ON EVERYTHING AND NOTHING
The New Yorker
March 28, 2012
Posted by Mary Hawthorne
W. G. Sebald, in his essay “Le Promeneur Solitaire,” offers the following biographical information concerning the Swiss writer Robert Walser: “Nowhere was he able to settle, never did he acquire the least thing by way of possessions. He had neither a house, nor any fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are concerned, at most one good suit and one less so…. He did not, I believe, even own the books that he had written.” Sebald goes on to ask, “How is one to understand an author who was so beset by shadows … who created humorous sketches from pure despair, who almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself, whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events and things of which it spoke.”
It is one of those perverse ironies of history that this most delicate, self-effacing, and marginal of writers (his books were critically well received and admired by Kafka and Walter Benjamin, among others, but they did not sell), who as a young man enrolled in a school for servants and as an old one dropped dead on Christmas Day during one of his long, solitary walks in a snowy field near the mental hospital he had for more than twenty years been confined to, attracts more readers with every passing year. His completely original voice and sensibility—a blend of sharp and always surprising observation, free-floating digression, ambiguous irony, impishness, tenderness, curiosity, and detachment, all overhung with constant, circling doubt—remain stubbornly resistant to all but ersatz imitation.
As an antidote to the crassness of mainstream culture, Walser is, in fact, the perfect writer for our times, and since the nineteen-eighties he’s experienced a slow resuscitation. Most recently, New Directions and New York Review Books have alternated bringing out volumes of Walser’s work every couple of years, and readings, academic conferences, and celebrations have proliferated.
“Berlin Stories,” the most recent offering from NYRB, contains mostly new translations of early stories—selected and organized by Jochen Greven, Walser’s German editor, and elegantly translated by Susan Bernovsky—all of them set in the German capital, where Walser lived for seven years before returning permanently to Switzerland, in 1913, “a ridiculed and unsuccessful author” (his own assessment). Greven has broken up the stories into four “symphonic” parts—“The City Streets,” “The Theatre,” “Berlin Life,” “Looking Back”—but this feels arbitrary and counterintuitive even, for these meditative “prose pieces” (part story, part essay) are really the random, associative musings of the flâneur meandering through the city or pondering the puzzles of life in a dismal furnished room on the outskirts of town. A great part of their appeal resides in the ephemeral quality that Sebald speaks of.
Walser made a couple of forays to Berlin but didn’t feel ready to make a more sustained leap until 1905, at the age of twenty-seven, after the publication of his first book, “Fritz Kochers Aufsätze,” which Benjamin Kunkel describes in his 2007 essay on Walser for the magazine as “a collection of essays on everything and nothing.”
The description applies to the present volume as well, as it does to a great deal of Walser’s work; again, therein lies the appeal. These stories, more than revealing the texture of Berlin life at the turn of the century, allow us a window into Walser’s states of mind and into the mechanics of his thought process (he wrote quickly and claimed he never corrected a single line of his writing). Whether he is observing an Abyssinian lion in the zoo, or complaining about pompous, self-important people, or thinking about a park, or observing a play, or assessing the character of the city street, it is always the quality of mind that holds us rapt.
Among the most compelling in the collection are a small cluster of stories at the end that are devoted to women (with whom Walser is said never to have been intimate; nor was he with men, apparently): “Frau Bähni,” “Horse and Woman,” “Frau Scheer,” “The Millionairess,” and above all the masterly “Frau Wilke” (translated here by Christopher Middleton), which shows a frank and unironic tenderness. It is about the relationship between a poor young poet and an older woman who lets him a furnished room and shortly afterward falls ill. The woman is completely alone, with nothing to eat, and no one to care for her. The narrator comes to realize that he is her only link to humankind. Very little happens. Then she dies:
One afternoon soon after her death, I entered her empty room, into which the good evening sun was shining, gladdening it with rose-bright, gay and soft colors. There I saw on the bed the things which the poor lady had till recently worn, her dress, her hat, her sunshade, and her umbrella, and, on the floor, her small delicate boots. The strange sight of them made me unspeakably sad, and my peculiar state of mind made it seem to me almost that I had died myself…. For a long time I looked at Frau Wilke’s possessions, which now had lost their mistress and lost all purpose, and at the golden room, glorified by the smile of the evening sun….
Yet, after standing there dumbly for a time, I was gratified and grew calm. Life took me by the shoulder and its wonderful gaze rested on mine. The world was as living as ever and beautiful as at the most beautiful time. I quietly left the room and went out into the street.