Perfect and Serene Oddity

Michael Hofmann

  • Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-32 by Robert Walser, edited and translated by Christopher Middleton
    Nebraska, 128 pp, £9.99, November 2005, ISBN 0 8032 9833 1

So irregular, appealing and – if one may say – so pitiable a figure is the Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) that he comfortably resists summary description. Even his biographer, Robert Mächler, begins by warning himself, via a feisty sentence of his subject’s: ‘No one is entitled to behave towards me as if they knew me.’

It’s not that writing about Walser can’t be done, it can be done endlessly and beautifully, but it seems unlikely to achieve anything much, although he offers so much scope for true statement, insight and original expression. You write your piece, make your comparisons, press your claims, and at the end of it all you look up and see Walser, looking not much like your likeness of him, only slightly battered for having been the object of your attentions. It’s like nailing the proverbial jelly to the wall. Susan Sontag talks about him slipping through the net of comparisons. It’s perhaps not beside the point to recall that when a very young man, Walser wanted to be an actor, and while that ambition may have been squelched in the course of a typically humiliating encounter with an established actor who merely motioned towards the door, there remains something protean about him, even as a writer.

Walser inspires critics and admirers – and really he no longer has any of the former, only the latter – to feats of brilliant emulation, so that they outdo themselves, each other, and their subject. As a result, he can strike one not as a writer for readers, or even for other writers, so much as one for commentators. Thus, to Sontag (one cannot easily imagine a more contrary personality or temperament), he is ‘a Paul Klee in prose as delicate, as sly, as haunted. A cross between Stevie Smith and Beckett: a good-humoured, sweet Beckett.’ Christopher Middleton writes: ‘Well before the 1920s, the text for Walser is a non-thing, as much so as a Cubist guitar or Magritte’s apple (“Ceci n’est pas une pomme”).’[*] Other comparisons include the composer Satie, the painter Rousseau, the inevitable Kafka, and a further trinity of mad writers, Hölderlin, Nerval and Christopher Smart. The more genial and indeed congenial William Gass describes Walser more modestly: ‘He was a kind of columnist before the time of columns.’ And a further, more modest name is offered: ‘The signature “Harmless Crank”,’ Gass suggests, ‘could be appended to quite a few without discordance or much malice.’ So we have Walser variously as yea or nay-saying (does a ‘sweet Beckett’ say yes or no?), as priestly whiff of incense and as humdrum green ink, as artsy and crafty, as writer and eraser, eccentric and universal, recessive and bold. None of these is discounted by me; all, I think, are true. Just as true is another pair of opposed statements. Middleton again: ‘As author and individual, Walser articulates a large and general cast of mind, such as strictly “personal” writings seldom do.’ And Gass again: ‘If Walser is a descriptive writer, and he is surely that, what he is describing, always, is a state of mind … and mostly the same mind, it would seem.’ And to sum up the admirable summaries? That honour should go to Christopher Middleton, Walser’s first translator – rare that that accolade should belong to someone working in the English language – and his champion for nearly fifty years, for whom his author remains ‘a wild particle’ whom one reads ‘for his blithe difference from colleagues in any age or any condition – for his perfect and serene oddity’.

Start over. This is the essayist Franz Blei’s recollection of his first meeting with Walser, in 1898:

A few days later, he stood in my room and said I am Walser. A tall rather lanky fellow with ruddy, bony features, under a thick blond thatch that fought off the comb, dreamy blue-grey eyes and beautifully formed large hands protruding from the sleeves of a jacket too small for him; they seemed not to know what to do with themselves, and wished they could have crept into the trouser-pockets so as not to be there. This was Walser, half journeyman apprentice, half page-boy, all poet. He had brought along what I’d asked to see. And he pulled out a lined school jotter bound in black linen: there were the poems. They were all he had. They were thirty-odd in number. They filled the thin notebook with their beautiful, crisp handwriting, which ran smoothly and evenly, without anything unruly or fancy. It was rare for a single word to be crossed out and replaced in what was nonetheless a first draft … This young person gave every impression of having heard there was such a thing as poetry from hearsay or report, that he had invented the music and the instrument on which it was played at the same time, so wholly unformed by reading or literary taste were these poems.

