In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

I’m here to be madChristopher Benfey

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Walks with Robert Walser 
by Carl Seelig, translated by Anne Posten.
New Directions, 127 pp., £11.99, May 2017, 978 0 8112 2139 9
Show More
Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories 
by Robert Walser, translated by Tom Whalen, Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner.
NYRB, 181 pp., £9.99, October 2016, 978 1 68137 016 3
Show More
Show More

Best known​ for his short prose sketches, the idiosyncratic Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) liked to call himself a ‘craftsman novelist’, cobbling together ‘a long, plotless, realistic story’. He insisted that his varied sketches – prose poems, portraits of friends and strangers, detailed accounts of walks through the city or countryside, stray bits of literary or art criticism, oddball fantasies – were actually fragments of a single work, which ‘might be described as a variously sliced up or torn apart book of myself’. After a bumpy and peripatetic career, some of it spent in Berlin, some in Bern, among other places, Walser lived out the last three decades of his life, suffering from depression and schizophrenia, in a mental asylum in the Alpine village of Herisau. Every few months, his fellow Swiss writer Carl Seelig, who became his guardian and literary executor, arrived by train; the two men walked and had meandering conversations, Wanderungen in both terrain and language. Seelig’s memoir is specially welcome in offering a believable portrait of a literary figure who remains – despite the highest praise from W.G. Sebald and Susan Sontag, among other admirers – stubbornly elusive.

It has not always been easy, for Anglophone readers in particular, to place Walser’s strange productions. Kafka, who admired Walser’s newspaper work, is the inevitable comparison. The Viennese novelist Robert Musil, reviewing one of Walser’s later books together with Kafka’s first, dismissed Kafka as ‘a peculiar case of the Walser type’. Presumably he meant there was something playful, antic, not quite serious in these eccentric ‘types’, with their preference for short, fragmentary forms (which can seem to prefigure those used by a writer like Lydia Davis, who has translated some of Walser’s writings on art) over the epic and ‘mature’ monumentality of the novel. With Hannah Arendt’s advocacy, Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares were seen as having predicted the rise of the Third Reich, and later the Absurdist heroes of Camus and Sartre. Walser, drawn to balloon rides and flights of fancy, pretended to no such heft; Thomas Mann referred to him as a ‘clever child’.

When Sontag situated Walser as ‘the missing link between Kleist and Kafka’, however, she was gesturing towards an outlaw tradition running alongside, and frequently in resistance to, the ‘official’ German progression from Goethe and Schiller to Rilke and Mann. Walser told Seelig that Rilke was ‘bedtime reading for old maids’, while Mann’s ‘bourgeois orderliness’ reminded him of ‘someone who has always sat diligently behind his desk with the account books’. Like other writers in this outsider tradition – Kleist, Hölderlin, Trakl – Walser received little recognition in his lifetime, as he struggled with substance abuse as well as mental illness. Until recently, aside from a pioneering selection of stories assembled by the translator Christopher Middleton in 1982, his work has barely been available in English. But now, thanks to a steady accumulation of volumes from New York Review Books, and a gifted group of translators willing to wrestle with the often fiendish difficulties of his strange brew of slang, Swiss dialect, neologisms and whimsy, he is beginning to receive the attention he deserves.

The latest contribution is Tom Whalen’s discerning selection, Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories, many of them previously unavailable in English. Walser’s loopy associative energy, often on display in his talks with Seelig, is in evidence in a lovely sketch titled ‘The Keller Novella’. Walser has been ogling an attractive customer in a café, and picks up an abandoned newspaper to disguise his interest. To his delight, he finds a copy of the 19th-century Swiss writer Gottfried Keller’s most famous novella, ‘A Village Romeo and Juliet’, wrapped in the newspaper, and immediately becomes so engrossed in the story that he completely forgets about the woman. ‘Something like grace surrounded me, rose unforced from the wondrous lines that seemed snugly, mountainously put there.’

And yet, it is not the plot of the doomed young lovers that distracts Walser from his surroundings, but Keller’s interruptions – for example, the way he ‘elaborates in the margins on the misfortunes that are certain to befall human existence as a result of the unjust appropriation of property’. ‘A Keller Novella’ is a tale of interruptions interrupted by more interruptions. As Sebald, in his superb late essay on Walser, noted, ‘the detour is, for Walser, a matter of survival.’

Detours, interruptions and false starts marked Walser’s career as well. As he rehearses the stages of his life on his rambles with Seelig, he notes, ruefully, the points that might have yielded success but didn’t. He was born in the town of Biel, ‘a very very small metropolis’ on the border between the German and French-speaking areas of Switzerland, the son of a struggling bookbinder and a woman who suffered from mental illness. He left school at 14 to work as a bank clerk, the first of many monotonous jobs in a succession of Swiss towns, and made his first attempts at writing. His poems began to appear in 1898, and he soon found a market for his short prose pieces, the form in which he discovered his true voice. His first book, Fritz Kocher’s Essays, a collection of sketches masquerading as a novel, was published by Insel Verlag, with his brother Karl’s illustrations, in 1904.

