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The Genius of Robert Walser

It was clear that he could no longer live alone. His family was, in the terminology of the times, tainted: his mother had been a chronic depressive; one brother had committed suicide; another had died in a mental hospital. It was suggested that his sister should take him in, but she was unwilling. So he allowed himself to be committed to the sanatorium in Waldau. “Markedly depressed and severely inhibited,” ran the initial medical report. “Responded evasively to questions about being sick of life.”

In later evaluations Walser’s doctors would disagree about what, if anything, was wrong with him, and would even urge him to try living outside again. However, the bedrock of institutional routine would appear to have become indispensable to him, and he chose to stay. In 1933 his family had him transferred to the asylum in Herisau, where he was entitled to welfare support. There he occupied his time with chores like gluing paper bags and sorting beans. He remained in full possession of his faculties; he continued to read newspapers and popular magazines; but, after 1932, he did not write. “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,” he told a visitor. Besides, he said, the time for litterateurs was over. (Recently one of the Herisau staff claimed to have seen Walser at work writing. Even if this is true, no trace of such post-1932 writing has survived.)

Being a writer was difficult for Walser at the most elementary of levels. He did not use a typewriter, but wrote a clear, well-formed hand, on which he prided himself. The manuscripts that have survived—fair copies—are models of calligraphy. Handwriting was, however, one of the sites where psychic disturbance first manifested itself. At some time in his thirties (Walser is vague about the date) he began to suffer psychosomatic cramps of the right hand that he attributed to unconscious animosity toward the pen as a tool. He was able to overcome them only by abandoning the pen and switching to a pencil.

Use of a pencil was important enough for Walser to call it his “pencil system” or “pencil method.” What he does not mention is that when he moved to pencil-writing he radically changed his script. At his death he left behind some five hundred sheets of paper covered in a microscopic pencil script so difficult to read that his executor at first took them to be a diary in secret code. In fact Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script a code: it is simply handwriting with so many idiosyncratic abbreviations that, even for editors familiar with it, unambiguous decipherment is not always possible. It is in these pencil drafts alone that Walser’s numerous late works, including his last novel, The Robber (twenty-four sheets of microscript, 141 pages in print), have come down to us.

More interesting than the script itself is the question of what the “pencil method” made possible to Walser as a writer that the pen could no longer provide (he still used a pen for fair copies, as well as for correspondence). The answer seems to be that, like an artist with a stick of charcoal between his fingers, Walser needed to get a steady, rhythmic hand movement going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which reverie, composition, and the flow of the writing tool became much the same thing. In a piece entitled “Pencil Sketch” dating from 1926-1927, he mentions the “unique bliss” that the pencil method allowed him. “It calms me down and cheers me up,” he said elsewhere. Walser’s texts are driven neither by logic nor by narrative but by moods, fancies, and associations: in temperament he is less a thinker or storyteller than an essayist. The pencil and the self-invented stenographic script allowed the purposeful, uninterrupted, yet dreamy hand movement that had become indispensable to his creative mood.

The longest of Walser’s late works is The Robber, written in 1925-1926 but deciphered and published only in 1972. The story is light to the point of being insubstantial. It concerns the sentimental entanglements of a middle-aged man known simply as the Robber, a man who has no job but manages to exist on the fringes of polite society in Berne on the basis of a modest legacy.

Among the women the Robber diffidently pursues is a waitress named Edith; among the women who somewhat less diffidently pursue him are assorted landladies who want him either for their daughters or for themselves. The action culminates in a scene in which the Robber ascends the pulpit and, before a large assemblage, reproves Edith for preferring a mediocre rival to him. Incensed, Edith fires a revolver, wounding him slightly. There is a flurry of gleeful gossip. When the dust clears, the Robber is collaborating with a professional writer to tell his side of the story.

