The Hands of Robert Walser

By Esther YiDecember 31, 2015

The Hands of Robert Walser

Looking at Pictures

PRINT HAS WRONGED Robert Walser. Most writers, especially the inept, have something to gain from official print. Something like puffed-up authority — for print is the writer’s shoulder-padded uniform. But in the case of Walser, for whom being small is entirely the point, typescript sits awkwardly on the wearer. To read the Swiss writer is to imagine sitting beside him at the table as he pencils line after line of two-millimeter-high script, close to indecipherable, on the backs of business cards and in the blank spaces of telegrams and bank statements. When I read Walser, I don’t want to hear the clang of the press. I want to hear the rasp of pencil traveling paper.

Most of all, I want to see his hands. Inspired by W.G. Sebald’s study of Walser’s “seven very different faces,” I have looked for Walser’s hands in the few black-and-white photographs of him that exist. A young man with dreams for eyes sits hunched in a chair with hands spread over thighs. His hands are in elegant repose, but they also seem ponderous, as if they are forcing his back into its forward arch. He is a pianist who has just struck the critical chord.

In photographs of the writer as an old man, these hands are curled into loose fists. He is shown taking one of his famous walks through the Swiss region of Herisau, where he spent the last 23 years of his life at an asylum. Walser did not write during this time. “I’m not here to write, but to be mad,” he reportedly told a visitor, who perhaps should have replied that others have multitasked before. Despite the several novels and hundreds of prose pieces behind him, Walser died in 1956 all but forgotten. I like to think that the hands of the old man in the photographs are holding what he could not drop onto the page.

In Walser’s written universe, hands are where two bodies meet. There are “kind, comforting, caressing” hands, as well as “crude and disgusting” hands that touch with unearned intimacy. In fits of tenderness, hands are kissed or grasped; in confrontation, violently struck. Hands are scouts for the body following close behind. “How delightful it is that we have hands to receive the blows meant for the head, which is where arrogance resides,” says The Robber’s narrator after the eponymous hero’s hand has been struck by a stick. “It was suffering, then, because it was his.” This is funny wording: stating the obvious (that the hand belongs to the Robber) opens the possibility of the hand having a life of its own, outside the body proper.

Not quite here, not quite there. Hands may be ambassadors of the home personality — a schoolboy’s “long slender hands” express “a nameless suffering of soul” — but they also resemble things that are alive in their own right, like “white fluttering doves” or “exalted and fallen kings.” As they travel out into the world and grope for the new, Walser’s fictional hands take on independent, even disruptive, lives. “These hands of mine were creatures with a will of their own,” says one narrator, “and as such they wanted to walk off somewhere into the night, and when I checked their movement, they started to cry like discontented, small, sick children who are upset because tired.”

The hand is where control and caprice coexist, letting slip what was gripped with precision moments before — and in Walser’s writing this is especially true for the painter and the poet. Walser was a great admirer of painting, in no small part due to a close relationship with his brother Karl, a successful stage-set designer and painter, some of whose works (along with those of other artists) are examined in Looking at Pictures, a new collection that assembles Walser’s short prose on paintings (translated from the original German by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton). The opening piece is written from the perspective of a painter who decides that “writing is an enjoyable change of pace for a painter’s hand,” and he goes on to record his thoughts about art. He describes the hand as the not entirely reliable middleman between painter and object:

It isn’t easy to master a hand. A hand is often the seat of a great deal of stubborn willfulness, which first has to be broken. By deploying an energetic but gentle volition, it can be made wonderfully pliant, docile, and obedient. The defiance in it has been broken, like a bone, and the hand labors then like a strange, talented servant, growing stronger and more refined from day to day. The eye is like a bird of prey, glimpsing the tiniest aberrant movement. But the hand also fears the eye, its eternal tormenter.

All this talk about controlling the hand reinforces just how little control the Painter actually has — an experience that seems to rouse strong sympathy in Walser the writer. Perhaps Walser had in mind that hypnotic experience of the hand gliding over the page, the twitch and agility of muscle and momentum informing the choice and rhythm of words; it’s as if the words were impossible to have imagined until the moment of their appearance on the page. The mere hope of repossessing this experience — the mystery of artistic creation, of taking control by letting go — can sustain a writer through an entire season of empty pages.

(Relatedly: The Painter’s description of the hand as “obedient,” a “servant,” is very much in keeping with Walser’s characteristic valorization of the “zero” or nothing-person as anything but. Consider the protagonist of Jakob von Gunten, a student at an institution for servants-to-be who believes existence is made “delectable” by rules: “If I oughtn’t to love, I love ten times as much. Everything that’s forbidden lives a hundred times over.” If the hands of the Painter could speak, perhaps they would say the same.)

The peculiarities of the hand — its role in creating literature, however unglamorous the flesh-bound mechanics may seem — made a legacy-defining difference for Walser. He found one day that starting with the pen made him “nervous,” so he embarked upon “the pencil method,” which involved “detour and increased labor” but permitted him to work “more dreamily, peacefully, cozily, contemplatively.” The pen pressured Walser to produce something definitive; the sketch-friendly pencil freed him to range. “I suffered a real breakdown in my hand on account of the pen, a sort of cramp from whose clutches I slowly, laboriously freed myself by means of the pencil,” Walser wrote to an editor in 1927. “A swoon, a cramp, a stupor — these are always both physical and mental.”

