I’m here to be mad

Christopher Benfey

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.