Reviewed by Rivka Galchen
The magnificently humble. The enormously small. The meaningfully ridiculous. Robert Walser's work often reads like a dazzling answer to the question, How immense can modesty be? If Emily Dickinson made cathedrals of em dashes and capital letters and the angle of winter light, Walser accomplishes the feat with, well, ladies' feet and trousers, and little emotive words like joy, uncapitalized. Walser was born not long before Dickinson died, and was likely ignorant of her poetry, but the two worked out in hoarded words a kindred kind of literature. Both cultivated a precious habit of keeping secrets, surely knowing how loud secrets can be. And both had a touch of the holy and the silly about them. Let's say literature is not your religion, but it once was, and you're the kind of apostate who sits in church pews every day; Walser, then, like Dickinson, is your prophet: reluctant, nearly inaudible, having made efforts to hide in the belly of an old New England house, or a sanatorium.
Robert Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, into a family of modest means and many siblings, none of whom went on to have children of their own. Through his twenties and thirties Walser published numerous shorts and several novels (admired by Kafka!) and even had a biography written about him, but as the market for shorts dwindled, his career began to decline, he moved through a series of smaller and smaller apartments in less and less pleasant cities, his handwriting diminished in size, and, by 1929, when Walser basically stopped publishing, he was already forgotten. He settled himself into one and then another mental institution, spending the last twenty-seven years of his life in an isolation punctuated by reading the newspaper and long lonely walks.
But those early years! Few writers, either in their own lives or in those of their fictional avatars, have ardently applied for and triumphantly failed at quite as many odd jobs. In the beginning of The Tanners, Walser's first novel, a "young, boyish man" introduces himself to a bookshop proprietor:
I want to become a bookseller . . . I yearn to become one . . . I cannot understand why I should still be forced to pine away outside of this fine, lovely occupation. For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I'm a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest . . .
This goes on for quite some time -- already we can discern Walser's knack for grandiose humility -- and our young, boyish man gets the job. A week later, and before the end of the chapter, Simon (we always come late or not at all to the names of Walser characters, as if naming were a kind of fettering) has declared:
I've come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly . . . and forces one to scrunch one's back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own. . . . Do you imagine my young years in such a sorry state that I need to crumple up and suffocate in a lousy bookshop?
Only if Simon had been fired could the joy in his expansively bitter resignation been greater.
A series of other jobs follow, not just in The Tanners but in the whole Walser oeuvre, all of it populated with characters who are unfailingly passionate and unfailingly unfaithful to any particular passion, save, perhaps, that of failure. "How glad I am to be so hemmed in, so confined, so enclosed," says Simon at one point, working in a kitchen. Later he delights in being reprimanded for how poorly he cleans shoes. On his being a servant to a haughty woman, he declares to his brother: "I love scorn of this sort, for it makes me tremble, and I love being filled with shame and fury." To be a Walser character is to be outraged by praise, to be buoyed by humiliation. It's not hard to understand why Kafka admired the guy.
Walser's own picaresque series of jobs included: butler in a castle, inventor's assistant, bank clerk, incidental journalist writing trifles about, for instance, cornflowers. Sure, he also wrote eight novels in an impressively short span of years -- supposedly with no revisions -- but even those were written mostly in pencil, not ink, and the arc of the sections seems in some cases to have been dictated more by the dimensions of the paper available than by the novelist himself. In all of Walser's work, the mood is of the minor. Even the authoritative presence of parents is avoided; the cast is primarily siblings and peers. It's tough to think of another writer who strove so precisely for next to nothing at all, for becoming near nameless, though, given the long view, he failed at that too. But not entirely. Robert Walser may be canonical, hailed by Walter Benjamin, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, et al., but mention him even to writerly types and he may be mistaken first for a modern poet, then maybe for an older political writer.
Stable employment of a kind eventually came to Walser, in the role of Crazy Person. Scholarship suggests he wasn't straightforwardly "crazy" (some doctors encouraged him to try living outside institutional care), but that's another matter. In 1929, Walser was diagnosed with schizophrenia and entered the Waldau sanatorium in Bern, Switzerland. Four years later, his family had him transferred to another sanatorium, closer to their home of Herisau, and he lived out his last twenty-three years there, cared for by the state. It was from that final and steady non-employment that Walser claimed finally to abandon the avocation game altogether, with a line now remarkably famous considering that it comes from the least famous canonical writer: "I'm not here to write. I'm here to be mad."
