Robert Walser, The Walk

'Kafka's closest twin brother'
Robert Walser
Andrew Scrima (The Rumpus) reviews Robert Walser's The Walk, translated by Susan Bernofsky:
Among Walser’s early admirers were Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, and Franz Kafka; indeed, many years later, Martin Walser (who is unrelated to the late Swiss writer) called him “Kafka’s closest twin brother.” In his 1929 essay on Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin asserted that everything the author had to say was essentially overshadowed by the significance of writing itself. “The moment he takes a pen to hand, he is seized by a desperado mood. Everything seems lost to him, a gush of words comes pouring out in which each sentence has the sole purpose of rendering the previous one forgotten.” This “shame,” this “chaste, artful clumsiness” is transformed into “garlands of language” with thought stumbling through them in the form of a “pickpocket, a scallywag, and a genius, like the heroes […] that come out of the night where it is at its blackest.” Flickering in this blackness, however, are “meager lanterns of hope.”

Yet the hope that shines forth in the moments of self-knowledge, transcendence, and grace Walser describes is anything but meager. On the contrary, it is exultation the writer feels when he perceives the sublime in the tiniest details of everyday life. As the narrator passes through the gentle countryside, he enters a rapturous state in which he attains to an almost holy connection with the present: “I felt as if someone were calling me by name, or as if someone were kissing and soothing me […] the soul of the world had opened, and I fantasized that everything wicked, distressing and painful was on the point of vanishing […]. All notion of the future paled and the past dissolved. In the glowing present I myself glowed. […] The earth became a dream; I myself had become an inward being, and I walked as in an inward world. […] In the sweet light of love I believed I was able to recognize—or required to feel—that the inward self is the only self which really exists.” Yet the terrifying Tomzack, the destitute giant who has crossed the narrator’s path only a short time before, is surely a mirror image of the author, who must have intimated the fate in store for him. One can’t help wondering what effect Walser, who spent the last twenty-seven years of his life in an asylum, might have had on modern literature (or even European history) if his writing had found a wider public. In a remark that was perhaps less a na├»ve belief in the power of literature to save humanity from its own catastrophes than a reflection on the unbridgeable distance between Walser’s unique sensibility and the cultural climates that evolved during the rise of Nazi Germany and in the aftermath of the war, Hermann Hesse once claimed that “if poets like Robert Walser could be counted among our foremost intellects, there wouldn’t be any war. If he had 100,000 readers, the world would be a better place.”

In his essay “Le promeneur solitaire,” Sebald describes the difficulty in categorizing Robert Walser: on the one hand he was oppressed by shadows and on the other radiated amicability. He composed humorous works out of sheer desperation in an elusive prose teeming with fleeting images and ephemeral figures. The self remained missing or hidden behind an array of passers-by; he almost always wrote the same thing, yet never repeated himself. Sebald points out that Walser’s writing tended towards a radical minimalism and abbreviation from the very beginning, while simultaneously exhibiting a contrary propensity for the minutely described detail, the playful arabesque. [Read More]
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