Why “the Robber” (der Räuber) as a name for this timid gallant? The word hints, of course, at Walser’s first name. The cover of the University of Nebraska Press translation gives a further clue. It reproduces a watercolor by Karl Walser of his brother Robert, aged fifteen, dressed up as his favorite hero, Karl Moor in Schiller’s drama The Robbers. The robber of Walser’s tale of modern times is, alas, no hero. A pilferer and plagiarist rather than a brigand, he steals at most the affections of girls and the formulas of popular fiction.

Behind Robber/Robert (whom I will henceforth call R) lurks a shadowy figure, the nominal author of the book, by whom R is treated now as a protégé, now as a rival, now as a mere puppet to be shifted around from situation to situation. He is critical of R (for handling his finances badly, for hanging around working-class girls, and generally for being a Tagedieb, a day-thief or idler, rather than a good Swiss burgher), even though, he confesses, he has to keep his wits about him lest he confuse himself with R. In character he is much like R, mocking himself even as he plays out his social routines. Every now and again he has a flutter of anxiety about the book he is writing before our eyes—about its slow progress, the triviality of its content, the vacuity of his hero.

Fundamentally The Robber is “about” nothing more than the adventure of its own writing. Its charm lies in its surprising twists and turns of direction, its delicately ironic handling of the formulas of amatory play, and its supple and inventive exploitation of the resources of German. Its author figure, flustered by the multiplicity of narrative strands he suddenly has to manage now that the pencil in his hand is moving, is reminiscent above all of Laurence Sterne, the gentler, later Sterne, without the leering and the double entendres.

The distancing effect allowed by an authorial self split off from an R self, and by a style in which sentiment is covered in a light veil of parody, allows Walser to write movingly, now and again, about his own (that is, R’s) defenselessness on the margins of Swiss society:

He was always…lone as a little lost lamb. People persecuted him to help him learn how to live. He gave such a vulnerable impression. He resembled the leaf that a little boy strikes down from its branch with a stick, because its singularity makes it conspicuous. In other words, he invited persecution.

As Walser remarked, with equal irony but in propria persona, in a letter from the same period: “At times I feel eaten up, that is to say half or wholly consumed, by the love, concern, and interest of my so excellent countrymen.”

The Robber was not prepared for publication. In fact, in none of his many conversations with his friend and benefactor during his asylum years, Carl Seelig, did Walser so much as mention its existence. It draws on episodes from his life, barely disguised; yet one should be cautious about taking it as autobiographical. R embodies only one side of Walser. Though there are references to persecuting voices, and though R suffers from delusions of reference (he suspects hidden meaning, for example, in the way that men blow their noses in his presence), Walser’s own more melancholic, self-destructive side is kept firmly out of the picture.

In a major episode R visits a doctor and with great candor describes his sexual problems. He has never felt the urge to spend nights with women, he says, yet has “quite horrifying stockpiles of amorous potential,” so much so that “every time I go out on the street, I immediately start falling in love.” The only stratagem that brings him happiness is to think up stories about himself and his erotic object in which he is “the subordinate, obedient, sacrificing, scrutinized, and chaperoned [one].” Sometimes, in fact, he feels he is really a girl. Yet at the same time there is also a boy inside him, a naughty boy. The doctor’s response is eminently sage. You seem to know yourself very well, he says—don’t try to change.

In another remarkable passage Walser simply lets the pencil flow (lets the censor doze) as it leads him from the pleasures of “damselling”—living a feminine life imaginatively from the inside—to a richly erotic sharing of the experience of operatic lovers, to whom the bliss of pouring out one’s love in song and the bliss of love itself are one and the same.

Jakob von Gunten is translated in exemplary fashion by Christopher Middleton, a pioneering student of Walser and one of the great mediators of German literature to the English-speaking world of our time. In the case of The Robber, Susan Bernofsky rises splendidly to the challenge of late Walser, particularly his play with the compound formations to which German is so hospitable.

In an essay published in 1994, Bernofsky describes some of the problems that Walser presents to the translator.2 One of her illustrative passages is the following:

He sat in the aforementioned garden, entwined by lianas, embutterflied by melodies, and rapt in the rapscallity of his love for the fairest young aristocrat ever to spring down from the heavens of parental shelter into the public eye so as, with her charms, to give the heart of a Robber a fatal stab.

