In good company: The Walk by Robert Walser

On Christmas Day, sixty years after Swiss writer, Robert Walser, took his fateful last winter stroll, I went for a walk through my neighbourhood. It was cold, -23C, but the low sun shone on a fresh 15 cm of snow, making it an ideal day for photographs. This being the first Christmas after the deaths of three of the people closest to me, it was a time of invigorated spirit and creativity mixed with sadness. Not entirely unlike the emotions recounted in the book I opened after returning home—Walser’s novella, The Walk.

walkNotably the first of Walser’s work to be translated into English, the path that led to the present edition of this book, a part of New Direction’s Pearl series, is interesting and informative. The original translation by Christopher Middleton was published 1955, and based on the 1917 stand-alone publication of The Walk. When the same piece was released as part of the 1920 collection, Seeland, the author had edited his first version—streamlining some sections, padding out others. With this in mind, translator Susan Bernofsky, applied Walser’s edits, only as necessary, to Middleton’s work. The resulting volume is a unique collaboration and, as Bernofsky notes in her introduction, the two versions offer fascinating insight into Walser’s “evolution as a writer.”

The narrator is a writer and a self-styled flâneur whose environment is not the bustling metropolis, but a semi-rural/semi-suburban setting featuring bucolic scenery and peopled with eccentric characters. The novella opens with our hero leaving the gloomy isolation of his daily confrontation with the empty page, to set off on a series of errands. He is in a jaunty, positive mood. It’s evident that being out on the street is where he feels most free, confident, and at ease.  Opinionated, observant, and self-conscious, the narrative that unfolds is marked by an excessive chattiness. Whether he is addressing the reader or someone he encounters, a certain manic energy drives the perambulator’s account:

In the water of a fountain a dog refreshes itself, in the blue air swallows twitter. One or two ladies in astonishingly short skirts and astoundingly high, snug, fine, elegant, dainty colored booties make themselves as conspicuous as anything else. Moreover two summer or straw hats catch my eye. The story about the straw hats is this: it is that in the bright, gentle air I suddenly see two enchanting hats; under the hats stand two fairly prosperous-looking gentlemen, who by means of a bold, elegant, courteous waving of hats seem to be bidding each other good morning, which is an occasion upon which the hats are evidently more important than their wearers and owners. The writer is nonetheless very humbly asked to be a bit careful to avoid jokes as well as other superfluousnesses. It is hoped that he understands this, once and for all.

This excessive attention to detail, and the tendency to address himself in the third person with slightly self-deprecating humour, creates a distinctively Walserian tone that would influence Bernhard and be so admired by Walter Benjamin and W.G. Sebald.

As he continues on his walk, Walser’s narrator, will stop into a bookshop and bakery, dine with a female friend, and attend to a variety of errands. He waxes lyrical, sometimes taking his praise well over the top when describing some of the houses, gardens, and natural settings he passes by, while he explodes with outrage at the slightest provocation. Inspired to impromptu speech-making, he bends over backward to flatter several women he encounters, and recites from memory a long-winded insulting diatribe to the unknown recipient of a letter he mails:

“He who works honestly, and devotedly exerts himself, is in the eyes of people like you, an outspoken ass. In this I do not err; for my little finger can tell me that I am right. I must dare to tell you to your face that you abuse your position because you know full well how many annoyances and tedious complications would be entailed if anyone were to rap your knuckles. In the grace and favor which you enjoy, ensconced in your privileged prescriptive position, you are still wide open to attack, for you feel without a doubt how insecure you are.”

In his outbursts, it becomes increasingly apparent that the writer/walker is channelling his own insecurities such as in the much-foreshadowed incident in which he angrily confronts a tailor whom he is determined to take for task for the fit of a suit—one it’s uncertain he either wants or, more likely, can afford. At his next stop, he proceeds to grovel before a tax official, explaining how his writerly profession does not provide a reliable income and he thus requires that he be taxed at the lowest feasible rate. When the taxman points out that he always seems to be out walking rather than plying his trade, the narrator launches into a detailed explanation of the critical importance of his daily excursions to the gathering and processing of the ideas that he will commit to paper when he returns to his dwelling:

“Walk,” was my answer, “I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could neither write the half of one more single word, nor produce a poem in verse or prose. Without walking, I would be dead, and would long since been forced to abandon my profession, which I love passionately.”