Whether Walser in fact stopped writing is not quite clear. But we do know that the works of his we have are written on the backs of tear-away calendar pages or on the detached covers of penny dreadfuls and that the writing is in a script so tiny as to be nearly illegible. From the 526 pages of microscripts that were found after Walser's death (which have been published in Germany in six volumes, under the title Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet, or "From the Pencil Zone"), the translator Susan Bernofsky has culled works for the recent New Directions collection, Robert Walser: Microscripts. (Bernofsky is also writing a biography of Walser.) Many of the stories have no titles; some seem to have been abandoned before they were finished; a number of them date from after Walser became a voluntary patient in Waldau, but none are known to date from after the 1933 move to the sanatorium at Herisau.
Visually, these texts call to mind the laboriousness of a Darger scroll, or the crowded word-clouds and asemic writing of Robert Crumb's tragic brother, Charles. Which is to say: They call to mind genuine madness. Walser's companion and literary executor, Carl Seelig, had seen these writings and assumed that the tiny hatch marks crowding up the scraps of paper Walser carried around were a private code, but one signifying nothing. When Seelig was contacted by a man who claimed to have deciphered a microscript (an enlarged mimeograph of one had run in the journal Du as a sort of artwork), Seelig didn't answer the inquiring letter, and it was Seelig who controlled access to Walser's papers.1 Arguably, Seelig was the better Brod, keeping the secrets of a writer who clearly wanted to keep secrets -- why else make your writing unreadable and stop sending things out? -- though Seelig may have overlooked the deeper and perennial secret of secret -- keepers: that they don't want to keep secrets at all. "Such a peculiar vice," Walser writes in Jakob von Gunten, "to be secretly pleased to be allowed to observe that one is being slightly robbed."
As Bernofsky explains in her introduction, Walser had long -- even before the asylum -- been writing in Kurrent, the script widely used in his time. A version of a medieval shorthand, Kurrent, which dramatically reduces the number of strokes used to represent each letter, is particularly vulnerable to (or amenable to) becoming nearly inscrutable when made small. And made small it was, with the letters about one to two millimeters tall; Walser was able to fit, for example, six stories on a postcard received from a newspaper editor. The difficulty of reading Walser's script makes it seem like Walser gave up on the writing game even as he was, in fact, writing. It took the team of decoders, Morlang and Echte (names that sound like either characters in a Lovecraft story or the founders of a German cutlery company), much of the 1980s to decipher the microscripts. Looking at the reprints of the originals (the New Directions collection includes life-size reproductions of the microscripts themselves), with their tidy little marks, one gets the sense of a terminal Bartleby, just barely preferring not to prefer not to.
Let's lie and say there are only two kinds of writers I like, the caffeinated and the sleepy. Balzac exemplifies the caffeinated. He drank coffee to the point of a trembling hand -- something like thirty cups a day -- and then he'd masturbate to the very edge of orgasm, but not over, and that state -- agitated, excited to the point of near madness -- was Balzac's sweet spot, in terms of composing. Then there's the sleepy: De Quincey with his opium, Milton waking up his red-slippered daughters to take down verses that had come to him in a dream. We might also think of the method by which Benjamin Franklin purportedly came up with inventions: he'd deprive himself of sleep, then, exhausted, sit in an uncomfortable chair while holding a heavy metal ball in each hand so that when he'd nod off a hand would go limp and its ball would fall, making a sound that would wake him from his dreams. That was how he came up with his best ideas for inventions, basically asleep -- just not so asleep that he couldn't take down a few notes.
The caffeinated writer and the sleepy writer share the aspiration to be, essentially, not themselves. Which is to say that the creative method is that of vanishing, of disappearing from the drafting table. Robert Walser made of that method -- vanishing by whatever means -- a kind of art all unto itself. And the paradox is that by becoming so small, so quiet, so penciled, Walser became vast, indelible.
Walser's methodology -- not quite sleepy, not quite caffeinated, but analogous -- works not just on the level of handwriting, of course. One Walser legerdemain is that of the insignificant subject matter. So he writes in his 1917 short story "The Walk" about an inconsequential walk, but even just on the stairs heading down, he runs into a Brazilian woman, and in the half sentence devoted to this not-quite-encounter the reader already feels rumors of whole worlds. Similarly, a four-paragraph piece on women's trousers ("I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject"), which includes brief mentions of Turks' turbans, Paris fashions, and women's suffrage ("if only they knew how heartrendingly boring it is to have the vote"), contains swaths of space and time. (The outsized emotion that goes into the petty adventure of both becoming and then not becoming a bookseller works similarly.) Walser's technique in this way resembles a Dutch still life: a small and domestic scene, a woman with a water jug, say, and yet there's always a map, the sea out the window, an instrument that comes from a distant shore -- the small domestic scene encompasses the world.
