Monday, January 12, 2015

Walking with Walser

•Robert Walser: The Walk..
Translated by Christopher Middleton with Susan Bernofsky.
New York: New Directions, 2012. 89 pages.
ISBN 978-08112-1992-1.
Berkeley, January 12, 2015—
FOR DECADES I was unable to deal with Central European literature, probably because of an early encounter with Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. That prejudice lingers, but has been overcome from time to time, probably through a more recent (but now long ago) encounter with the novels of Italo Svevo. Robert Walser was Swiss, and his writing has a German flavor; but he feels to me closer to Svevo than to Mann. But what do I know: this was my introduction to him. The book is charming, easily read, with a lingering finish. Told in the first person by the writer who writes it as he lives it, it simply describes a day spent walking through an apparently small town, Swiss no doubt, surrounded by forest and open country, dotted with inns and cottages, boasting a modest business district (bookshop, butcher, bank, barber — I think all these B's are coincidental) in which the narrator has various errands to perform. The Walk made me think of Hawthorne, specifically the story "Rills from a Town Pump," and also of Pessoa. Hawthorne's careless, sunny objectivity is filtered through Pessoa's melancholy, unachieved sensitivity. The narrator is discursive and repetitive but always amusingly so, but his insistent cheerfulness is tinged with a neurasthenic sadness, and the curve of his day, his story, is gentle but conclusive. George Fragopoulos reviews The Walk intelligently in The Quarterly Conversation, discussing the narrator's frequent confrontations with authority figures. I think the insight sound: but I also think of the novella as an allegory on the political context of Switzerland during the first World War. (The Walk appeared in 1917.) It's also a meditation on man's intrinsic orientation toward Nature as it is disrupted by commerce and society — itself an analogy with the distractions tearing a writer from his work:
On a far-wandering walk a thousand usable thoughts occur to me. while shut in at home, ! would lamentably wither and dry up. Walking is for me not only healthy, it is also of service—not only lovely, but also useful. A walk advances me professionally. but also provides me at the same time with amusement: it comforts.delights, and refreshes me, is a pleasure for me. but also has the peculiarity that it spurs me on and allures me to further creation, since it offers me as material numerous more or less significant objectivities upon which I can later work industriously at home. Every walk is filled with phenomena valuable to see and feel.
Walser's style, or at least his narrator's style, is not only discursive and repetitive, it is also amusingly pedantic, a parody, I think, of German convolution; I suppose Carlyle is in the vicinity, along with Hawthorne. Reading this has made me want to go back to Hoffmann, too. Where has that tomcat Murr got to? Is he out walking too?
(Thanks to my friend Jonathan C. for introducing me to this marvelous book…)


Curtis Faville said...


What was it about Buddenbrooks that put you off?

Charles Shere said...

Perceived turgidity. After all, I was only 17 or so at the time. Since a much more recent enthusiasm has been Moravia's Gli indifferenti, perhaps it's time for me to revisit Mann — I have liked his stories.