As the narrator reaches his destination, the end point of his outing where he will rest and reflect, all pomposity and bravado give way to the underlying sadness and loss that he carries with him. He walks then, not just for inspiration, but to try escape a gloom that is not confined to his room alone.

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The Walk was the only one of Walser’s works to be published in English during his lifetime. Now, sixty years after his death, his many novels and short story collections continue to appear regularly in translation. For a man who spent so much of his life confined to mental health facilities, nearly forgotten, and who fell silently in the snow on a solitary walk, this particular novella, so lovingly tended by two of his best known translators, is a fitting honour to his memory.

Dark brightness and bright darkness: Berlin Stories by Robert Walser

“Up above is a narrow strip of sky, and the smooth, dark ground below looks as if it’s been polished by human destinies. The buildings to either side rise boldly, daintily, and fantastically into architectural heights. The air quivers and startles with worldly life… And always people are walking here. Never in all the time this street has existed has life stopped circulating here. This is the very heart, the ceaselessly respiring breast of metropolitan life. It is a place of deep inhalations and mighty exhalations, as if life itself felt disagreeably constricted by its own pace and course.”

Great cities have their own personalities and in the company of Swiss writer Robert Walser, Berlin of the early twentieth century becomes a living, breathing entity, a dynamic metropolis drawing in the ambitious, the hopeful and the desperate in equal measure. As a guide to the city, its haunts, and its colourful inhabitants, he is endlessly engaging. His name has been surfacing in my consciousness for a while now, but I had not gotten more than a few stories into this collection before I wondered why it had taken me so long to “discover” him for myself.

BerlinBerlin Stories from New York Review of Books is a collection of short stories composed during Walser’s years in Berlin and the first few years after he left, originally edited and organized by German Walser scholar, Jochen Greven. In her introduction to this edition, translator Susan Bernofsky tells us that, with the beginnings of a literary career underway, Robert Walser moved to Berlin in 1907 at the age of 27. His brother had already enjoyed success as a set designer in the thriving theatre scene. The city was bursting with life. Over the next six years he would record that life in short stories or “prose pieces” and three novels. But financial security eluded him and his own eccentricities did not help him secure the patronage that would have benefited him. He returned to Switzerland in 1913.

The pieces in Berlin Stories are divided into four sections or “movements”: The City Streets, The Theatre, Berlin Life and Looking Back. Most of the pieces are quite short, often no more than a page or two. Narrators who may or may not be Walser himself, wander the streets, ride the trams, or take in theatrical performances while offering attentive discourses on the sights and experiences of city life. He can be thoughtful, melancholy, humourous or sarcastic, sometimes striking playful barbs at contemporaries.

As with any collection of short works, especially one with 38 stories, it is hard to capture a sense of the volume in a brief review. There is so much magic in these pages, it is difficult not to marvel at the acuity of Walser’s observations. He is especially gifted at peering behind the glitz and creating moving accounts of what Bernofsky calls the “humbler aspects of city life”. He has an uncanny eye for the small details that play across the faces and animate the actions of the characters he sketches. Sometimes his observations are direct, at other times his intentions are delivered with a deft backhand as in “The Little Berliner” a story in which he takes the voice of a precocious 12 year-old girl, who enjoys a life of wealth and privilege. But all is not as wonderful as one might suspect. She reports that: “For reasons whose depths I cannot understand and consequently cannot evaluate, my parents live apart. Most of the time I live with Father.” She admonishes herself for confessing to her diary, but Father, for all his wealth and charm, is sometimes a very angry and unpleasant man. The observations and attitudes swirling around in her child’s head present a rather caustic view of the rich delievered in a wonderfully clever way.