Walser expands on this Dutch Renaissance trick -- light coming through the window -- in one of the microscripts from 1925, a piece about beer coasters written on the back of an art print and not published in Walser's lifetime. We meet "silly beer-glass mats" that "were filled with radiant joyousness at seeing themselves employed to playful ends." The coasters are nothing but also animate; they're insignificant and yet also ecstatic as servants of the Lord. Later in the short, as if panning out, we meet the children playing with the beer mats and the "overjoyed" dog also present. The text then digresses into a small hostility between a (characteristically) unnamed man and woman. After describing the scene in just a few strokes -- the "she" indifferently hands the "he" a slice of bread -- the narrator interpolates: "I could write you a thirteen hundred page, that is to say a very fat book about this, if I wanted, but at least for the time being I don't want to. Maybe later." Even Walser's impassioned denyings deny themselves the full force of denial.
And instead of any actual 1,300-page tome, Walser provides assurances in the selfsame short that he is at his best -- the best servant to the reader -- when he's not himself at all. After the namelessness of the man in the piece is noted to make the man happy -- to be nameless, a kind of invisible, is always a kind of joy not just for Walser but also in Walser; one thinks of Dickinson's "How dreary -- to be -- Somebody/How Public -- like a Frog" -- the same modesty is attributed to the reader:
I know that you are namelessly grateful to me for these few lines. Oh these slice-of-bread affairs! Godful! I feel as if I could continue this report on into all incredulity . . . What else does the infinite consist of other than the incalculability of little dots? When she was handing him a piece of bread like that, she didn't even look at him but rather continued reading her newspaper undisturbed. She gave it to him utterly mechanically. That's what was so wonderful about it, the part that cannot be surpassed, the way she gave him the bread utterly, utterly mechanically. The mechanicalness of the gesture is what was so beautiful about it. I have also written this prose piece, I must confess, utterly mechanically, and I hope it will please you for this reason. I wish it pleases you so much it will make you tremble, that it will be, for you, in certain respects, a horrific piece of writing. I did not even groom myself properly in order to write it. This alone should suffice to prevent its being anything other than a masterpiece or masterworklet, as we would no doubt rather say with forbearance. We wish to give forbearance the upper hand, and isn't it true that you were glad about the late addition of the piece of bread? I most certainly was. I would presuppose the greatest joyfulness on this score, for this is the most important thing, and you must consider it the best. You must without fail be satisfied with me, do you hear? Without fail. And then that little mat. This reality. This treasure trove of in-fact-having-occurred-nesses. This car drove off, and he and she were sitting in the back. How do you like my "trove" and "drove"? Make a note of these words! They're not my invention. How could such delicate expressions have originated with me? I just snapped them up and am now putting them to good use. Don't you think my "trove" is ben trovato? Please do be so good as to think so. Accept my heartfelt greetings and do not forget the pride of that silly little dog. He was adorable.
The words start to write themselves, trove to trovato, 2 like some automatic-writing experiment gone horribly right. Here language is not a barrier to the perfect expression of self; instead, language is bliss because it is its own thing, determining its own course, running roughshod over the speaker. Language, the mechanical, namelessness: they're what is keeping the boorish, conscious self from sticking its unsavoriness out there. Often Walser sounds not so much like he's creating but rather like he's taking dictation, working as a kind of copy clerk, but for whom? An air of the holy fool pervades. And the final irony is how singular the voice of all this self–effacement is.
One reason for describing Walser's work as akin to parable is that (like much of Kafka) it often feels full of meaning, and it's very tempting to interpret it, but the texts themselves resist interpretation, refuse to yield cleanly. One thinks of the way that Jakob von Gunten has the atmosphere of a classic "mysterium" novel- -- the Instituta Benjamenta seems to the narrator to have a mystery at its core, though in the end there is no such mystery, not in any traditional sense -- and ends with an opaque reference to God, who need not be thought of, because "I don't want to think of anything more now. Not even of God? No! God will be with me. What should I need to think of Him? God goes with thoughtless people."
Watch the way Walser swells the finite space of a little mustard seed of a word -- swine. In 1928, on a slip of paper from a magazine page, he writes:
In my opinion, various possibilities would appear to exist with regard to swinishness, etc. Someone might happen to look like a person who appears to be a swine, and all the while he is at bottom perhaps fairly upstanding.... Whether these women are refined or rather the most utterly dainty and delicate swine appears to me a question scarcely requiring response.... If morality itself can, as it were, be a bit swinish, no one will wish to undertake to deny that it is a useful, that is, a culture-promoting swine.
