A tortured life provided the material for a very bleak, sometimes very funny master of the form
It was by way of Enrique Vila-Matas's novel Montano, in which he offers a fascinating biographical sketch, that my interest in the Swiss-German writer Robert Walser began. Walser worked variously as a copyist, butler, and assistant bookseller, and for a brief period in Berlin lived from his writing. But while editors enthused over his work, the buying public did not.
Walser returned to Switzerland in 1913, wrote prodigiously, suffered periodic mental disturbances, entered an asylum in 1933, and was found dead in a snowfield on Christmas Day, 1956. But while failure was a constant throughout Walser's life - from his disastrous early attempt to become an actor to his eventual inability to function in society - much of the work he left behind is extraordinary.
Despite writing several novels, it is in the short form that Walser excelled. Many of his pieces defy conventional expectations of short stories - William Gass describes him as "a kind of columnist before the time of columns" - while he himself referred to them as "shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced up or torn-apart book of myself."
There is undeniably an element of self-portraiture to be found in one of Walser's greatest stories, Kleist in Thun (1913), in which he recreates the German writer's 1801 stay in Switzerland that saw his first plays come to fruition. Ten years later Kleist would shoot himself on the shores of the Wannsee in a suicide pact. Walser's story captures both this incipient despair and the fevered compound of ecstasy and frustration involved in artistic creation. "He wants," Walser writes of Kleist, "to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet...What he writes makes him grimace: his creations miscarry."
Susan Sontag has commented that Kleist in Thun's concluding paragraph "seals an account of mental ruin as grand as anything I know in literature". It also illustrates another important aspect of Walser's work. At the story's end there is a shift from the dramatic register through which the reader has inhabited Kleist's mind into the prosaic modern day:
"I know the region a little perhaps, because I worked as a clerk in a brewery there. The region is considerably more beautiful than I have been able to describe here, the lake is twice as blue, the sky three times as beautiful. Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years ago."
This exquisitely executed bathos augments rather than lessens the story's pitiable aspects, and brings Walser himself squarely into the frame. It draws a parallel between Kleist's tortured nature and his own while disarmingly allowing that the comparison is possibly absurd.
Walser's choice of Kleist as his subject is a happy one not only in that it produced an excellent story, but because Kleist's prose style informed that of Franz Kafka , who in the early stages of his career also admired Walser (Max Brod reports Kafka ethusiastically reading Walser's humorous sketches aloud). To cap this uncommonly neat pattern of influence, upon first encountering Kafka's work Robert Musil called him "a peculiar case of the Walser type". Both writers shared a talent for bathos, as well as a love of paradox expressed as apparent logic.
Walser's artistry included also a gift for comedy and its commingling with darker currents. In his long picaresque story The Walk (1917), the account given of the dressing-down of a tailor following a dissatisfactory suit fitting constitutes one of the funniest passages of apoplectic complaint I have read. But this hilarity seems a faint memory when, at its conclusion, the story's tone shifts to evoke life's bleakness with a sudden, awful simplicity.
Walser's madness (he would be diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1929), like that of his Japanese contemporary Ryunosuke Akutagawa, infected his stories - notably the chillingly paranoid The Street (1919) - but also, throughout the 1920s, altered the very manner of their composition. By the time of his forced committal to Herisau in 1933 his manuscripts, called "microgrammes", comprised letters just two millimetres tall, which scholars would later suppose to be a private code. He squeezed his final novel, the 141-page The Robber, onto just 24 sides of octavo-sized paper. These documents were eventually deciphered with the aid of an optical device designed to count woven threads, which led to the swelling of Walser's body of work and, in the late 1960s, his retrieval from oblivion.
While that is to be celebrated, it remains a tragedy that this brilliant artist produced nothing for the last 23 years of his life. "I'm not here to write," he supposedly told a visitor one day. "I'm here to be mad."