Quantcast

Robert Walser: The Walk

The Walk (Der Spaziergang, 1917; tr. from the German by Christopher Middleton, 1957, with Susan Bernofsky, 2012) is a tiny, and very strange gem (indeed, it is the latest addition New Direction’s line of “Pearls”).  I’ve noted elsewhere (click here for my reviews of other works by Walser) just how exuberant Walser can be about little moments in life, and this seemingly simple account of a walk is no exception, but in this Pearl (perhaps only because I’ve now got a few more Walsers under my belt) the idea of “exuberance as performance,” a performance meant to cover up something darker, really came out, even if I can’t entirely accept that the vibrancy wasn’t absolutely genuine.  Not incidentally, the idea of “exuberance as performance” was introduced to me by Pykk in a comment made to my post on Berlin Stories (you can see that comment here). 

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

That there’s evidence of darkness is not to say that the comedy and the heightened attentiveness to life isn’t present — it is — but, well, just check out Walser’s first sentence:

One morning, as the desire to walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.

One can see the Walser of the early Berlin Stories here — morning, a young man bursting onto the street, out of his dark room, excited to experience the day — but what are those phantoms?  And what do they have to do with his writing?  And so the strangeness begins: here we have a story about a man escaping his writing to go on a lovely walk, but we know that, whatever his experiences on that walk, the account we are reading was written in that room of phantoms.

Whatever gloom he feels in that room is (apparently) pushed aside on the walk, but only just.  Here he is at the beginning of the day, the beginning of his walk: 

Everything I saw made upon me a delightful impression of friendliness, of goodliness, and of youth.  I quickly forgot that up in my room I had only just a moment before been brooding gloomily over a blank sheet of paper.  Sorrow, pain, and grave thoughts were as vanished, although I vividly sensed a certain seriousness still before me and behind me.

As we move through the small book, we almost forget our narrator had gloomy thoughts as it began, so vivacious does he approach his walk, with such vim does he greet those he meets, including the reader, such as in this passage, which shows that Walser, as microscopically as he wrote, was not minimalist:

Since, dear reader, you give yourself the trouble to march along with the inventor and writer of these lines attentively out forthwith into the bright and good morning air, not hurrying and hastily, but rather quite tidily, at ease, with level head, discreetly, smoothly, and calmly, now we both arrive in front of the aforementioned bakery with the boastful gold inscription, where we stop, horrified, because we feel inclined to be exceedingly dismayed as well as honestly astonished at the gross ostentation and at the disfigurement of the sweetest rusticity which is intimately connected with it.

This is a good example of just how much Walser stuffs into his sentences (and we’ve seen this in his other works), but we might begin to wonder when the sadness we’re running from will come back.  The answer: not soon.  The first part of the book is a wonderful reminder of the small scenes of life that happen all around us, that we could see if we were only paying attention.  Walser’s narrator extols the virtues of walking even when others, like a tax collector, consider him rather lazy and unproductive since he seems to wander around most days.  In truth, it’s on his walks that he stores in the material that will make him productive.

As the book and day progress, the shadows in the narrative and in the pathways move from the periphery.  The narrator, mainly overcome by joys caught in the moment, experiences a shift: “My pensiveness increased till it became sorrow.”  For the remainder of the book, this sorrow doesn’t go away, and the book ends (no spoiler, I don’t think) with the narrator returning to the room of the phantoms:

“Did I pick flowers to lay them upon my sorrow?” I asked myself, and the flowers fell out of my hand.  I had risen up, to go home, for it was late now and everything was dark.

And it is in that room of phantoms that he lovingly puts down the events of the day, with a pen overflowing with exuberance — yet while darkness pervades the air and his mood.  Is the joy performance?  Perhaps to an extent, yet it also seems to me that the joy is genuine.  The narrator has certainly convinced me of the value of a good walk and just how fulfilling the observant life can be.  Reconciling this with the just-as-genuine sadness is tricky, but I’ll leave my further thoughts out of this post, hoping others will take this on and return to discuss in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Robert Walser: The Walk

  1. Lee Monks says:

    I think the joy is borne of doing what you’re supposed to do – in Walser’s case writing – despite the torment. Reading posts such as this always reminds me of a mooted conversation between Kubrick and Nichols. ‘Why do we do this?’ queried the former. ‘Well, it’s better than not doing it.’ was the response. It’s capturing something that’s painful and recognising the hell that not doing it might prompt.

  2. Trevor says:

    I think the joy is borne of doing what you’re supposed to do — in Walser’s case writing — despite the torment.

    Good point, Lee. I do think that joy and torment are related in this case, coming, perhaps, from the same source even. If you haven’t read this one, I am positive you’ll love it.

  3. Pykk says:

    All writing is performance, every comma is performance — the actor takes a breath — writing is speech translated, and speech is performance: clarity for the sake of an audience. A convincing performance doesn’t guarantee genuine feeling, and an unconvincing performance doesn’t let you know that the person wasn’t genuinely emotional. There are plenty of sincere bad poets. I think Walser’s style exaggerates that idea of performance so that you can see it — other writers try to hide it — he doesn’t — he’s genuinely performing — and he signals this to the reader, here, with his unnecessary words — there is no need for “discreetly, smoothly” and also “calmly,” there is no need for both “inventor” and “writer” since obviously they’re the same thing, there’s no need to tell us that a friendly, good impression is also delightful, because anybody can work that out for themselves; and if someone spoke to you like this out loud you might say that they were joyful but also hysterical.

    He tells you that he’s banished pain and sorrow and then, completely blatantly, which is very sweet and beautiful, tells you that he’s lying. “Sorrow, pain, and grave thoughts were as vanished, although I vividly sensed a certain seriousness still before me and behind me.” Gravity hasn’t vanished, it’s been rephrased. He qualifies himself, he corrects himself. “A little child smiles at me, but, with children, we need not emphasise their smallness, because all children are small, although, here and there, big ones exist, perhaps more big ones than one is inclined to suppose” — this comes from from another short piece, A Contribution To The Celebration of Conrad Ferdinand Meiger — he draws attention to his own devices — from A Biedermeir Story — “With a nobly casual air, as befitted his rank as a war lord, General Gorchakov, who only comes into this sketch of mine for local colour, commanded his armies.”

    Who exaggerates their feelings, who qualifies, who contradicts? People who are anxious, people who feel themselves being watched and judged, people who are teasing you or being funny or ironic, people who are afraid you might not believe them, self-conscious people, people who feel desperate and shy, perhaps, but none of that means that their joy isn’t genuine. (If Walser didn’t genuinely enjoy walking then he’s the patron saint of masochists, he did so much of it.) He’s hiding and he’s not hiding that he’s hiding, he reminds you that he’s hiding, all writers are hiding, and by doing this he hides. Here I am, he says, and you can’t get me.

Leave a Reply