Walser was 20. The passage takes its place next to other celebrated early sightings, say, of Lowry by Conrad Aiken, of Kerouac by Ginsberg, of Whitman by Whitman. Blei captures what later observers would see too – what good readers of Walser could even intuit for themselves – the strange mixture of ungainliness and delicacy, the rough, oxygenated outdoorsiness and the sheepish punctilio, the strong growth and the dreaminess, the evidence of health and the suspicion of pain, the high colour and its confining translation into symbols on paper, the spiritual agency (speaking in the hands and the eyes) in an improbable and uncouth physical setting that is not, however, despised (any more than it is in Whitman). It shows Walser’s self-aware, occasionally prickly poverty, his rough desire to please in the context of his independence, his extreme civilisation paired with his extreme wildness. All his life, it seems, he had a relish for the human animal, writing with notable, undissembled pleasure of walking, swimming, eating, but also a difficult flair for courtesies. Manners as difficulty, as confusion, as bristling or bridling defence, never as pleasantry or lubricant. (Walser wrote his own account of the meeting in a defiantly cringing, tormentedly grateful piece with the speaking title, ‘Doktor Franz Blei’. The squid in its cloud of ink encounters Cousteau.) It might be a scene reasonably early on in Kaspar Hauser.

The ‘page-boy’ too, no figure of speech or mistranslation; it is a recurring figure both in Walser’s life and his writing, the desire to be in service. At a later meeting in Munich, with a group of writers and publishers – notionally his equals and coevals in a joint venture, called Die Insel, ‘the island’ – Walser promptly offered his services, Friday-like, to one of the young men, as it were Blei’s successor. There is a scene in Walser’s first novel, Geschwister Tanner (1907), where Simon goes to work for a woman who practically indentures him on the street, while the whole of his third, Jakob von Gunten (1909), is set in an academy for – observe the self-contradiction – aspiring servants, like the one Walser himself attended in 1905. It is an expression of a whimsical but agonising social and erotic desire, a relieving if also embarrassing admission of (then easily ironised) inferiority in a black and white world without gradations, but offering instead a ‘place’. (See the stories ‘Tobold II’ or ‘Simon: A Love Story’ in Masquerade, a collection translated by Susan Bernofsky.) The man who feels such a thing is clearly all at sea, someone with an endless craving for protection, disguise or alibi, a uniform. (He enjoyed his time in the Swiss military.) He would like to give himself away, but doesn’t know how. It hardly needed Blei to note later: ‘but it turned out he could neither polish silver, nor iron a top hat.’

Twenty years later, 1919, another meeting, this time on Walser’s own then-terrain, the Blue Cross Hotel in (his birthplace) Biel, Switzerland, where he lodged for the best part of seven years in a garret. The man meeting him on this occasion, Emil Schibli, a Swiss writer, had come to express his admiration. Initial difficulty in establishing Walser’s identity. He is somewhere among a group of working men taking their evening meal of coffee and potatoes (I think of the daunting ugliness captured in Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters) – only which one is he? All look much of a muchness. Schibli makes inquiries of the waitress, duly intercepts Walser on his way out, explains his errand, would he care to walk with him a while? Walser, not overjoyed, a little suspicious, agrees. They walk beside the lake in gathering darkness. Walser, thawing a little, begins to talk. Schibli realises his last train home has left: what would Walser say to walking back with him in the night, it’s two hours on foot? Walser promptly agrees:

The writer then stayed as our guest for a couple of days. Should I say something of his appearance? Well, he doesn’t look the way a reader of his books would imagine him, or a painter paint him. All his books have something light, delicate, burbling, cheerful, elaborate, perhaps on occasion over-elaborate. The writer by contrast is heavy, taciturn, roughly built, a labourer, mechanic or engineer, it seems to me. At any rate he strikes me as being a thoroughly healthy man. His books are curious, eccentric, original, really bizarrely personal; the author is unremarkable, stolid, wholly unexceptional. Only his eyes are striking.

The page-boy and the poet are effaced, but the longed for anonymity is perfected. Only the eyes are left as a suggestion of an inner incongruity, a deep failure to match up or shape up. The behaviour, already stiff in the early encounter with Blei, where one has a sense of someone negotiating a new presence and unfamiliar situation largely by sense of smell, is now even stranger: a traumatised hurtle of sympathy and trust from a man now almost beyond human contacts, frozen into habitual silence and self-communion, in which the burly frame and its delicate productions stare at one another aghast, in mutual suspicion and irony. Imagine Kafka as fat! Two rival identities, counter-identities, pretenders or pretendants. The difficulty of housing within oneself something so alien, or, conversely, of finding the human envelope so malapropos. Imagine Mishima in spreading middle age, or consider Franz Werfel’s poem ‘Fat Man in the Mirror’, in the translation by Robert Lowell: ‘O, it is not I.’ But Walser’s situation is worse: it is not one part of himself betraying or disappointing another, they are each at it. The centaur is neither a good human nor a good horse. Almost the most heart-breaking detail in the accounts of him are the regular comments on his rude good health and his ultimately cordial if obstructed nature.

