Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: Walks with Walser

Carl Seelig. Walks with Walser. 1957. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. New York: New Directions, 2017. 144 pages. $15.95 paper.

                    A famous person must not cause
                    one to forget the unfamous.

                    Robert Walser to Carl Seelig

The Swiss editor and writer Carl Seelig is best known today as Robert Walser’s friend, guardian, and literary executor. In the mid-1930s, Seelig began writing to Walser, wanting to do something for the writer and his work. Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (1957) is Seelig’s memoir of what followed: forty-five visits with Walser over nineteen years. Walks with Walser is this book’s first and long-awaited appearance in English.

In 1929, after “a few bumbling attempts” at suicide, Robert Walser was admitted to a Swiss psychiatric clinic, where he continued to write in microscript on stray pieces of paper. In 1933 he was transferred against his will to a Swiss sanitarium, where he remained for the rest of his life, and where he appears to have stopped writing. In his conversations with Seelig, Walser is doubtful about those who admire his work: he dismisses Kafka’s interest with a wave; he calls Seelig’s praise nothing more than “society lies” (in the tenth year of their friendship); when told that Christopher Middleton is translating his work into English, Walser replies with what Seelig describes as “a curt ‘Really!’” Walser’s response to any mention of seventy-fifth-birthday newspaper and radio tributes to him: “That’s nothing to me!” Walser insisted to Seelig that he was in the asylum to be mad, not to write: his duties there included folding paper bags, sweeping floors, and sorting and unraveling twine.

And he walked. Walser loved to walk, not in the manner of a flaneur, but energetically, sometimes frantically, on mountain paths, across fields and meadows, in all weathers, for hours on end. (One of his greatest works is the novella The Walk.) Whatever was “wrong” with Walser (even his doctors could not agree), he was well enough to leave the asylum in Seelig’s company for day-long excursions on foot or by train. Seelig gives us a vivid picture of Walser as walker: virtually never wearing an overcoat (“I’ve always had a horror of overcoats”), virtually always carrying an umbrella: “It wants to go for a walk too — and besides, umbrellas attract good weather!” The two men’s outings include the occasional swim, many meals, a fair amount of drinking (“That I can do only with you!”), and considerable good feeling: “En avant: to beer and twilight!” Walser and Seelig are often the only figures in the landscape, even when the landscape is a village square. (Not surprising, given Walser’s penchant for walking in even the worst weather.) The two men talk of architecture, history, the war, writers past and present, and the peregrinations of Walser’s pre-asylum life.

It’s when the conversation turns to writing that we first see what Seelig calls “shadows,” signs that something is not right. Walser explains his confinement by saying that he “lacked a halo,” and he describes Hermann Hesse’s admirers as thinking that they can criticize and order him (Walser) around. Editors are “power-hungry boa constrictors,” squeezing and suffocating writers as they please. Writers must stand in opposition to their culture, Walser says, yet he also says that they must learn to conform, striking the theme of obedience and punishment that so often appears in his work. “Writers without ethics,” he declares, “deserve to be whipped.” The signs of trouble become noticeable elsewhere: “Eh, more of this to-do!” Walser exclaims when his sister Lisa is dying, and his only response to news of his brother Karl’s death is (once again) “Really!” Walser thinks that the Second World War makes space “for the beautiful to grow within us again” and that the bombing of Berlin will lead urbanites to “a more intuitive, more natural life.” Always distrustful of doctors and nurses, Walser is at times distrustful even of Seelig, who is, at all points, a model of kindness and patience. Sixteen years into their friendship, Walser seems to suspect his visitor of some sinister intent behind the day’s outing.

But Walser’s delight in the plainest surroundings and his dazzlingly aphoristic conversation are the dominant elements in this memoir. And they’re here in a beautifully conversational translation. Snowy woods: “It’s like a fairy tale.” A village square: “It’s like something from a dream!” The clatter of cash register, china, and glassware in a train-station restaurant: “It sounds like an orchestra of coziness.” Of a cloister-like building, its use unknown:

“Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely, that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-colored walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is coveted and claimed nowadays.”
After seeing clouds, not blue sky, on his sixty-fifth birthday:
“I don’t care a fig about superb views and backdrops. When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer. What more do we need to be satisfied than a meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses?”
On Friedrich Hölderlin’s life, which must have reminded Walser of his own:
“Dreaming the days away in some modest quarter, without constant demands, is certainly not martyrdom. People just make it one!”
Yes, Robert Walser in conversation sounds like Robert Walser the writer.

The last walk Seelig describes is one without conversation, and one that he can only imagine. It is a walk that Walser made alone, on Christmas Day 1956. Seelig postponed a planned visit with Walser that day to stay at home with a sick dog. Walser went walking by himself, collapsed, and died on a snowy slope. An appropriate exit for a writer who, says Seelig, “delighted in winter, with its light, merry dance of snowflakes.” And who delighted in walking. And yes, it’s like a fairy tale.

Walks with Wasler will be published tomorrow, April 25. Thanks to New Directions for a review copy.


April 27: I now have a copy of the published book, which has 144 pages if you count the blank ones at the end (as The Chicago Manual of Style says you should). No photographs except for the one by Carl Seelig on the front cover. The New Directions website still says 200 pages.

Related reading
A review of Walser’s Looking at Pictures
A review of Walser’s Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories
All OCA Robert Walser posts

comments: 8

Chris said...

This is exciting news, Michael; I'll have to get my hands on a copy. Walser's remark to the effect that "I did not come here to write, but to be mad," is one of my favorite aphorisms.

Michael Leddy said...


Chris said...

Does this edition include photographs, Michael?

Michael Leddy said...

My advance reader‘s copy has no photographs, and there’s nothing on the back cover about the book having photographs. But my copy has 128 pages, and the New Directions website says 200 pages (with a different ISBN). My guess is that a larger typeface accounts for the different page count. Maybe photographs too? I asked ND about the page count but have had no reply.

Tororo said...

Good news for English readers, that this book has been made available to them (with or without photographs)! A truly enjoyable reading... albeit it doesn't compare with meandering through Walser's own pages.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for your comment, Tororo. The world needs more people wandering in Walser’s work.

Chris said...

I'm reading this now. I think it's a bit curious that there's no introduction, or at least a translator's note explaining more about who Seelig was and how he became involved with Walser than the little that's provided on the back cover. Perhaps the publishers assume that anyone reading the book already knows the story.

I speak no German, but the translation seems awkward here and there. There's sentence on page 31 beginning "As we cross the village..." that seems to be missing a verb, unless I'm simply reading it wrong.

As an avid walker, I'm impressed with the amount of travel on foot Seelig and Walser managed to accomplish.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, that sentence has no verb. Someone should have caught it, unless it’s a fragment in the German, in which case a note would help. I wondered about the lack of an introduction — maybe it’s the economies of publishing?

The Walser distances are incredible. (I checked a few with Google Maps.)