'A delightful and timesless collection' … Walser's Berlin Stories
Photograph: Imagno/Max von Missmann/Getty Images
Those of you compelled to take public transport might find some wisdom in this piece of advice on what to do if the journey goes past the half-hour mark, and is getting tedious: "You look straight ahead. To show by one's ways and gestures that one is finding things a bit tedious fills a person with quite peculiar pleasure. Now you return to studying the face of the conductor on duty, and now you content yourself once more with merely, vacantly staring straight ahead. Isn't that nice? One thing and then another? I must confess: I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead."
by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky
You may wonder: is the writer of these words perhaps having us on? On the contrary: this is what he's like, pretty much all the time. I think it was Herman Hesse who said that if you can stomach Robert Walser's prose, you can't help but fall in love with it, and I fell in love with it pretty quickly. He's guileless but not stupid, an admiring observer of the inconsequential. "We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary," he once wrote, "we already see so much." Susan Sontag, in a brief but very worthwhile introduction to a collection of his stories published 30-odd years ago, noticed how easy it was to come up with points of comparison: "a Paul Klee in prose ... a cross between Stevie Smith and Beckett ... the missing link between Kleist and Kafka". In fact, as she points out, it was Kafka who was first compared to Walser, rather than the other way round (this is the humorous Kafka, who has disappeared in the contemporary imagination, to be replaced by the Kafka of bad dreams).
Walser was from Switzerland; he followed his brother Karl, a well-known painter and stage designer, to Berlin, tried to stick it a couple of times and on the third attempt, with what I suspect was the realisation that he needn't try so hard, nailed it. He became a chronicler of the ordinary (interestingly, at around the same time Joyce, on the other side of Europe, was doing the same). He was a master flâneur, and if Baudelaire had been driven almost to mania by his citéfourmillante, the swarming anthill, pretty much all Walser had to say on the subject was "isn't that nice?" And the blandness of the question covers up some interesting thoughts. (It's no surprise to learn that Walter Benjamin, who knew a thing or two about walking around cities and writing them up, was an admirer of Walser's – as, indeed, was Kafka.)
You might remember that last week I compared islands to novels. It occurs to me that cities are, by a similar token, collections of short stories, or feuilletons like this. From Walser's "What Became of Me", after a very brief description of his childhood: "After this, harsh Life flung me upon the path of a practising feuilletonist. Oh, if only I had never written a feuilleton."
This modesty is not an affectation. He was, by all accounts, a natural, in both the sense of being able to write at great speed without ever needing to correct himself; and in the old-fashioned sense of being, or appearing to be, a bit simple. He saw himself as a kind of servant, not just in the sense of serving the city by describing it, but literally, too: he went to a college where they taught you how to be a butler. (He was, apparently, unable to master the competencies needed for polishing silver or tending top hats.)
Happily, though, he stayed at his true profession, that of writer. How artless or artful he is is a judgment that each reader can make for him- or herself, and I suspect that much depends on the serenity of one's own disposition. Sontag called him an "anti-gravity" writer, both in that he is against seriousness as well as being unbound to the ground. And in this unbelievably delightful and timeless collection of short pieces, we can recover the delight of ordinary, uncondescending appreciation, places where the vacant-minded stroller can take "peculiar pleasure". The tram, the theatre, the train station, the park ... ("Beautiful park, I think, beautiful park," is how he ends "The Park".) One thing and then another. Isn't that nice?