I suffered a peculiar sense of déjà vu last year: not an I’ve done this before but an I’ve read this before. The United Kingdom under lockdown felt curiously familiar because it reminded me so vividly of the world Walser builds in his writing. There were the endless, aimless walks (practically the only activity still permitted in England during the spring) and the gray hours spent in parks (“[I]t’s always Sunday in a park,” Walser wrote in his story “The Park,” “for it’s always a bit melancholy, and the melancholy stirs up vivid memories of home, and Sunday is something that only ever existed at home, where you were a child”).
Besides these echoes, there was my own boring passion for minutiae, like birdsong or the color of the leaves. My mood recalled the manic and unexplained cheerfulness of Walser’s narrators, who trill love letters to everyday phenomena like hills and grass and sky. Various solutions have been proposed to this puzzle, but I’ve always found Walter Benjamin’s interpretation convincing: Walser’s narrators are convalescents, newly sensitized to the outside world. Which felt like a good description of 2020: an open-ended convalescence.
Reading Walser in Britain is to be confronted with a duality. His stories — which don’t always specify an exact location — largely seem set in his home country, Switzerland, or in Germany, where he lived for a few years, or in some fictional blend of the two. England and Englishness, however, crop up just often enough to be conspicuous — coded as exotic, sophisticated, something the narrator yearns for but is unequal to. The “blue, hazy wooded mountains” in The Tanners (1907) are described as being “like a luxuriant English garden,” while the same narrator resolves to learn English, “a sweet language that sounded like whispers and sighing.” In “The Walk,” the narrator sports an English suit that makes him feel like “a lord and grand seigneur, a marquis.” In The Assistant (1908), the narrator loses his job at a factory after fudging some equations — “the currency in question was the English pound, and Joseph had no idea how to handle it.” It’s worth noting that Walser never visited the UK: perhaps the best possible way to nurture a lifelong admiration for this country.
As Paul Buchholz has described, Walser’s precarious narrators spend the majority of his novels working (or looking for work) and walking: “Reveries in the forest alternate with trips to the employment office.” Swap out forest for muddy stretches of park and this doesn’t feel like a bad description of life for many in the UK in 2020. Which is the rub, really. Because the England evoked for me by Walser’s work is still an upgrade to what life here was like last year for so many — a flatter, fairytale version of reality. The spontaneity with which his narrators quit their dissatisfying jobs and never want for money doesn’t seem entirely real. When Joseph doesn’t get paid for most of The Assistant, his situation never becomes desperate; he would prefer things to be different — he writes to his employer’s mother to request his missing wages — but he still enjoys a bedroom at his employer’s luxurious villa, meals cooked for him there, “pocket money.”
Which is fortunate, since state support is conspicuously absent in these novels. When Joseph meets the man at the employment office who placed him with the Tobler family and tells him he hasn’t yet been paid, the man seems at a loss to know what to do, suggesting that Joseph could perhaps seek legal recourse. But the lack of a social safety net doesn’t seem to matter a great deal either way, at least on the surface of things. The most financially vulnerable person in the novel — the man who formerly held Joseph’s position before being dismissed for alcoholism — is looked after by Joseph, implying that individual philanthropy could stand in for state support.
At the beginning of April, when nobody could say how long the lockdown would go on for, putting one step in front of another felt as good a way as any to block out the bigger picture. I wondered if Captain Tom Moore felt the same. On April 6, the 99-year-old war veteran began pacing his garden to help crowdfund money for Britain’s dangerously underfunded National Health Service. While Captain Tom’s desire to support his country was commendable, there was something about the spectacle that felt distinctively Walserian. I suspect it was the fusion of humor and heartbreak, executed with such fever-dream intensity in Walser’s work. Captain Tom’s walk was funny because it was patently absurd, suggesting a Britain so militantly opposed to state support that it prefers to bankroll its health service through a centenarian performing laps of his garden rather than via taxes. For the same reason, footage of Captain Tom’s walk also made me want to retreat to bed to take a depression nap.
Captain Tom’s loyalty to a country hellbent on sacrificing its elderly for the sake of the economy seemed perverse, in the way obedience usually does in Walser’s stories, where it is practiced for its own sake rather than out of fidelity to any competent authority. Susan Sontag once described Walser’s characters as “drowning in obedience” and it’s easy to see why: in my favorite Walser novel, Jakob von Gunten (1909), the eponymous narrator attends a servant school where only one lesson is taught: “How should a boy behave?” In The Tanners, Simon is far more infatuated with the idea of obeying his friend Hedwig than he is with Hedwig herself: “To obey you, Hedwig, how sweet that must be, I should like to obey you, to become a child and feel the pleasure of being allowed to be obedient to you.”
In an excellent essay on Walser, Ben Lerner argues that, despite its surface thrust toward obedience, Walser’s writing has an energy “that exceeds or undercuts or otherwise complicates its own demand to be disciplined.” It’s tempting to agree with Lerner — the obedience seems writ too cartoonishly large to be literal, and Jakob von Gunten works best on a satirical level, prompting the reader to laugh at mindless obedience rather than adopt it. However, Swiss editor Carl Seelig’s account of his conversations and rambles with Walser, Walks with Walser (1957), suggests that a yen for obedience lay at the heart of Walser’s own politics. Since many of their conversations took place against the backdrop of World War II, Walser’s arguments in favor of rule by force seem all the more unsettling. Indeed, Seelig claims that Walser asserted that the masses “are quite generously disposed toward tyranny” and often expressed an admiration for “the unfailing instinct for national interest that dictators have”: “The people love it when someone acts on their behalf, when someone is fatherly, by turns loving and stern.”