Another meeting, ten years on, in 1928, in the wake of a failed attempt to arrange a reading for Walser in the Swiss town of Thun. The recording visitor on this occasion is one Adolf Schaer-Ris, the setting the last of Walser’s numerous short-term lodgings in Bern:

The badly dressed, gaunt figure that timidly appeared at the crack in the door, looking as if inclined to shut and bolt it immediately, has never left me in its moving helplessness. Nothing at all, nothing but the staring, soul-filled gleaming eyes betrayed the presence of this uncommon man. But for those eyes, one might have taken him for a common labourer. The voice sounded shaky, though perfectly friendly, warm and well-disposed. It proved impossible to get a proper conversation started. I had the feeling I was assisting at a human tragedy, and the name Hölderlin sounded in my head.

Hölderlin who spent 37 of his 73 years, half a lifetime, in the words of his most celebrated short poem, in a state of what in German is called Umnachtung, ‘benightedness’ – in the sense of having the balance of his mind impaired. The following year, hearing voices, Walser is hospitalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia. He is – and later becomes – institutionalised. Opinions differ as to the reality and gravity of his condition. He continues to write and publish for a time, but later ceases – it appears almost consciously in order to conform to the expectations and conditions of madness. He dies on Christmas Day 1956, from a heart attack while out walking.

The prevalent movement in Walser’s writing – whether in sentence, paragraph, story or entire career – is towards defeat. I don’t quite like either of Sontag’s terms, ‘musicality and free fall’ – ‘musicality’ because it’s a vague and rather tyrannical way of saying ‘I like this, even if you don’t get it,’ and ‘free fall’ because it’s untrue: in Walser you get fall of a most encumbered and incident-filled kind – but they suggest the general area. The notion of defeat says nothing about the gallantry, the frolicsomeness, the imaginativeness or the sheer assiduousness of Walser’s writing, which remains the reader’s overriding impression, but I don’t think one can escape it. It remains a losing battle, and Walser’s great qualities are displayed in an ironic, a rearguard or, most precisely, a Pyrrhic way, not least because he mistrusts an aesthetic of victory. Defeat is everywhere in him. Whether it’s in his resignation from the Swiss writers’ union in 1924, ‘Esteemed sir. After calmly considering the matter, I hereby announce my resignation from your union, signed Most Respectfully Robert Walser,’ or the beginnings and titles of pieces – ‘During this performance several people walked out’ (‘An Essay on Lion-Taming’); ‘His birth was brilliant. If I’m not mistaken he was the outcome of an illicit relationship’ (‘Hercules’); ‘And now he was playing, alas, the piano’ (these instances all from Speaking to the Rose) – there is a Buster Keaton-like, indomitably sad cheerfulness.

Puncturedness and swollenness appear indivisible, indistinguishable: it’s impossible to say which condition brings on the other. The author is blowing into a wounded balloon. And it’s no different in the early stories, in the other English collections. ‘The Boat’ begins with a sinking feeling: ‘I think I’ve written this scene before, but I’ll write it once again.’ ‘Poets’ begins, ‘To the question: how do authors of sketches, stories and novels get along in life, the following answer can or must be given: they are stragglers and they are down at heel,’ and ends on the same note of ghastly jollity: ‘Every true poet likes dust, for it is in the dust, and in the most enchanting oblivion, that, as we all know, precisely the greatest poets like to lie, the classics, that is, whose fate is like that of old bottles of wine, which, to be sure, are drawn, only on particularly suitable occasions, out from under the dust and so exalted to a place of honour.’ Here, incidentally, in that overqualified and hedged about last sentence, put together from provocative falsehoods (‘enchanting oblivion’, ‘like to lie’) and patnesses (‘like old bottles of wine’, ‘exalted to a place of honour’), is an instance of that blending of motivelessness and deliberateness, of control and abdication, that Walter Benjamin appreciated in Walser; he seems, by turns and putting it very bluntly, too stupid to be cynical and too cynical to be stupid. A sort of repro aesthetic (‘Walser paints a postcard world,’ Gass says) seems as likely to serve a straightforwardly lyrical end as parody or persiflage: ‘Rarely have my eyes, ever eager to soak up beauty, seen a more delightfully and daintily situated little town than the one in which a quiet dreamer once requested, in an open, sun-splashed square, that a young intellectual with designs on becoming an authoress be so good as to inform him whether he might entertain hopes with regard to her excellent person’ (‘A Small Town’). One doesn’t know whether to prescribe Don Quixote as an ideal reader for this sort of sweet Dulcinea tosh, or declare the adjective off limits to the author. Certainly, he doesn’t scruple to use them, either in a Roget-rrhoeal stream (‘now there passed over the lake an exceptionally windy wind. It was a regular whirlwind racing over the clear, blue, beautiful, jubilant, bouncing, amiable, good water’) or with a bizarre, almost surreal pointedness.

