The Wanderer

Benjamin Kunkel writes for several publications, including the Nation and Dissent.

Acritic once suggested that nothing revealed the melancholy character of Robert Schumann’s music better than his direction Im frolichen Ton, in a cheerful tone. An explicit, deliberate joy is an anxious one and this helps to explain why the stories and short novels of Robert Walser, so abundant with declarations of pleasure and happiness, give off such an air of fragility and sadness.

The narrators of Walser’s fiction all resemble one another and resemble the Swiss writer himself. They are solitary, cheeky, wide-eyed and, in two senses, rambling: they are given to long digressions and to long walks through the countryside. They like nothing more than to announce their joy in commonplace things. One narrator is happy whenever he has the chance to bow: “I even bow where it is not usual to do so, or when only toadies or imbeciles do, so much in love am I with the procedure.” Spaghetti is likewise considered delectable: “How strange it seemed to him,” another narrator says of himself, “that he never tired of finding it tasty.” Even unhappiness is rescued for pleasure. In “Jakob von Gunten” (1908), Walser’s wonderful novel, Jakob says: “Of course, I like sorrow very much as well, it’s very valuable, very. It shapes one.”

It was a strange shape that Walser cut. Poor and alone, unsuccessful, often exhilarated, living in bare rooms in German and Swiss cities, taking his walks, writing and writing, making the occasional joking proposal of marriage and working odd jobs, he seems to have been a kind of truant schoolboy for most of his life. Born in 1878, the seventh of eight children, he left school at 14 and never entirely settled down until he confined himself to a mental institution at 51. “I was never really a child, and therefore something in the nature of childhood will cling to me always, I’m certain,” his character Jakob says. (It’s hard not to read Walser autobiographically; he described the whole of his work as “a long, plotless, realistic story” that “might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.”) Transferred involuntarily to another mental institution in 1933, Walser remained there until he died, out on a walk, on Christmas Day in 1956. His guardian had once visited him in the asylum and asked whether Walser was still writing. “I am not here to write,” Walser replied, “but to be mad.”


Kafka loved to read Walser aloud to his friends, and the great Austrian novelist Robert Musil, on first encountering Kafka, characterized him as “a peculiar case of the Walser type.” Yet Walser is remote from these writers. His work has none of the heaviness or darkness we associate with German-language writing, and none of modernism’s inclination to obscurity or monuments. Walser wrote sketches, squibs, bagatelles, improvisations--and a few stories and short novels. If, like many modern writers, he took humble daily life for his subject, it was not with the aim of transfiguring it by outrage or vision. “How nice it is,” one story ends, “that spring follows winter, every time!” Part of the mystery of Walser’s art is that these cheerful banalities and even tautologies--”Oh, how beautiful beauty is, and how charming is charm!”--seem sharp and bright, fragments of illumination. Sometimes he appears to be a holy fool, and sometimes a writer mocking the very possibility of such a thing.

More of Walser’s work is now obtainable in English. Two selections of short pieces have been culled from the 10 collections Walser published during his life and the four volumes of his uncollected prose: New York Review Books has just reissued “Selected Stories”--probably the book to start with--and a fine sampling called “Masquerade and Other Stories” appeared in 1990. Walser also wrote novels--as many as nine, he sometimes claimed. Only four have turned up, including the two that have been translated into English: “Jakob von Gunten” and “The Robber,” the latter brought out only two years ago in a resourceful translation by Susan Bernofsky. (Walser’s mixture of High German and Swiss German, his chirping colloquialisms and unsteady tone, make him a trial for any translator, and in “Selected Stories,” Christopher Middleton has done particularly graceful work.)

These stories are arranged chronologically, and besides providing the best introduction to Walser, they tell the story of his career. We see that between 1907 and 1929 his prose retained all its cleverness and agility while his narrators began more and more to talk to themselves. As Musil’s comparison indicates, Walser was at one time relatively well-known, and the opening lines of “Helbling’s Story” (1914), are those of a writer sure of having an audience: “My name is Helbling and I am telling my own story because it would probably not be written down by anybody else.... I am an ordinary person, almost exaggeratedly so. I am one of the multitude, and that is what I find so strange.” Like most Walser personae, Helbling is a small person--in this case, a clerk--and almost impudent in his modesty. As in “Jakob von Gunten,” where the haughty narrator enrolls himself in an academy for servants, his task is fitting the dimensions of the spirit to the humble size of the life.

But Walser himself very much wanted money and recognition, and was tormented to receive less and less of each as time went on. He was still able to publish his short pieces into the 1920s, but the editor of the Berliner Tagblatt received threats of canceled subscriptions “if the nonsense didn’t stop.” Walser’s prose had become increasingly disjunctive and unconcerned with plot, his lines beginning to interrupt and interrogate themselves: “but what kind of sentence-disfiguring improprieties are these!” Many of the later stories are no longer even stories, veering off from one line to the next in unanticipated directions. Their subject is freedom, and so is their mode. In 1928, in an “Essay on Freedom,” Walser wrote: “One should always be bowing inwardly to the pure image of freedom; there must be no pause in one’s respect for freedom, a respect which seems to bear a persistent relation to a kind of fear.”

The acme of Walser’s freedom and solitude came in “The Robber,” the novel he finished in 1925. He didn’t expect to see it published: Writing in a tiny hand, he squeezed the manuscript onto 24 small sheets of paper. For many years scholars assumed the book had been written in a system of private notation; it was not until the 1970s that Walser’s minuscule script was recognized as being German.

But “The Robber” is not the production of a madman. The title character himself is not even an outlaw. His worst larcenies are to have “pilfered numerous landscape impressions” and “purloined affections.” He is truant from society’s two main customs: romantic love and gainful employment, and the novel’s deliberate confusion between the “I” of the narrator and the “he” of the Robber seems to imply that he provides most of his own company. Yet the story concludes with the Robber going public--mounting a church pulpit and justifying his aimless life to a congregation of adoring women. The narrator finally commends the Robber to all society, saying: “Were he not a true Croesus of foolishness, he wouldn’t be half of what he is. We think of him both as universal nonchalance and the conscience of all mankind.”

Here, near the end of the writer’s career, is its essence. His is a puppyish prose, squirming with delight in its own motions and, puppyishly, his narrators want two things above all: to disobey and to be loved. Walser refused to grow up--to get married, to get a job, to settle down, to make sense, to be serious. Yet he wanted to be rewarded for his refusal with money and esteem. Nothing in Walser is so bitter as the fantasies, as when the narrator of the long story “The Walk,” one of the “Selected Stories,” strolls into a bank and is promptly given 1,000 francs. The banker explains that “some kind and noble benefactresses, moved by the sublime thought that to dam up man’s grief is beautiful, and to allay his distress is good, had conceived the idea that a poor and unsuccessful poet (for you are this, are you not?) might require assistance.”

Mature people will object that stipends can’t be paid to idlers, and know that the advocates of universal joy typically spend their lives alone or embattled. But Walser knew this too. The happiness he and his narrators are constantly expressing is really a proposal, a fond wish, a happiness--if only. Sometimes the tone tips into outright mockery, fierce with disappointment. No one can be as glad as these imaginary people insist on being, and there are innumerable reasons why. Modern literature has given misery a lot of company, and joy has been perhaps its biggest taboo. The greatness of Robert Walser--a modest greatness, he would submit--has to do with ignoring this ban. “Can he say that?” the reader wonders, and then: “Why can’t I?”