatures he wrote for European newspapers in the decade before and after WWI. In these small prose pieces, Walser—who once called himself “a clairvoyant of the small”—considered in sometimes rhapsodic and sometimes arch prose encounters with ordinary things: one of his most beautiful pieces is called “Ash, Needle, Pencil, and Match.” He also drew liberally on his own experiences: working as a bank teller, enjoying a balloon ride with his publisher, studying at a school for would-be servants.
Example of Robert Walser’s Microscript
For this reason, to write about Walser’s writing is invariably to write about his life, even though it was by his own account singularly modest and largely undramatic. His prose, almost always told by a first person narrator who like Walser is bemused and surprised by the world’s richness, is at once autobiographical and not, neither fiction nor non-fiction. He offered a fine description of the strengths of his own work when he told Seelig:
I am immediately wary of writers who excel at plot and claim practically the whole world for their characters. Everyday things are beautiful and rich enough that we can coax poetic sparks from them.
With their vivid first-person narration, wealth of observation and reflection, and total disregard for the trappings of conventional plot or character, Walser’s texts anticipate those of contemporary writers like Lydia Davis, Teju Cole, and Ben Lerner.
But in traipsing with Walser through the Swiss landscape, Seelig reminds us that Walser is a small giant of world literature only because he is grounded in such a particular place. For me, Walser exemplifies a particularly Swiss impishness, the kind I encountered regularly in my Swiss relatives, most of whom came from the villages near Biel, the little city where Walser was born and where he spent many of his most productive years. These relatives loved to tease, to take the piss out of everyone and everything, even while they espoused a conventional morality that often descended into sententiousness. Walser’s genius is to ironize these conventional sentiments, so that readers never quite know to take what seem like ingenuous, almost artless exclamations of delight, especially since they reverse so quickly into sharp criticisms of all manner of conventional pieties, from bestsellers to car culture to banking regulations.
Yet although the ideal reader of Walks with Robert Walser will already know and love Walser’s work—anyone who doesn’t will without doubt want immediately to seek it out—and will therefore be intrigued by Walser’s assessment of that work, the real attraction here is Walser himself. By the time Seelig knew him, Walser had largely withdrawn from the world, in his younger days he had cut quite a figure in artistic and even high society. From 1905 Walser joined his brother Karl, an artist who found fame as the set designer for the theater director and impresario Max Reinhardt, in Berlin, where he spent most of the next eight years. The Walser brothers were famous for eating everything at the parties they were invited to or crashed. Their refusal to follow rules of genteel decorum extended to the literary world. Walser impressed the playwright Frank Wedekind with a canary yellow checked suit and mocked Hugo von Hoffmansthal, whom he is said to have asked whether he ever got tired of being famous.
We get glimpses of that impish young man from the provinces in Seelig’s portrayal of the much older mental patient. We watch Walser devour eight tartlets in a single sitting. We observe his horror of overcoats (even with 20 cm of snow on the ground he refuses to wear one) and his love of umbrellas (“under an umbrella one can feel quite at home”). We see him steering clear of barking farmyard dogs, adding “Have you noticed that dogs nowadays are much quieter than they used to be, as if electricity, the telephone, the radio and such robbed them of speech?” And we see him warm up to the patient and kind Seelig, revealing the excitable boy inside. At the end of their outing on April 15, 1938, Walser “shakes my hand several times, runs after my train, and waves until it disappears around the corner.”
Above all he eats. Despite the privations of the war years (on a walk in January 1943 Walser is “amazed” that he and Seelig “need ration cards for a portion of cheese”), food seems plentiful, and he and Seelig eat and drink with gusto. A typical passage reads: “Lunch at Schäfli in Trogen. We both have a huge appetite and clean every plate: the oatmeal soup, the bratwursts, the mashed potatoes, the beans, and the pear compote.” They’ll have a few drinks, smoke a cheroot or a cigar, and then walk ten more miles. None of the food and drink is particularly fancy, but it’s devoured with the gusto and glow of wellbeing of those who have been out in the fresh air no matter the weather.
Earlier I named some of the excellent translators who have tackled Walser’s difficult works in recent years. All of them follow in the footsteps of the great Christopher Middleton, the poet and scholar who was the first to translate Walser into any language. In an entry dated Good Friday, 1955, Seelig tells Walser that Middleton has translated two of his texts “with admirable subtlety,” Walser answers “with a curt ‘Really!’”(In the original, Walser says “So, so!”, a response that acknowledges the interlocutor without committing to agreeing with what he’s said; it’s the very phrase my uncle would use all the time when our conversations reached an impasse and, in its passive aggression, quintessentially Swiss.).
Anne Posten—admittedly translating Seelig’s Walser rather than Walser himself—is not quite up to the high standards of English language Walser translations. Her work is more dutiful than excellent. She struggles in particular with Walser’s Swiss idioms. Some of these are impossible to translate (Znüni, literally “a little something at nine o’clock,” is a second breakfast: calling it a “morning snack” is reasonable; I don’t know anything that can capture the full sense of this lip-smacking diminutive except maybe Paddington Bear’s “elevenses,” though that is too twee even for the Swiss). Others are easier to translate, but Posten misses the mark. A Grind is a head, even, depending on context, a mug; Posten’s “noggin” sounds impossibly quaint. And the Postauto is a bus, not a mail van.
Writing this review I came across a reference to a translation of Seelig’s book in progress by a Bob Skinner. I don’t know anything about Skinner or the fate of his translation. Presumably it’s been nipped in the bud by this one. (None of the links I’ve found online to the text of his draft work anymore.) That’s too bad, because the excerpts I’ve seen are terrific, more lively and vivid than Posten’s.
Take this excerpt from the entry for February 5, 1950. Here is Skinner:
In a confectioner’s Robert rolls a shapeless cigarette which starts a little fire when it’s lit. A couple nearby snickers; they think he’s a hick. He says that in the sanitarium he’s now sorting and untying string for the Post Office. This work is all right with him; he’ll take what comes.
And here is Posten:
In a pastry shop Robert rolls a misshapen cigarette. Since it isn’t well tamped, it flares a bit when lit. The couple next to us begins to giggle; they apparently take Robert for an unworldly farmer. He tells me that now he sorts and unravels twine for the post office. But he is content with the work. He simply takes what comes.
Seelig’s original reads:
In einer Konditorei rollt sich Robert eine unförmige Zigaretten. Da sie nicht gut gestopft ist, gibt as beim Anzünden ein kleines feuer. Ein benachbartes Paar beginnt zu kichern; es halt Robert offenbar für einen weltfremden Bauern. Er erzählt mir, dass er jetzt in der Anstalt Schnüre für die Post sortiere und aufknüpfte. Aber ihm sei diese Arbeit auch recht. Er nehme eben, was komme.
Posten’s version is more faithful to the original than Skinner’s. She keeps the explanation of the poor tamping, which Skinner cuts out, and “an unworldly farmer” translates “einen weltfremden Bauern” literally. But the passage is better with the elision, and “hick” is punchy and effective. When it comes to the string, “untying” is a better translation than the portentous “unraveling.” And saying the work is “all right with him” reads better than “he is content with the work.” Skinner makes Seelig come alive. In fact, he seems to be a better writer than Seelig is himself.
But if Posten’s translation sometimes disappoints, this sensation is quickly overcome by gratitude to her and the publisher for bringing the book into English. We’re lucky to have it.
Walks with Robert Walser is a joyous and affirming book. Readers will be left feeling as Walser does when, at the end of one of their excursions, exclaiming over the beauty of the day, he tells Seelig, “Are we not returning richer than we left?”
Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.
Now I know what I’ll be reading next!