The following year, Walser moved to Berlin, where he remained until 1913. These years brought him as close as he would ever come to conventional literary success. Karl, the city’s leading theatre designer, lived in fashionable Charlottenburg, staged plays for Max Reinhardt, and was close friends with the artists of the Berlin Secession, for whom Robert briefly, and fecklessly, served as secretary. But he seems to have lacked even the most elementary skills in what he called ‘social instinct’. He ‘boozed prodigiously’, as he confessed to Seelig, played crude jokes, and made obnoxious remarks to writers who might have helped him. ‘Can’t you forget for a bit that you’re famous?’ he asked Hofmannsthal. Editors at such prominent newspapers as the Berliner Tageblatt welcomed his work, in the informal, cultural chit-chat (or feuilleton) mode of the day, but published in book form, it received little attention; his novels, such as Jakob von Gunten, received even less. ‘I should have mixed a little love and sorrow into my books,’ he told Seelig, ‘a little solemnity and approbation – and a little lofty romanticism, as Herman Hesse did.’

Among the most bizarre episodes of Walser’s Berlin years was his brief stint in a training school for servants, followed by six months working as a butler in a castle in Upper Silesia. It is one of the many moments in his life that seem to anticipate Kafka. Walser, according to Seelig, ‘was made to clean the halls, polish silver spoons, beat carpets, and serve in a tailcoat as “Monsieur Robert”’. Details of the school – a kind of nightmare opposite of the academy for gifted future leaders in Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game – morphed into the Benjamenta Institute of Jakob von Gunten, a distinctly downbeat Bildungsroman. ‘One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys … will come to anything,’ the novel begins: ‘that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.’ Walser blamed his own failure as a servant on his ‘Swiss clumsiness’.

Eventually he returned to Switzerland, penniless, where another sibling, his kindly sister Lisa, assumed some responsibility for his wellbeing. He lived in Biel until 1920, and then in Bern, in increasingly miserable conditions, moving from one grim area to another, taking long walks, and struggling to go on writing. One day, he was stunned to receive a letter from his editor at the Tageblatt advising him to stop writing for six months. ‘I had written myself dry,’ Walser conceded. ‘Burned out like an oven.’ In a panic, he tried to force himself to write, with disappointing results. Devastated, he made what he described as ‘a few bumbling attempts’ to kill himself. This time his Swiss clumsiness came to his aid: ‘I was unable even to make a proper noose.’ His sister took him to Waldau, a psychiatric clinic outside Bern, where he agreed to be treated. ‘What choice did I have but to enter?’ In the dark year of 1933, after a reorganisation at Waldau, Walser was committed, against his will, to the clinic at Herisau, where Seelig first visited him in 1936 and encouraged him to resume his interrupted career. ‘I’m not here to write,’ Walser told Seelig firmly. ‘I’m here to be mad.’

It is difficult at this remove to distinguish the ordinary struggles of a painstaking writer from larger psychological or chemical factors. One of Walser’s greatest stories, ‘Kleist in Thun’, is the lightly disguised self-portrait of a conflicted writer wrestling with his demons. ‘It is as if radiant red stupefying waves rise up in his head whenever he sits at his table and tries to write,’ Walser says of Kleist. ‘He curses his craft.’ At some point, the act of writing itself, the physical shaping of letters on the page, became an insurmountable challenge for Walser. This literal writer’s cramp prompted a shift from pen to pencil, and a body of writing that has come to be known as the Bleistiftgebiet, the ‘pencil region’. ‘With the help of the pencil, I was better able to play, to write,’ Walser said. The hundreds of resulting texts, in microscopic and quite beautiful handwriting, were long thought to be either a mysterious code or undecipherable nonsense, a graphic symptom of schizophrenia, until the scholar Jochen Greven recognised that Walser had developed an idiosyncratic shorthand to ease the difficulties of writing.

This crisis seems to shadow Walser’s essay, included in Whalen’s selection, on the Berlin artist Max Liebermann’s An ABC in Pictures, a sequence of dark, Munch-like images. Unlike the usual children’s ABC, in which pictures illustrate things that start with corresponding letters – S for Snake, and so on – Liebermann took the shape of the letter as his inspiration. ‘This is a book without words,’ Walser notes, in which ‘each single picture nuzzles up to a letter, a piece of the ocean to B, a childish laugh to F, crying to U, zest for life to Z, hardship [Mühseligkeit] to K.’ In Liebermann’s K – which Walser mentions last, out of alphabetical order, apparently for emphasis – a haggard woman dressed in black, with a bandaged head, supports herself on the lower angle of the jagged K, like Christ dragging the cross. (Interestingly, in Kipling’s story ‘How the Alphabet Was Made’, from Just So Stories, the letter K, identified as the ‘scratchy, hurty Ka-sound’, where ‘scratchy’ suggests the act of writing on paper, is also conspicuously out of place.)