In structural terms, the effects are similar. The story ‘Kleist in Thun’, a manifest remake of Georg Büchner’s grievous masterpiece ‘Lenz’, has a most peculiar coda. First Kleist, his work, his depression, the beauty of the Swiss landscape, and then he leaves the story in a stagecoach as his sister comes to rescue him. The story, though, continues for another half-page. ‘Last of all,’ Walser writes – though it’s far from being the last thing – ‘one can permit oneself the observation that on the front of the villa where Kleist lived there hangs a marble plaque which indicates who lived and worked there.’ There already is the moustache on the Mona Lisa, but Walser isn’t finished: ‘Thun stands at the entrance to the Bernese Oberland and is visited every year by thousands of foreigners. I know the region a little perhaps, because I worked as a clerk in a brewery there. The region is considerably more beautiful than I have been able to describe here, the lake is twice as blue, the sky three times as beautiful.’ And then, with quite superb bathos: ‘Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years ago.’ This strange blandness, these final chords on loo paper and comb are absolutely characteristic of Walser. He refuses to take himself seriously, he insists, if you like, on disappointing, and in the course of the disappointment (a plaque on the wall, a clerk in a brewery, a trade fair), slipping himself into his story. Increasingly – though it is hard with a huge production like Walser’s, of many hundreds of pieces, of which I’ve read perhaps a quarter, to identify a trend – parody, upset, call it what you will, works back to the beginning and the whole conception of a story. Walser read and recycled romantic pulp, with a mixture, one may imagine, of wickedness and actual yearning. Dismayed perhaps by the difficulty of his life, and the persistent objections not of editors, who tended to be more enlightened and to appreciate him more, but of readers, who would write to the editors to protest, he seems to say, ‘you like popular, you want popular, all right, I’ll give you popular,’ the results being among his most hilariously disturbing. The following instance comes from a one-page story from 1925 called ‘Je t’adore’:

Chocolata sat, swathed in the smartest brown, which itself spoke the most distinguished of tongues, in the automobile; Fragmentino, a gallant just like in books but otherwise imbued with quite practical views on life, stood, with his hat respectfully removed, beside the vehicle which was all set to set off and proudly glittered and glanced in all directions. The chauffeur awaited Chocolata’s slight signal, but she seemed in no hurry to give it. Fragmentino’s way of standing there had something shopclerkish about it. His suit was treacherously redolent of the speed of its purchase in the ready-to-wear shop. What an unrelenting style I’m writing here!

There is something twice-processed about this writing; it is a petit four, a romantic biscuit. The writer praises himself for his mastery of a ‘low’ idiom, for his ‘unrelenting style’. ‘Just like in books’ is high, ironic praise. As often with Walser, one thinks again of Quixote.

It is said that the short piece remained Walser’s basic unit of production, the disquisition, the article, the scene, even in his novels: what the metal-merchants and engineers of contemporary fiction call ‘riffs’. In themselves, therefore, the novels are also Pyrrhic. They crumble. Characters make long speeches in which they say what they think of each other or themselves, or they write long and improbable letters, or (in Jakob von Gunten) compose a curriculum vitae. Geschwister Tanner is supposed to consist of 20 chapters, each of ten pages: the novel is an assemblage of Procrustean miniatures. And then there is the question of the content of these books, which again may strike one as Pyrrhic. Jakob von Gunten, the only one of the early novels to exist in English (in Christopher Middleton’s translation), is the diary of a young man (or an old boy – Walser claimed some time in the 1920s that ‘youth was among his gifts’) at a small, rather rackety school for servants. It ends with the death of the headmaster’s sister, and the quasi-seduction of the headmaster, who sets off on a round the world tour with the hero. Geschwister Tanner (the ‘Tanner Siblings’, ‘The Tanners’ or – my suggestion – ‘Meet the Tanners’) is a story of the coming and goings of the various Tanners, closely corresponding to the comings and goings of the various Walsers, over a period of a year or two. It begins with a hilarious presentation of Simon Tanner at a bookseller’s (like Walser as a young man, Simon had employment and plenty of it, but never for very long), and ends with him retelling the whole story of himself and his brothers and sisters to a sympathetic female ear. Der Gehülfe (‘The Assistant’), for my money Walser’s best book, is about a few months when he found himself as secretary to an inventor. Here, somehow, everything comes together: rapturous descriptions of seasons, landscape and weather, delighted consumption of food and coffee and wine, the deep enjoyment of a temporary, parasitic status – the inventor is going to the dogs, and sooner or later everyone knows it – and sharp insights into family, society and even capitalism. Both Der Gehülfe and Geschwister Tanner are to appear in English shortly, published by New Directions, and in translations by the gifted Susan Bernofsky, who has taken on the case of this eccentric author from Christopher Middleton.

