SEPTEMBER 26, 2016
A BIOGRAPHY OF ROBERT WALSER has not yet been published in English, but an outline of his peculiar life can be pieced together from the forewords, afterwords, and introductions to his books. Born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, he left school at the age of 14 and spent the next few decades leading a wayward and wandering existence in several Swiss and German cities. He dreamed of becoming an actor, but he worked instead at various odd jobs: as a bank clerk, an archivist, a butler, an inventor’s assistant. And, of course, he wrote. From 1898 to 1933, he published novels, poems, plays, and short stories. His feuilletons appeared in the leading German-language newspapers of the time. Kafka admired his writing, as did Hermann Hesse, Robert Musil, and Walter Benjamin. Yet somehow Walser failed to find lasting success. He lived in perpetual poverty, and in 1929, after suffering from severe anxiety and depression, he entered a psychiatric clinic outside of Bern. Four years later, his career as a writer came to an end. He was transferred against his will to a clinic in eastern Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died on Christmas Day in 1956 while out for a walk in the snow.
From these details a myth has emerged — that of a nomadic misfit forever out of step with society; a solitary and eccentric genius who scribbled away at the margins of sanity; a neglected author who inexplicably abandoned his craft and imprisoned himself inside a sanatorium. But somewhere in this myth the actual man goes missing, and the attempts to retrieve him with biographical facts are ineffectual. W. G. Sebald describes this well in his affectionate remembrance:
The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as to have been almost effaced altogether […] He had neither a house, nor any fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are concerned, at most one good suit and one less so. Even among the tools a writer needs to carry out his craft were almost none he could call his own. He did not, I believe, even own the books that he had written. What he read was for the most part borrowed. Even the paper he used for writing was secondhand. And just as throughout his life he was almost entirely devoid of material possessions, so, too, he was remote from other people.
Because of this remoteness, Walser has remained an elusive and mysterious figure. He lived for 78 years, but the story of his long life is oddly lacking in detail. “So far apart are the scenes of Walser’s life which have come down to us,” Sebald writes, “that one cannot really speak of a story or of a biography at all, but rather […] of a legend.” In reading about this legend, one comes across the same few anecdotes over and over again. They are fascinating at first, but as they become familiar they fail to bring us much closer to understanding the person they describe. If we are to know Walser more intimately, we must turn to his work.
Readers of English have received little doses of Walser’s writings, beginning in 1957 with Christopher Middleton’s translation of The Walk and Other Stories. Since then, several collections of the short prose have appeared in English, as well as two selections of poetry, a thin volume of playlets, and his four surviving novels. Publishers such as New Directions and New York Review Books have made special efforts to bring his work to a wider readership: the former has published eight books by Walser, while the latter has published four, including, most recently, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, a collection of miniature prose pieces translated by Tom Whalen, Nicole Köngeter, and Annette Wiesner. Walser had a great fondness and flair for the short form, and in this latest volume he is at his shortest: there are more than 80 sketches, essays, stories, and anecdotes included in fewer than two hundred pages. Many of these are not even a page long, and some consist of a single paragraph. Their subjects vary — a toothache, a tram ride, the Nobel Prize — but in style they are similarly whimsical and seemingly spontaneous, as if in composing them Walser followed the advice he gives near the end of the book: “Don’t deliberate too long before you begin to write a sketch. All kinds of nice ideas can disappear, never to be seen again.”
Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories presents Walser at his most playful and irreverent. As in his other works of prose — Berlin Stories, for example, and his masterpiece, Jakob von Gunten — there are moments of melancholy that interrupt the ongoing antics. But here, the satire and silliness are less restrained. One piece is addressed to a bird: “I saw you early today from the window and now I’m writing to you, which perhaps is pointless, since it’s unlikely the letter will reach you, and in any case you’re unacquainted with reading.” Another is devoted to a hairstyle:
I imagine, for my own pleasure, how the bob came to be as follows: From a girl in the possession of a glorious wealth of hair, a man, the girl’s lover, desired that she sever herself from that which adorned her, and lo and behold she fulfilled this request conscientiously, and there, full-fledged, stood the first bob.
And in “Lake Piece,” which Walser describes as “very simple,” he writes, “If I say that the wide, nocturnal lake resembled a slumbering hero whose breast even while asleep is moved by concerns of bravery and noble thought, I am perhaps expressing myself a bit too audaciously.”
Irrelevant remarks are scattered throughout the book (“Oh, how I long to be hugged!”), and some of the pieces are little more than lists of random observations. Walser loves to question himself while he is writing, to clarify and qualify his ideas with trivial phrases: “as it were,” “so to speak,” “by the way,” etc. He also has a habit of interrupting himself, often in order to comment on what he is writing. “May I ask that you put your confidence in this prose piece?” he writes in “Female Portrait,” while earlier in the book he tells the reader, “Perhaps you’ll smile at these remarks, but that’s exactly why I wrote them.” Thus he is present in his prose as most authors are not, living between the lines, strolling alongside his sentences as if he might add a few more words at any moment.
With his intrusions into the text, Walser shows a delightful disregard for the established boundaries between reader and writer. Sometimes he hardly seems to be writing at all, but rather carrying on a conversation with himself, or simply spilling his thoughts onto paper. His unconventional style evades the standard comparisons and categorizations. Susan Sontag called him “a Paul Klee in prose.” Walter Benjamin described his writing as “a surge of words […] in which each sentence only has the task of obliterating the previous one.” William H. Gass wrote that “his transitions are abrupt as table edges; non sequiturs flock his pages like starlings to their evening trees.” But the best description of Walser’s writing comes from Walser himself: “My intention,” he writes in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, “is to dance with words.”
The result is a literature that laughs at itself, an utterly original form of art that insists on exposing itself as artifice. With characteristic irony, Walser revels in displays of false refinement and feigned gentility. He brings the same sense of mischief to nearly every topic that catches his attention — an anecdote about a lazy man named Ralph, for example, receives as much seriousness as the essay on Bismarck that precedes it. There is something enchanted about the way he sees the world — a deliberate innocence that leads him to be satirical but not cynical, melancholy but not miserable, lonely but not forlorn. The pieces in this latest volume span 26 years, but from beginning to end Walser retains a youthful exuberance. His eyes are forever fresh, his mind never weary. As he wrote in Jakob von Gunten, “I was never really a child, and therefore something in the nature of childhood will cling to me always, I’m certain.” At times this childlike nature becomes outright ridiculous, and a few of the pieces seem so inane as to be unworthy of publication. But as a whole the book is charming in its frivolity, and to hold it to humorless standards would be to miss the point.
In an afterword, Tom Whalen portrays Walser as a modernist master who belongs in the company of Proust, Kafka, and Beckett. Yet still he remains obscure — a favorite among writers and translators, perhaps, but relatively unknown to the general reading public. With the publication of Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, we have one more opportunity to discover this extraordinary Swiss writer. “Certainly I am poor and up to this day have never lacked in failure,” he admits, but then, in a statement that could serve as his own epitaph, he adds: “life without success can also be beautiful.”