Another piece I really enjoyed for its pure descriptive power is “Fire”, in which the narrator and his companion get caught up in the excitement of what must have been a fairly regular occurrence at this time – a house on fire. A spectacle drawing the curious, it is an event at once ordinary and extraordinary:

“an entire street is brightly, garishly lit up by it, it resembles a sunset in the distant south, ten evenings ablaze, a host of suns setting in unison. You see the façades of buildings looking like pale-yellow paper, and the bright red glow of the fire approaches, a thick glowing, wounded red, and beside it the street lanterns look like feebly burning damp matches.”

No one is injured in this instance but a distinguished old piece of architecture is lost, a fact greeted by one of the observers as a healthy form of natural selection, clearing out the dead wood and making room for new construction.

I could go and quote from this work at length, there are little gems nestled in almost every piece. More than 100 years on, his work is vital, entertaining and immensely readable. At the height of his career he was a favourite of Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin. The resonance of his voice has carried on through the influence of those who admired his work giving it the immediacy that feels so surprising when one first encounters him now. In his lifetime which was increasingly spent in mental asylums, Walser seemed to disappear off the radar. Greven’s German scholarship in the 1950s and the first English translation of his work not long before Walser’s death in 1956, brought him to the attention of a new generation of highly influential writers including WG Sebald, Peter Handke and JM Coetzee.

Now, if you have yet to make the acquaintance of Robert Walser, hurry along and check him out. Personally I’m sold and can’t wait to read more.

A song of the 20th century in five parts: The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

“Some are destined to stay behind, some are destined to depart, and yet others to arrive.
That’s how life works.”

The metaphysical truth that binds the five overlapping narratives that tell this story of one German woman’s life is simple: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from the end of days.

end1Like waves crashing upon the shore and retreating again, in each section of this mesmerizing novel by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, the unnamed female character at its centre dies. Born in Galicia, in 1902, to a Jewish mother and a Christian father, the first section imagines her dying before her first birthday. While her mother sits shiva, her father escapes to America in his grief and the young family never recovers.

But then, the narrator steps in and asks us to reconsider the possibility that the infant’s life might have been saved and that another fate unfolds. Now, a second daughter follows the first and the father relocates his family to Vienna in hopes of improving his ability to support his wife and daughters. But war breaks out and life is cold, unimaginably cold, and meagre provisions are meted out to the hungry residents who line up each night, through the night, clutching their ration cards. As her father obsessively copies out earthquake reports brought home from his work in the department of meteorology and her mother assumes she is leading a questionable life, our heroine is simply in her late teens, trying to understand all of the normal passions of adolescence in an atmosphere that seems to hold out little hope. This time she will lose hope and conspire to take her own life.

In her third incarnation we find her in Moscow, having aligned herself with the Communists and trying to write and re-write her own story in a desperate attempt to save herself and, if possible, her husband who has already been arrested. This central section, the longest and densest, forms the axis upon which 20th century European history and the life of the woman at the heart of The End of Days seems to turn. Her own allegiances are complicated, everything she had believed in is tested, and the ground shifts so quickly that holding fast to moral or political ideals is like, well, surviving an earthquake. Her fate, like so many of her relatives is seemingly inescapable.

Or is it?

New Directions edition
New Directions edition

As well as being a writer, Erpenbeck is also an opera director; and the hypnotic, haunting images and motifs that arise, disappear, and resurface throughout this exquisite novel are reminiscent of the phrases that are repeated and built upon in an extended piece of classic music. The mood is mournful, as themes of loss and the experience of death and grief are revisited, each time within vastly different contexts. Susan Bernofsky’s deft translation sustains the rhythm and music of the language. In the hands of a lesser writer this would seem contrived, but here, the bones are bare, the emotions raw and the result heartbreaking, horrifying and beautiful in its sheer humanity. The prose is spare, evocative. It gets under the skin, works its way right into the reader’s heart.

I could say so much more, but quite honestly, this book deserves to be experienced not described.

International Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: I finished this book on the eve of the announcement of the IFFP long list and I am thrilled to see it included. (Published by Portebello in the UK, I have the New Directions edition.) I feel confident that it will be one of my personal top reads of the year and I will be looking to read more of Erpenbeck’s earlier work in the future.