Walks with Walser
“When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer,” said Robert Walser, according to Carl Seelig, about walking in the fog. Walser’s collar is crooked, or worn, or both, he carries his furled umbrella under his arm along the mountain path, his hat is battered, the band torn, he is wearing a suit, somewhat raffish, somewhat the worse for wear, but he has no overcoat. Walser does not feel the cold, says Seelig. He enjoys the clouds, the rain. He distrusts clarity. Walser enjoys his walks with Seelig but asks Seelig not to call for him on any day but Sunday, so as not to disturb the routine of the asylum, in Herisau. There he assembles paper bags with glue, sorts beans and lentils, cleans the rooms. “It suits me to disappear,” says Walser, according to Seelig, “as inconspicuously as possible.” Not only to disappear, but to do so inconspicuously. Even from his early days, according to Seelig, who did not know Walser in his early days and so must have had this information from Walser, or possibly another source, though no other source suggests itself, Walser took long walks to overcome the effects of nightmares. Or anxiety. Or the panic that results from the inability to engage. Not that Walser suffers from the inability to engage, exactly, though he seldom talks without prompting, not even to Seelig, says Seelig. Seelig spends little time with Walser in the asylum, but instead on the mountain paths, walking in the cloud, and in the rain, the best weather, to the small village inns where they enjoy this wine or that, or beer, or cider, and cutlets, or fied egges, or dumplings, or cheese pies, whatever they are, or meatloaf, and pommes frites, or cabbage, or mashed potatoes and peas and white beans. Seelig records it all, afterwards, each detail of the walk and of the food and the drink and the waitresses, and every word that Walser speaks, we suppose, or, anyway, at least the essentials. With great equivalence. Off they walk again together, over the ridge, around the base of the mountain, Switzerland has many ridges and many bases of mountains, to clear their heads after the wine, and then to catch the train that will return Walser to the asylum and Seelig to wherever Seelig lives. Walser “harbours a deep suspicion of the doctors, the nurses, and his fellow patients, which he nonetheless skilfully tries to hide behind ceremonial politeness,” says Seelig, who either observes Walser more frequently than is recorded or has this information from the doctors. Seelig becomes, after all, Walser’s guardian after the deaths of Walser’s brother Karl and his sister Lisa. He republishes Walser’s work. To no avail. But Seelig is invisible to us, through making Walser visible when Walser doesn’t want to be visible. Seelig is Walser’s Boswell. Seelig is the narrator of Walser now that Walser narrates nothing. “Restraint is my only weapon,” says Walser, narrates Seelig. The restraint that made Walser significant as a writer is no different from the restraint that stopped him writing. “The less plot a writer needs, and the more restrained the setting, the more significant his talent,” says Walser, the author of, first, novels, then stories, then feuilletons, then microscripts approximating a millimeter in height in pencil on tiny scraps of paper, hidden about his person, in the Asylum in Waldau, unrecognised as actual writing until after his death, until they were deciphered in the 1990s, then nothing. When he first meets Seelig, because Seelig admires Walser's writing, Walser has already stopped writing. He has written nothing since he left Waldau and entered Herisau. Walser blames Hitler. Or society. Or the new superintendent at Waldau, according the Seelig. Walser blames editors, critics, other writers, according to Seelig. Walser’s work was admired by Kafka. He was admired by Benjamin, Sebald, Bernhard and Handke, according to them. To mention only a few. One critic called The Tanners “nothing more than a collection of footnotes,” according to Walser, according to Seelig. The Assistant was true, which is a surprise, at one time you could visit the advertising clock designed by Tobler, says Walser, says Seelig. Walser wrote the book in six weeks. The world changed. Walser changed, or he failed to change. He was celebrated and then increasingly ignored. He found it hard and then harder to get his work published. Even in the newspapers. “I could not perform for society’s sake,” says Walser, of his failure, according to Seelig, “All the dear, sweet people who think they have the right to criticise me and order me around are fanatical admirers of Herman Hesse. They are extremists in their judgement. That’s the reason I have ended up in this asylum. I simply lacked a halo, and that is the only way to be successful in literature,” says Walser to Seelig, according to Seelig, not without bitterness. Writing can only be done if it is the only thing done. Once, Walser alternated his writing with jobs as a servant or as