Walks with Walser

Robert Walser had a nervous breakdown in 1929 and spent his final 3 decades in Swiss mental asylums. From 1936 – 1956, Carl Seelig (friend & literary executor) took him on long walks and recorded their conversations, which makes up this delightful volume. An inveterate hiker, Walser died alone on his last walk on a snowy Christmas day, 1956. Seelig had postponed their usual Christmas walk until New Years to care for his ailing dog. This volume is translated to perfection by Anne Posten.

It’s funny to contrast the two books I just finished: this slim volume of 138 pages has several marked passages I want to remember that are either perfect phrases or books I need to look into, but the 700 page beast of a fictionalized biography of Rimbaud was unmarked throughout (although it has plenty of lyrical writing, just nothing I needed to capture forever).

Seelig and Walser tramp about the countryside, stopping along the way to enjoy a hearty breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner, frequently imbibing beer or wine, cigarettes, but always always talking. Some of my favorite anecdotes and Walser-isms are captured below.

Upon seeing a cloister-like, baroque building, Seelig suggests looking inside. Walser: “Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-covered walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is covered and claimed nowadays.” (1941)

“In the asylum I have the quiet I need. It is time for young people to make the noise. It suits me now to disappear, as inconspicuously as possible.” (1943)

“In life there must also be troubles, so that beauty stands out more vividly from the unpleasantness. Worry is the best teacher.” (1943)

“Polite people usually have something up their sleeves.” (1943)

“Abundance can be so oppressive. True beauty, the beauty of the everyday, reveals itself most delicately in poverty and simplicity.” (1943)

“War has this in its favor—it forces people back to simplicity. Would we be able to chat undisturbed on the road, free from the stink of gasoline and the cursing of motorists, if gasoline wasn’t rationed? There is far too much traveling nowadays in the first place. Hordes of people barge shamelessly into foreign landscapes as if they were the legitimate occupants.” (1944)

“Yes, only the journey to oneself is important.” (in response to some of his lines quoted back to him: “Does nature go abroad? I’m always looking at the trees and telling myself: They aren’t leaving either, so why shouldn’t I be permitted to remain?” (1944)

“Curious how beer and twilight can wash away all burdens.” (1945)

Talking shit about Thomas Mann’s lack of grey hair: “It’s the health of success. How many are driven to an early grave by failure! Since childhood Mann had it all: bourgeois calm, security, a happy family, recognition… the Joseph novels are not nearly as good as his astonishing early works. In the later works one senses the stale indoor air, and that’s the way their maker looks too, like someone who has always sat diligently behind his desk with the account books.” (1947)

Seelig brings up the Korean war, causing Walser to rant about Americans for half an hour: “Have you seen their faces? They’re the faces of gangsters, executioners: foolishly proud, arrogant, and predatory. What business do the Americans have with a civilized society’s fight for freedom? Of course they will destroy everything with their ultramodern war machines, and they’ll win. But afterward how will the capitalist beast be driven back into its cage? That is another, more protracted question. In any case, Washington isn’t exactly full of the best and brightest.” (1950)

After being offered a lift by a passing motorist in the rain: “That has never happened to me before! But walking does one more good than driving. If laziness advances at its current pace, it won’t be long before people don’t need their legs at all.” (1952)

Authors to investigate: Gottfried Keller, whose praises Walser sings over and over, “he never wrote a superfluous line”; Marlitt, “the first German feminist, who fought resolutely against class pride and self-satisfied piety;” Tobias Smollett has a “gift for trenchant storytelling, which often slips into brilliant caricature, [and] makes for very entertaining reading;” Jan Neruda, whose tales he “found as cosy as Dickens’s stories.” Apparently Kafka was a huge Walser fan, recommending The Tanners to his boss; unfortunately, Walser was unfamiliar with Kafka’s work.