The Walk by Robert Walser (trans. Susan Bernofsky and Christopher Middleton). New Directions, 96pp., $9.95.
It has become near impossible, at least when thinking about Robert Walser in English, to separate him from critical appraisals calling him a writer of the “small.” W. G. Sebald, paraphrasing Walser himself, labeled the Swiss writer a “clairvoyant of the small.” Susan Sontag, in her introduction to Walser’s Selected Stories, wrote “Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small—as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.” Sebald again: “his natural inclination is for the most radical minimization and brevity, in other words the possibility of setting down a story in one fell swoop, without any deviation or hesitation.” And Benjamin Kunkel in the New Yorker began his essay on Walser’s life and works by reminding us that Jakob von Gunten’s motto—“To be small and to stay small”—may just as well apply to von Gunten’s creator as well.
These conclusions are, it must be said, somewhat correct. There is in Walser’s oeuvre an intense and sympathetic examination of the overlooked, the weak, the maligned. But such readings now seem rather heavily determined, driven more by Walser’s biography and the painful facts of his last years than by what the writing itself supports; Walser’s texts, however, refuse to be reduced to such simplistic readings. He often brings to mind other adjectives such as grandiose, bold, daring, and hyperbolic, even if such terms are not so commonly used in discussions of his work. He is a writer who is as interested in the metaphysical, or what we can broadly call the philosophical, as he is in the quotidian, the everyday; and he is a writer who we do a great disservice to if we simply limit him to his biography.
* * * *
The Walk is the only Walser work translated into English during the author’s lifetime. It displays many of his writerly personas, among them the melancholic, the ironist, the romantic, and the high modernist. The Walk was originally published in 1917, and a revised version, from which this current translation is worked from, was published in a 1920 collection, only nine years before Walser was first committed to a sanitarium for the first time. Co-translator Susan Bernofsky characterizes this new translation under review more as a revision of Christopher Middleton’s original version than anything else:
When the estimable Christopher Middleton translated Robert Walser’s iconic novella The Walk (Der Spaziergang) in 1955, he didn’t know that Walser himself had subjected this story to a thorough revision, publishing the new version several years after the original edition, on which Middleton’s translation was based. Read side by side, the two versions are fascinating for the story they tell about Walser’s evolution as a writer. And so, to give the English-language reader the opportunity to peer over Walser’s shoulder as he revises himself, I decided to adjust Middleton’s translation (with his blessing) to reflect the story’s final version, making no changes other than those dictated by Walser’s own revisions.
Credit should also be given to both Bernofsky and New Directions for pursuing what is a somewhat unconventional translation project, considering that Middleton’s translation of the original is an incredibly fine work.
* * * *
But what about The Walk itself? What is it about? What happens in it? Well, nothing really. Like much of Walser’s work, it is rather plotless. It chronicles the drifting and rudderless thoughts and actions of an “I” persona who wanders through an unnamed town and countryside and who tries, with ever increasing futility, to push aside encroaching feelings of despair and loneliness. There are encounters: with a tailor, a giant named Tomzack, a tax collector, and others. Things do happen: our narrator walks into a bookstore and refuses to buy a bestseller; he catches a tax break; and he reminisces about a lost love. But all of these events unfold with a certain amount of meaninglessness, a certain amount of lightness.
The narrative itself is elliptical, bound at beginning and end by two similar images of lost love. We begin with:
One morning, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street. On the stairs I encountered a woman who looked like a Spaniard, a Peruvian, or a Creole, and presented to the eye a certain pallid, faded majesty.
And, at the very end,
As I asked mankind to forgive me, still lying there deep in thought, that girl fresh with youth came once more to mind with her so childish, pretty mouth and enchanting cheeks. Vividly I imagined how bewitched I was by her bodily form with its melodious sweetness, but how when I had asked her not long ago whether she believed I was sincerely devoted to her, in her doubt and disbelief her lovely eyes looked away, and she had said No.
In between these two points, Walser’s narrator uses, paradoxically, the banality of the walk itself as a canvas for his most esoteric thoughts and feelings. The walk becomes the beginning, if not the source itself, of thinking and creation.
We should not discount the importance of what walking implies in terms of the philosophical tradition. Recall Rousseau and his walking reveries; Heraclitus saying you can never step in the same river twice; philosopher Peter Sloterdijk claiming that “walking upright itself” was a hyperbolic act in the course of human evolution; or the fact that walking is one of the four sacred stances in which the Buddha is often depicted. It also brings to mind, apocryphal or not, the story that the poet Wallace Stevens, who never learned how to drive, composed many of his poems while walking to and from work. Walser’s narrator puts it this way:
“Walk,” was my answer, “I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could neither write the half of one more single word, nor produce a poem in verse or prose. Without walking, I would be dead, and would have long since been forced to abandon my profession, which I love passionately. Also, without walking and gathering reports, I would not be able to render the tiniest report, nor to produce an essay, let alone a story. Without walking, I would be able to collect neither observations nor studies.”
