The Walk by Robert Walser (Der Spaziergang, 1917) translated from the German by Christopher Middleton, 1957, with Susan Bernofsky (2012) New Directions (2012) 96 pp
The Walk is a tiny, and very strange gem (indeed, it is the latest addition New Direction’s line of “Pearls”). I’ve noted elsewhere 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).
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.