These three novels came out in 1907, 1908 and 1909 with the firm of Bruno Cassirer (who later took on Wolfgang Koeppen). They represent Walser probably at the zenith of what it seems a mistake to call a career in anything but the most literal (or punning) sense. Walser was living in Berlin, sometimes in the house of his brother Karl, a famous and successful illustrator (he did an exquisite cover for Der Gehülfe), and making his way. But probably even then: a dearth of friendship, love and money. Employers and relatives did duty for friends, and chance optical infatuations with waitresses or well-dressed ladies for lovers. Walser was never other than independent, and that only with some difficulty. He was short-tempered and high-maintenance, suspicious, quarrelsome and demanding. Most of his life – like Rilke, of whom his writing persistently reminds me – he conducted by correspondence, but even being within epistolary reach was probably too near for many of his associates and employers. After his three novels, it must have seemed to his publisher that he could not sell this author, and to the author that he could not live from such books. Subsequent novels were lost, destroyed, rejected or left incomplete. Walser retreated to the production of short prose pieces, and he retreated also to Switzerland, first to his sister, then to the hotel garret in Biel. Included in Masquerade is something from 1919 called ‘The Last Prose Piece’; it wasn’t, but it shows enough bitter necessity to have nonetheless informed such a thing: ‘This is likely to be my last prose piece. All sorts of considerations make me believe it’s high time this shepherd boy stopped writing and sending off prose pieces and retired from a pursuit apparently beyond his abilities. I’ll gladly look about for another line of work that will let me break my bread in peace.’ Walser found further retreats and retirements. He went into employment again; he discovered the joys of apartment-hopping (‘I confine my nomadism to the city, a type of peregrination that seems very agreeable to me, because I am able to say I appear to be reasonably healthy, which is to say, I look to myself to be blooming’ in a piece called Wohnungswechsel, ‘Changing Abode’); he fell out, as already mentioned, with the Swiss writers’ union.

One might think things could go no further, but then Walser fell out with his pen: from 1924 he wrote in pencil, and in ‘microscript’. So tiny were the letters – two millimeters, a quarter of an eyelash or so – that for decades it was assumed (I don’t know why) that this was a private code. It wasn’t, it was regular German, or Walser’s version of it, but it was very small and very perishable. Five hundred sheets of this, often found on already marked pages – rejection slips, postcards to himself and so forth – were read, employing an optical device used for the counting of threads in weaving, transcribed, and spread into normal type to make up a further 2000 pages, six further volumes in addition to the 20 of Walser’s writings. This was the Bleistiftgebiet, the ‘pencil area’ or ‘pencil terrain’. (It includes one entire novel, Der Räuber, a jaunty, glancing, elliptical book, translated by Susan Bernofsky as The Robber.) Some other pages from there are included in Speaking to the Rose. The presentation is both inadequate – three rather murky photocopies of the originals, when there’s surely a case for a facsimile or blown-up facsimile edition – and a little prurient. Unpublished (often but not only ‘pencil area’) pages are given italic titles. There, in Walser’s typically ornate but spoken style, one comes across passages like this, from ‘I would like to be standing’ of 1927: ‘Moreover I make with pleasure the confession – which perhaps characterises me – that while writing I might have been silent about rather much, quite unintentionally, too, for as a writer I preferred to speak not of what could be irksome, or difficult to express, but of lightness, whereas into what has occupied me here I did open out, with all the heaviness in me, though fugitively, of course, as seems to be my wont.’ In Zurich, I saw a street named after him, where he couldn’t possibly have afforded to live, and in a station somewhere a train, which he – who once walked to Stuttgart – couldn’t possibly have afforded to take. John Berryman wrote: ‘The Bachgesellschaft girdles the world.’ So it goes.

[*] Sontag’s and Middleton’s comments appear in Walser’s Selected Stories, translated by Middleton (NYRB, 196 pp., $12.95, 2002, 0 940322 98 6).