Walking provides not only the means for the narrator’s flâneur-like aesthetic contemplation; it also provides a means of actual living, for life itself: “Without walking, I would be dead.” It is a structured system that provides a means for life itself.
* * * *
Walking, paradoxically, both makes and unmakes the narrator of The Walk. Again, it is the intrusion of dark thoughts that he tries to fend off. At the very end of the narrative, we are given hints as to what these thoughts are truly about:
As I asked mankind to forgive me, still lying there deep in thought, that girl fresh with youth came once more to mind with her so childish, pretty mouth and enchanting cheeks … Circumstances had prompted her to travel, and with this she was lost to me. Yet I would probably have been able to convince her that I mean well with her. I should have told her, while there was still time, that my feelings were utterly honest. It would have been so simple and certainly only right to confess to her openly: “I love you. All your concerns are as important to me as my own. For many dear, beautiful reasons I wish to make you happy.”
But we are left to guess who this girl is. We simply know that she has been lost forever; perhaps this wound is the ghostly motor that sets our narrator on his frequent jaunts.
Despite the yearning for this lost love, however, the real absence in Walser’s texts always seems to be that of the self, of the tangible “I.” In The Walk especially the loss of the beloved appears to be more of an obfuscation, a cover up for the deeper loss of the self. And this is why, in my estimation, Walser is so intensely interested in the discourse of power as well, for with power and sovereignty comes not only control of the self but also a self to speak of.
What do we make of Walser’s constant flirtation with power and those structures, implicitly violent or hierarchical that order our world? Jakob von Gunten provides one obvious example in the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants; Walser’s The Assistant examines the unequal power dynamics between the inventor Tobler and his assistant, Joseph; And in The Walk, the narrator often encounters figures of authority who he both detests and is drawn to. Here is a description of one such person:
Incontrovertible power in person, serious, ceremonial, and majestical, Professor Meili trod his way; in his hand he held an unbendable scientific walking stick, which infused me with dread, reverence, and esteem. Meili’s nose was a sharp, imperative, stern hawk-or eagle-nose. His mouth was juridically clamped tight and squeezed shut. The famous scholar’s gait was like an iron law. From professor Meili’s adamant eyes, world history and the afterglow of long-gone heroic deeds flashed out . . . Yet, on the whole, Professor Meili carried himself with a tenderness, as if he needed in no way whatsoever to make apparent what quantities of power and gravity he personified. Since I permitted myself the thought that men who do not smile in a sweet and beautiful way can nonetheless be honorable and trustworthy, he appeared sympathetic to me in spite of his severity.
With one hand, authority is shunted to the side, but with the other it is brought ever closer. This is not to suggest that there is in Walser’s work an urge to strike out violently against a cruel and unfeeling world. Rather, the writing suggests a search for a grounding principle, a sturdy setting on which one can build a sense of self: a ground on which to walk on. Authority, true sovereignty, in Walser’s texts always seems to imply an authority of the self. But there are suggestions that this self can never truly be had. It is no coincidence that Walser’s narrator in The Walk evokes God right before he comes to a realization of who he might be:
The soul of the world had opened, and I fantasized that everything wicked, distressing and painful was on the point of vanishing. Earlier walks came before my eyes. But the wonderful image of the present swiftly became a feeling which overpowered all others.
And, a little further below,
The earth became a dream; I myself had become an inward being, and I walked as in an inward world. Everything outside me faded to obscurity, and all I had understood till now was unintelligible. I fell away from the surface, down into the depths, which I recognized then to be all that was good. What we understand and love understands and loves us also. I was no longer myself, I was another, yet it was on this account that I became properly myself. (Emphasis mine.)
Or, as Rimbaud would have it, “Je est un autre.” And the same for Walser: this realization of selfhood is unstable, unmoored and can only be granted by a metaphysical authority. It is only by calling forth on the authority of God that the narrator reaches an (ephemeral) epiphany of who he really is. Identity, in other words, can only be granted by an authority larger than the mortal and finite self. And perhaps this is the Walserean project, the search for a self worthy of representing.
In “Eine Art Erzählung” Walser writes: “My prose pieces are, to my mind, nothing more nor less than parts of a long, plotless, realistic story. For me, the sketches I produce now and then are shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself (emphasis mine).” When viewed in this light, the claims of Walser as poet of the banal and the quotidian do not seem to hold. Rather, Walser’s project is mirrored and echoed by modernity’s general obsession with interiority and exploring new forms of subjectivity. We should, therefore, understand Walser’s poetics of smallness as being as grandiose as anything that modernity has produced. To be a thinker of the quotidian does not mean that one is not interested in the much larger, grander implications that such thought experiments may bring with them. If there is anything “minor” or “small” about Walser’s project it may be that our current readings of this writer have tried far too hard to make of him a writer and thinker of one kind and one kind only.
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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