Post Road Magazine #7


Pedestrian is an odd word. We don't mean anything kind when we apply it to someone. Pedestrian crossings slow us down in our exciting automotive adventures. Pedestrian movies, pedestrian meals, pedestrian conversation are all odious.

And yet the greatest pedestrian in literary history, Robert Walser, is back in print and ready to be rediscovered again. In stories like “A Little Ramble” and “The Walk” and “The Little Tree” Walser ventures out into the world on foot, at a walker's pace, and reflects and reports on what he finds there. Sometimes it is his own fancy, as in “The Man With the Pumpkin Head” or “Stork and Hedgehog,” a dialog which begins:

HEDGEHOG: Aren't I captivating? Tell me.
STORK: For a long time I have loved you.

and ends:

How the stork would have loved to kiss, with his beak, the spines of the hedgehog. What a kissing that would have been! We shudder at the thought of it.

More often, though, he seems to find something in the world to notice, something we might have passed by: a little tree, a woman wearing trousers, a French newspaper. Out of these he would make what he called “little Walserings”–confections of language disguised as stories, though none of them have a plot, exactly. Nor for the most part are they prose poems, exactly. He doesn't seem to have any ancestors or any descendants or even any close cousins; he stands off to one side of literary history, watching and musing.

Like Musil, Kafka, Hamsun, his central character (is there more than one?) is a failure–not only a social and financial failure but a metaphysical failure as well. Not only does he have nothing, he is nothing; or rather he is one thing here and another thing there, a dissociated scatter of selves. What sets the Walser character apart from Gregor Samsa or Malte Laurids Brigge is his ease and good cheer. He doesn't seem to mind. Success would be in bad taste, a little ostentatious, a little showy. A fixed, stable, integrated self could be secured only by sacrificing these other flighty selves. And where would the fun be in that? It is this lightness and love of the world that brings me back to Walser's writing, once or twice a year, just for the pleasure of his company.

A word or two about the writer's life is probably in order, though–like so many twentieth-century literary all-stars–it makes for depressing reading. He lived in poverty and obscurity, though he did publish a book in his lifetime. He grew increasingly eccentric–his last works, which he called microscripts, were written in tiny writing in tiny squares in the middle of a blank page, a struggle between speech and silence which the silence eventually won. After a suicide attempt in 1929 he checked himself into an institution, where his depression was misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. From 1933 until his death in 1956 there was no more writing; “I did not come here to write,” he said of the institution, “I came here to be mad.” He died of a heart attack while on a walk in the snow on Christmas Day, after a silence that lasted 23 years.

The very peculiar thing about this life is how little it seems to be reflected in his work. The stories, in their endless experiment, their willingness to come at life from every angle, strike me as the work of a confident, playful mind. I don't know what it was like to be Walser when he was not at work, but when he was writing he was swimming, not drowning. Listen to a few of these first lines and tell me different:

A she-owl in a ruined wall said to herself: what a horrifying existence “The She-Owl”.
Kienast was the name of a man who wanted nothing to do with anything “Kienast”.
I am a little worn out, raddled, squashed, downtrodden, shot full of holes “Nervous”.
The three people, the captain, a gentleman, and a young girl, climb into the basket, the anchoring chords are loosed, and the strange house flies, slowly, as if it had first to ponder something, upward “Balloon Journey”.

These stories lurch into motion with the first line and never look back–eccentric motion, certainly, but carefully controlled, deeply original, and interesting. Walser will take you places no other writer will.

The place to start is the Selected Stories, back in print from the New York Review Books Classics, 42 little trips into the unknown and sometimes back, in lucid, graceful translations, mostly by Christopher Middleton. The second stop would be the novel Jakob von Gunten, also in print, which was actually made into a movie a few years ago by the brothers Quay. But do start, before he disappears again. He will never be major; he wouldn't want to be major, it would go against the grain, it would be presumptuous–but he will always be himself, alone, on foot, walking, noticing things we didn't notice, seeing what we can't see •

Kevin Canty has written the novels Into the Great Wide Open and Nine Below Zero, as well as the story collections A Stranger in This World and Honeymoon. His essays and stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Vogue, and elsewhere. He lives and writes, among other things, in Missoula, Montana, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Montana and plays slide guitar in the Pleasure Kings.

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