A related essay is Walser’s poignant ‘Ash, Needle, Pencil and Match’, four linked portraits of ‘very strange, remarkable and sympathetic objects’, which are actually portraits in nothingness. ‘Put your foot in ash, and you hardly feel you’ve stepped on anything.’ As for the ‘little pencil, what makes it so remarkable, as we have every reason to know, is that as it’s sharpened and sharpened, eventually there’s nothing to sharpen anymore, whereupon we throw it away, now that it’s useless through merciless use, and it occurs to no one, even from afar, to offer a word of acknowledgment or thanks for its many services.’ Then there is the match, which ‘scrapes its poor, good, dear little head until it catches fire’, and ‘dies a death by incineration’, ‘smouldering with its eagerness to serve and do its duty’. Sebald believed that Walser, in paying tribute to ‘the writer’s own instruments of torture’, was recording ‘his own martyrdom’. In this regard, ‘Ash, Needle, Pencil and Match’ resembles Elizabeth Bishop’s bittersweet prose-poem ‘12 O’Clock News’, another uncanny tribute to the writer’s crutches: inkwells, erasers, cigarettes.

From such portraits of nothingness Walser developed a worldview. ‘Modestly stepping aside can never be recommended as a continual practice in strong enough terms,’ he wrote. Instead of succumbing to bitterness and resentment, as his own failures mounted, he became, as Sebald called him, a ‘clairvoyant of the small’. ‘As tiny as it is,’ he wrote of the needle, ‘it still seems to know its true value.’ This feeling for the small and modest informed his choice of subject matter. As he wandered through the outdoor market in Berlin, he marvelled at ‘apple peel and nut shells, scraps of meat, bits of paper, half and whole international newspapers, a trouser button, a garter’. ‘Isn’t the average actually what is solidest and best?’ he asked. ‘I have no use for days or weeks of genius, or an extraordinary Lord God.’ Offered the chance to travel abroad by a Berlin newspaper, he countered: ‘Do trees travel?’ Surveying the people around him, he concluded, tolerantly: ‘God is the opposite of Rodin.’

This preference for the small, the servile, the overlooked dictated not just Walser’s subject matter but the form of his writing. When novels proved ‘too expansive’ for his talents, he told Seelig, he ‘withdrew into the snail-shell of short stories and feuilletons’. Such forms were less ‘imperialistic’ than the novel, in which ‘writers terrorise readers with fat, boring books,’ like Thomas Mann’s ‘dry and laboured’ Joseph novels.

As the adjective ‘imperialistic’ implies, a distinctive political point of view followed from such observations. Seelig’s walks with Walser began in 1936 and continued through the war, with occasional mentions of fighter planes seen in the cloudless Swiss skies. ‘Far above us, a dogfight,’ Seelig reports on 2 January 1944. ‘The farmers stop their work and stare at the sky. Robert, on the other hand, turns to the fir trees and flowers.’ Seelig expects Walser to share his horror at the Allies’ ‘disgraceful’ carpet-bombing of German cities during the final months of the war. But Walser, surprisingly, defends the Allies, and suggests that Seelig is judging ‘the situation subjectively, and too sentimentally. Anyone who is threatened the way the British are must turn to the most ruthless realpolitik.’

During a conversation on 9 April 1945, Walser expresses the hope that the defeated Germans will abandon their ‘silly Hitler-worship’ and ‘finally learn not to mess around with geniuses in politics!… Just look at that jovial cigar-smoker Churchill! One can just as easily picture him sitting in a pub as at home in an armchair.’ Churchill, he concludes, has a different kind of genius: ‘Doing the right thing, the rational thing, with energy: therein lies genius, and it is only in this way that Germany – and Europe with it – can avoid falling into the abyss.’

In the essay that serves as the introduction to the Middleton volume, Sontag ventured a comparison from another art form: ‘A Paul Klee in prose – as delicate, as sly, as haunted’. Seelig reports an ‘astounding coincidence’ involving Klee during one of his walks with Walser. Seelig happened to mention that, according to Walser’s brother Karl, Paul Cassirer had once considered a joint publication of Walser’s poems and Christian Morgenstern’s, to be accompanied with illustrations by Klee:

Morgenstern, who at the time was an editor at the Cassirer publishing house, had turned down the suggestion because he found Klee too mannered. Hardly a minute after I had spoken the name ‘Paul Klee’, we pass an empty shop window in Balgach, where an advertising board stands with the words: Paul Klee – carver of wooden candelabra.

Seelig has nothing more to say about this coincidence. But Sebald was particularly struck by it, and wondered whether such patterns in people’s lives might have a larger significance. ‘Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?’ It is a question that might well be applied to Walser’s enigmatic, and enduringly elusive, work as a whole.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.