a clerk, for money, for the time to write. Now he does not write. He wants to disappear. “It is absurd and brutal to expect me to scribble away even in the asylum. The only basis on which a writer can produce is freedom. As long as this condition remains unmet, I will refuse to write ever again,” says Walser, as recorded by Seelig. Walser’s turning away is from writing and from life. Walser's ceremonial politeness is his way of not existing, or of existing in his own absence. He is distant and withdrawn. He likes long walks, alone, we find out later, or with Seelig. He talks with Seelig, a little, when prompted, but not with others. As far as we know. The withdrawal that gives his writing such brilliance is the withdrawal that makes life unlivable, in the end, or at some point some way before the end, when one lets go of something, it is uncertain what, that everyone else grasps, naturally, or, more commonly, desperately, whatever it is, that keeps them clutching their lives. Walser, says Seelig, failed to take his own life, on more than a single occasion. His sister showed him the asylum at Waldau. He could think of no option but to enter. He did what was expected. He is diagnosed, when the term becomes available, as a catatonic schizophrenic, whatever that means, but his enjoyment of the walking, of the scenery, of the food and more especially the drink, and of the waitresses, seems genuine, at least through the eyes of Seelig, who knows him better than anyone, who sought him out because of his work and befriended him in the asylum and who accompanies him on long walks, who records everything and is sympathetic and transparent, at least to us, so that there is no reason to doubt Walser’s small and simple pleasures as they are recorded by Seelig, an affectionate man, on the level of smallness and simplicity at which they are experienced by Walser, who has set about perfecting smallness and simplicity until it resembles so very little it is almost nothing. Who is the sworn enemy of his own individuality. Who shows no emotion when told of the death of his brother, whom he loves, who refuses to break his routine to visit his sister, whom he loves, when she lies dying and asks him to come. “I too am ill,” says Walser, says Seelig. He doesn’t want to do what the other patients in the asylum aren't doing. He has an intestinal ulcer. “Must I be sick?” he asks the doctor, “Are you not satisfied to have me here in good health?” He refuses the operation. Just as well. “Is it true that you destroyed four unpublished novels?” asks Seelig. “That may be,” answers Walser, according to Seelig. Seelig says that Walser’s brother’s wife Fridolina had been told by Walser’s sister Lisa that Walser had destroyed a photograph of himself that had been taken by his brother Karl. “That may be,” answers Walser, records Seelig. Walser is convinced of his failure. At least of his inability to perform as he is expected to perform, to be successful as a writer, though he has an ambivalence towards success, to live even an ordinary life. Everything must be made smaller. “The snow has now turned to hail,” describes Seelig, of the weather. Walser carries steadfastly on. A life is full of details, even when those details are small, or insignificant, if there is such a thing as insignificant. If you wish to disappear you pay attention to the small. You have relinquished everything else and are relinquishing that too, with great care. The doctor says Walser has a disease of the lungs. It affects his heart. He should not leave the asylum grounds, says the doctor, according to Seelig. Walser accompanies Seelig to the train. The next time they walk, Walser does not walk well, says Seelig. He tires and stumbles. It seems there is not much of life left. Almost nothing. One day Walser goes for a walk. They find him later, face-up in the snow.
After a nervous breakdown in 1929, Robert Walser spent the remaining twenty-seven years of his life in mental asylums, closed off from the rest of the world in almost complete anonymity. While at the Herisau sanitarium, instead of writing, Walser practiced another favorite activity: walking. Starting in 1936, Carl Seelig, Walser's friend and literary executor, visited and accompanied him on these walks, meticulously recording their conversations. As they strolled, Walser told stories, shared his daily experiences of the sanatorium, and expressed his opinions about books and art, writing and history. When Seelig asked why he no longer wrote, Walser famously replied: "I'm not here to write, I'm here to be mad." Filled with lively anecdotes and details, Walks with Walser offers the fullest available account of this wonderful writer's inner and outer life.
Carl Seelig (1894-1962) was a Swiss editor and writer and Robert Walser's friend, guardian, and literary executor. He was a selfless supporter of countless other writers, and was also Albert Einstein's first biographer. Anne Posten is a literary translator based in New York.