As he repeats and varies the word -- swine, swinishness, and other forms appear thirteen times in the seventeen-sentence piece (another translating feat) -- the word's familiar meaning starts to vanish in a very particular and peculiar way: it vanishes by expanding out to all meanings. The final line -- "No one can claim that he is not a swine" -- then takes on the punch of a moral finish, while being intensely ambiguous, even nonsensical.
Walser does this trick not only with the word swine but also, elsewhere, with the words love, beautiful, happy. Taken in the context of his whole body of work -- delights abound! -- these blandly cheery notes hold on to their cheeriness while also assuming a double life as a Candyman mantra-like chant. With enough repetition, they embody that wonderful German word unheimlich, which translates as "uncanny" but also literally as "unhomelike," the familiar made unfamiliar, famously articulated by Freud. That's what Walser does to our "wonderful" world; he lets in the dark. The banal-word repetition technique then lends an unsettling mood to even this innocuous passage in "Swine": "Instances of delightfulness are always intrinsically beautiful, so to speak, and yet under the right circumstances they may be swinish as well, for what is humanly beautiful might, as it were, be too beautiful for human beings, for which reason people are glad to place it in proximity to pigpens, as one is no doubt justified in saying." Beautiful at first sounds like something knowable -- girls are beautiful, and little feet, and sunsets -- but it's actually too overwhelming, and therefore it has to be contained. One can't help but think of that old parable: pearls before swine. Or of Kafka's aphoristic comment about there being hope, just not for us.
W. G. Sebald described Walser's style as "a pretense at awkwardness brought off with the utmost virtuosity," and Walter Benjamin made the confusing but resonant claim that Walser is without style. Walser, though, we must remember, is someone who writes: "To contemplate a little foot for four years on end. What a great achievement!" To ask whether he really means such effusiveness might be as misleading as asking whether or not it really was brillig out, whether the borogoves really were all mimsy.
Walser's exuberance -- coffee! sunlight! -- also calls to mind Adorno's observation on the profusion of exclamation points in German Expressionism: Adorno says of the punctuation marks that they started to resemble the multiple zeros on the banknotes printed during Weimar hyperinflation. Walser somehow recovers the value of exclamation points by using them in a way that seems as laden with dread as with joy, with terror of feeling as much as with longing for it; the exclamatory gesture becomes part of a mechanical emotion, rather than a demand to be acknowledged as a person of great feeling. In fact, that great emoting self is curiously missing from Walser's work; even as the prose seems to advance along a stream of consciousness, those sentences chart not so much the unknown continent of the within but the ebb and flow of the seas around it. It's as if we're meeting a broken prophet, recounting all the revelations that might have occurred but didn't, the message he longed to hear but never did.
And maybe the message that can barely be deciphered is as close as we can get to the most powerful message of all, which is the one we wait for that never arrives. Consider this passage from a letter Walser wrote to his sister in 1898:
As for me, I'm valiantly studying French, go to work each morning, come home insane in the evening, expect letters, don't write any myself but still expect, every evening, at the very least three letters. They should be lying there when I open the door, white, dazzlingly white, with the dear stamps upon them, the sweet postmarks and all the rest. And when there aren't any, I get perfectly stupid and can't work, and then I say to myself quite sensibly: you never write any letters, but you expect them! You blockhead!
It isn't precisely that I expect letters, but now I'm always expecting something as dear, as tender as a letter. Every evening there ought to be some uplifting little surprise for me, just like a letter.
But one can live quite well without excitements, can't one, only one ought to be endowed with a bit less poesie and the like, should one not, should one not? What a babbler I am, am I not, am I not?
Walser, in describing what he longs for from the world, describes so precisely what it is he has given. Something dear, something tender, and with a surprise. Something it's hard to live without, if one has inside of oneself a bit too much of the poesie. Or as he says in the same letter to his sister: "Your first letter sounds a little mel-an-cho-ly. Well, what's got into you? If I were a stupid fellow, I'd say: ha, I don't understand that, but if I were really very stupid, I'd join you in your moonlight-pale lament."
1 When Seelig died in 1962, the estate was turned over to the same law firm that handled Kafka's work.
2 Here's an example of how nuanced and delicate Bernofsky's translation is. The original features an essentially untranslatable play on the German words "fond" -- -meaning both the background of a painting and the back seat of a vehicle -- and "fund" -- which means a "find," as in "lucky find!" Bernofsky held on to the playfulness with a rhyming of drove and trove and used the jaunty Italian expression "ben trovato" to complete the internal logic of the passage.
Rivka Galchen is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of Atmospheric Disturbances, a novel. Her story "Once an Empire" appeared in the February issue.
Books mentioned in this post