The UK is not headed by an authoritarian government. But a jingoistic passion for being led, for personal sacrifice in the putative national interest, still feels resonant. Before lockdown here was even a rumor, as the government pursued herd immunity and the UK barreled toward some the highest infection numbers in Europe, I received a text from a friend who works as a doctor in a busy London hospital, with a screenshot from a medical Facebook group. As rumors about overflowing hospital beds abounded, a doctor wrote that he was feeling calm, not gloomy. He stated this was a chance for medical staff to show they could make a difference, that he accepted that many of them would be infected and a few would even die — “I’m ready for what’s necessary.” He argued that this was, after all, what they had all signed up for. “Lol,” my friend wrote under the screenshot.
The male doctor’s statement struck me as being an attitude that would be, perhaps, inconceivable somewhere like Germany or Spain or France. It was hard to imagine doctors outside of Britain embracing the senselessness of dying at work due to a lack of protective equipment; unprecedented governmental incompetence, as fulfilling one’s duty.
Such a passion for obedience resonates most with readers on a satirical level. But the obedience practiced in Walser’s work, for all its silliness, never seems entirely harmless. In Jakob von Gunten, the protagonist recounts a story about his mother firing their elderly servant after he did something wrong. Shortly before this, the old man had buried his son, who had died of cancer — perhaps going some way to explain the servant’s recent performance at work. Upon being fired, the old man fell at the mother’s feet, weeping and begging “for mercy, yes, actually for mercy,” and the woman relented. Jakob’s point in telling this story isn’t to deplore the ugly incident but to complain that his friends, when they heard the anecdote, broke off their friendship with him “because […] my family is too royalistic.” He goes on:
The whole world today judges as the Weibel brothers did. Yes, that’s how it is: nothing lordly or ladylike is tolerated any more. There are no more masters who can do as they please. […] Good old Fehlmann: he was pardoned, in the patriarchal way. Tears of loyalty and dependence, how beautiful that is!
Despite professing a passion for obedience, Jakob, like many of Walser’s characters, spends much of the story testing his authority figures’ boundaries. But this gentle defiance never translates into a more questioning worldview. Much like his author, Jakob’s nostalgia for the “lordly,” his love of loyalty intertwined with dependence, seems most aligned with a feudalist model of power — largesse granted at the whim of the person holding the reins.
This same model of largesse, of authority figures showily granting favors that weren’t favors at all, was omnipresent in the UK last year. One might not have expected Prime Minister Boris Johnson to join in the Thursday night applause for health-care workers with quite so much gusto, hailing doctors and nurses as “heroes” in the same month his health secretary refused to promise nurses a pay raise. The furlough scheme to pay contracted workers up to 80 percent of their usual wages was announced with great fanfare (“unprecedented measures for unprecedented times”) but was of little relevance to the substantial fraction of the country working the sort of low-paid, precarious jobs that had flourished following the 2008 financial crisis (according to a 2019 report from the TUC, around one in nine UK workers are in insecure work).
Then there was the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which gave diners a 50 percent discount when eating in restaurants between Mondays and Wednesdays, money that restaurants could then claim back from the government. When asking his ministers at a press conference if any of them had “taken advantage” of the “amazing scheme,” Johnson framed it as something between a gift and an opportunity. Later, we would learn that the arrangement might have caused a sixth of new coronavirus clusters over the summer. It seems fair to assume that the scheme, which cost £522 million, primarily benefited those who were financially stable enough to afford a meal out rather than those who were truly struggling to make ends meet. All of which made the government’s refusal in October to spend £20 million to extend the provision of free school meals to children from low-income families into the half-term school holidays even more farcical (a refusal which was later reversed after footballer Marcus Rashford campaigned against the measure).
The joke has grown old. The government’s insistence that there is no money available in a time of a historically low interest rates for borrowing, in a year when hundreds of millions were wasted on unusable PPE, suggests that decisions are being made according to ideology, not reality. It suggests a vision of the world where we all operate as individuals competing for scarce resources, with the most precarious exiled to the margins.
W. G. Sebald once wrote of Walser’s characters that “in life, as in fairy tales, there are those who, out of fear and poverty, cannot afford emotions.” This makes a sad sort of sense. The strangely flat affect of Walser’s characters, their numb cheer, feels like the logical end-product of a lifetime of disappointment.
Walser’s ramblers do not generally walk to specific destinations. Instead, his texts depict a world where characters are in flight from things: social ties, institutions, the self. Their detours into the forest often seem like a resolution to give up expecting anything from others and to seek solace in the natural world. As Rebecca Solnit puts it in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000): “To pretend that the world is a garden is an essentially apolitical act, a turning away from the woes that keep it from being one.”
2020 was a year when it felt tempting to retreat alone into the nearest version of pastoral landscape, to adopt the Walserian mentality that “only the journey to oneself is important.” The problems plaguing the UK felt and feel varied and exhausting, the farcical political theater even more so. But, as Walser’s characters (with what Benjamin calls their “unflinching superficiality”) suggest, divorcing oneself from the rest of the world does not leave a person unscarred — but infinitely strange and a little less than human.
For more, see:
Jakob von Gunten, translated by Christopher Middleton (NYRB Classics)
Berlin Stories, translated by Susan Bernofsky (NRYB Classics)
The Tanners, translated by Bernofsky (New Directions)
The Assistant, translated by Bernofsky (New Directions)
The Walk, translated by Middleton (Serpent’s Tail)
and Carl Seelig, Walks With Walser, translated by Anne Posten (New Directions)
Sophie Atkinson is a writer based in Manchester. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Hazlitt, Die Zeit, and other venues.