What resulted were Walser’s “microscripts,” 526 pages in all, discovered after his death. On scraps of paper, he had penciled in miniscule scale, using a German script of medieval origins (that, for example, replaces the s with a slash), what was assumed by his literary executor Carl Seelig to be a secret code springing from schizophrenia, which Walser had been diagnosed with in 1929. The texts took two scholars more than a decade to decipher and process into six volumes called From the Pencil Zone. I am a grateful but conflicted reader. In their maddening “coded” form, the microscripts emphasize to an extreme a quality I like so much about Walser’s writing in general: it exists for itself, with no possibility of being anything else; it annihilates the concept of the “rough draft,” of positioning the text as something that can be polished for external view.

Walser microscriptLooking at Pictures includes a few of these microscripts, alongside short prose pieces that were published during his lifetime. They offer trademark Walser excursions. A recollection of his landlady removing a picture from his wall ends with her mending his trousers. Tucked into a discussion about Belgian art is an aside about a Bernese acquaintance of Walser’s who will travel to the Congo to join her Belgian husband. One might call this tangent bewildering were it not for the fact that it doesn’t make itself out to be anything more than a brief straying of the mind. In fact, Walser periodically suggests — “my wording here is inadequate”; “I’m glad it occurred to me to say so” — that he is thinking as he writes.

Looking at Pictures is a meditation not so much on painting but on observation — on paying such close attention that you lose the thread and end up somewhere else. There is living flight to Walser’s art. His thinking moves shoulder to shoulder with his writing, one rarely outpacing the other. He enacts, rather than presents, his consumption of pictures. Here’s how one piece begins:

How riveted I was by the illustration entitled The Burning Ship! Is a sinking frigate not phenomenal?

If, by the way, velvet footstools and the like can be whacked free of dust and brushed on Sundays, then authorial activity must be permitted as well.

Do I not feel, when I am exercising my intellect, exactly as if I were sitting in church? Drafting a prose piece puts me in a devotional frame of mind.

How terrifying a ship on fire is. Gazing at the picture, I said to myself: The mariners find themselves faced with the necessity of fleeing the fire […].

Flat and shallow observations, earnestly delivered, are tucked into oblique turns of thought that are not entirely nonsensical but nevertheless deprive the reader of clarifying connections. Walser makes leaps that are so arbitrary and so confident, they start to feel organic — the unedited quirks of a brain. He searches for ways out of the picture: looking at Ferdinand Hodler’s The Beech Forest, Walser is taken “far, far beyond the forest, the forest gives way to the most distant distance.” Sometimes, in continuing the image, he abandons it entirely — and what’s left is the imaginative forever of his inner vision, that “joy verging on perfection in reclusiveness.”

For Walser, paintings are not only starting points but also the result of this project of expansion. The artist’s task is to magnify or intensify what already exists: the small and the pitiful, fruits and tablecloths, barbers and peaceful landscapes. An aversion to traveling (“Why should I go to Italy when I can be here?”) is a perennial theme, related to Walser’s distrust in reckless inventing as a sort of lazy answer to the more difficult task of deepening — remaking — the familiar. Perhaps this is why hands, that space of control and caprice, populate Walser’s writing. They enable the artist to make his creative escape into abstracted ether, but they also keep him tethered to the body, to earth.

In “The Van Gogh Picture,” Walser discusses the portrait of a peasant woman who has “the sort of hands one encounters everywhere without paying them any attention, as they appear to be far from lovely.” At the painting’s center is the woman’s left hand, upon which she rests a cheek. The hand is depicted as a brown block that seems roughly cut from stone. But as Walser muses on the woman’s former lovers, her life of toil and sorrow, how she must have “listened to the ringing of bells,” that brown block begins to gleam with coarse dignity, and its owner seems to rest upon it for far more than momentary relief. It occurs to me that this is the Walserian hand that I have been looking for.

For I have begun to doubt my original project, especially on viewing one picture in particular, a photograph of Walser that a lot of people believe nobody should see. He lies on his back, arm outstretched, snow clogging the corrugated bottom of his shoes, hat fallen some feet beyond his head. While taking a walk on Christmas Day, 1956, Walser suffered a heart attack. Children found his body; the police were called; they took photographs. It’s while looking at the writer in this position of fatal stillness, a wretched irony for a man who loved to walk, that I realize he is just as unmoving in those other pictures, the ones in which he is alive. If I am to find Walser’s hands, I must at some point abandon the images, just as he did.


Esther Yi is a writer in Berlin. Her reportage and criticism have appeared in The AtlanticCinema ScopeBookforum, and other publications. She lives online here.

LARB Contributor

Esther Yi is a writer in Berlin. Her reportage and criticism have appeared in The AtlanticCinema ScopeBookforum, and other publications. She lives online at


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