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.

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[*] 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).