Bernofsky’s ingenuity in coining “embutterflied,” and her resourcefulness in postponing the punch to the final word, are admirable. But the sentence also illustrates one of the vexing problems of Walser’s microscript texts. The word translated here as “aristocrat,” Herrentochter, is deciphered by another of Walser’s editors as Saaltochter, Swiss German for “waitress.” (The woman in question, Edith, is certainly a waitress and no aristocrat.) Whose version are we to accept?

Now and again Bernofsky fails to rise to the challenge Walser sets. I am not sure that “scalawagging his way through [the] arcades” calls up the intended picture of a boy skipping school. One of the widows with whom R flirts is characterized as ein Dummchen; and for two pages Walser rings the changes on Dummheit in all its aspects. Bernofsky consistently uses “ninny” for Dummchen and “ninnihood” for Dummheit. “Ninny” has connotations of feeblemindedness, even of idiocy, absent from Dumm-words, and is anyhow rarely used in contemporary English. Neither “ninny” nor any other single English word will translate Dummchen, which has senses of “dummy” (someone who is dumb or stupid—the sense is stronger in American than in British English), “nitwit,” and even “airhead.”

Walser wrote in High German (Hochdeutsch), the language that Swiss children learn in school. High German differs not only in a multitude of linguistic details but in its very temperament from the Swiss German that is the home language of three quarters of Swiss citizens. Writing in High German—which was, practically speaking, the only choice open to Walser—entailed, unavoidably, adopting a stance of a person of learning and of social refinement, a stance with which he was not comfortable. Though he had little time for a Swiss regional literature (Heimatliteratur) dedicated to reproducing Helvetic folklore and celebrating dying folkways, Walser did, after his return to Switzerland, deliberately begin to introduce Swiss German into his writing, and generally to sound Swiss.

The coexistence of two versions of the same language in the same social space is a phenomenon without analogy in the metropolitan English-speaking world, and one that creates huge problems for the English translator. Bernofsky’s response to so-called dialect in Walser—comprising not just the odd word or phrase but a harder to define Swiss coloring to his language—is, candidly, to make no attempt to reproduce it: translating his Swiss-German moments by evoking some or other regional or social dialect of English will yield nothing, she says, but cultural falsification.

Both Middleton and Bernofsky write informative introductions to their translations, though Middleton’s is out of date on Walser scholarship. Neither chooses to provide explanatory notes. The absence of notes will be felt particularly in The Robber, which is peppered with references to literature, including the obscurer reaches of Swiss literature.

The Robber is more or less contemporary in composition with Joyce’s Ulysses and with the later volumes of Proust’s Recherche. Had it been published in 1926 it might have affected the course of modern German literature, opening up and even legitimating as a subject the adventures of the writing (or dreaming) self and of the meandering line of ink (or pencil) that emerges under the writing hand. But that was not to be. Although a project to bring together Walser’s writings was initiated before his death, it was only after the first volumes of a more scholarly Collected Works began to appear in 1966, and after he had been noticed by readers in England and France, that he gained widespread attention in Germany.

Today Walser is judged largely on the basis of his novels, even though these form only a fifth of his output, and even though the novel proper was not his forte (the four novels he left behind really belong to the tradition of the novella). He is most at home in the mode of short fiction: pieces like “Kleist in Thun” (1913) and “Helbling’s Story” (1914) show him at his dazzling best. His own uneventful yet, in its way, harrowing life was his only true subject. All his prose pieces, he suggested in retrospect, might be read as chapters in “a long, plotless, realistic story,” a “cut up or disjoined book of the self [Ich-Buch].”

Was Walser a great writer? If one is reluctant to call him great, said Canetti, that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness. In a late poem Walser wrote:

I would wish it on no one to be me.
Only I am capable of bearing myself.
To know so much, to have seen so much, and
To say nothing, just about nothing.

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