On the wall near the door of my study is a photocopy of a photo from the back cover of one of my most treasured books. The photo was taken around a hundred years ago of a Swiss-German writer, who at that time was making some of the oddest and at the same time some of the most beautiful prose the century would see. He spent the latter part of his life in an asylum and died of a heart attack while out walking in the snow near Herisau, a couple of years before I was born. The book is Selected Stories by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton and others, with a foreword by Susan Sontag, published by Carcanet in 1982. I have it in front of me now. On the front cover is a blow-up reproduction of Walser’s famous microscript (it looks to me like the cuneiform of the ancient Sumerians); the pages are foxed and the dustjacket torn. I came across it in a second-hand bookshop on Brunswick Street in the early summer of ’85. I could hardly believe my luck: not three years old, in mint condition (back then at least), and cheap. I remember the thrill of opening and reading it and almost instantaneously wanting to pick up my pen and write. (I remember a similar thrill and a similar urge when the following year I first read J. P. Stern’s translations of Lichtenberg in a book with green covers called A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions.) In those days, a book by Walser in English was a rare find; these days he is, thankfully, in the English-speaking world, experiencing something of a renaissance.
I was always too lazy to learn German. Not only Walser but many others have come to me through a roll-call of their English translators, and I owe them all a great deal. It was through Franz Kafka and his translators that I first encountered Walser — probably not an unusual occurrence. In a 1908 letter to Max Brod, Kafka mentions owning an ‘already falling apart’ copy of one of Walser’s books and the following year, in a letter to his Department Head, Director Eisner, he says: ‘You say Walser knows me. I don’t know him. I have read Jakob von Gunten …’ He calls it ‘a good book’, which is hardly high praise. But it is difficult to read the short prose that Kafka was writing around this time — especially the pieces that make up his first collection, Betrachtung (1912)— and not see Walser’s influence. Certainly, by the time he first mentions the name in that letter to Brod, Walser’s short, impressionistic prose pieces were being regularly published in precisely the kinds of literary magazines and newspaper feuilletons that Kafka was so keen on.
Robert Musil called Kafka ‘a peculiar case of the Walser type’ and there is a wonderful synchronicity between the two, most clearly heralded in the very first diary entry Kafka ever wrote. In early 1910, he tells of a dream of ‘the dancer Eduardova’ and goes on to describe her in his usual obsessive detail. (He was still talking about the ‘very wild Eduardova’ in a letter to Felice Bauer two years later.) He notes Eduardova’s ‘faded colour’ and ‘large nose’ and ‘the many flowers that were stuck in her girdle’. She is ‘not as pretty in the open air as on the stage’. But Walser too has mentioned ‘the dancer Eduardova’, in a piece called On The Russian Ballet from the year before, where he notes how she for him ‘represents sensual beauty, while Pavlova stands for spiritual enchantment’. The two writers have seen the same tour. Kafka, as he would do often in his fiction, puts the performer outside the theatre, the better to scrutinise her (‘First Sorrow’, ‘A Hunger Artist’, ‘Report to an Academy’, ‘Josephine the Singer’); Walser is, as usual, the starry-eyed kid in the front row.
In fact, the world of theatre and cabaret is a pretty good starting point for a discussion of these two writers’ synchronicities and, in Walser’s case especially, their peculiar styles. As a young man, Walser had ambitions to be an actor and for a while lived in Berlin with his artist-brother, Karl, a set designer who worked on, among other things, Max Reinhart’s 1906 production of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. Kafka, for his part, loved the theatre, cabaret, music hall and circus, and their backdrops and characters are woven through many of his works. (In the tragi-comic final pages of The Trial we have, memorably, the ‘tenth-rate old actors’ that have come to finish K. off. ‘What theatre are you playing at?’ asks K., facetiously. ‘Theatre?’ says one of the executioners, before leading him away.) Kafka laughed himself silly at Walser’s description in ‘Mountain Halls’ of a variety show playing at that time in Unter den Linden, and theatrical monologue — the voice talking directly, insistently, to the imagined listener — was a stock in trade of them both. With Kafka in ‘A Country Doctor’, ‘Investigations of a Dog’, ‘The Burrow’ and others; with Walser in almost every short piece he ever wrote: a voice pleading, fretting, worrying, nodding, winking, becoming outraged, sad, gleeful, tender.
If I have concentrated overly on the performative element of both it is probably because I first came across them at a time when I was surrounded by everything theatre, cabaret and circus. While still at drama college in the early 1980s, I adapted Kafka’s story ‘A Hunger Artist’ for a solo theatre performance. My girlfriend at the time (we’re still together) was an actress-performer-comedienne-clown who shortly after we met joined the circus. The Melbourne theatre, cabaret and comedy scene was a pretty vibrant one back then. I premiered A Hunger Artist in a season of separate performance ‘events’ at La Mama with, among others, Stelarc hanging from the ceiling by hooks and the actor Howard Stanley doing a piece called A Man in a Suit Sits — in which, well, a man in a suit sat. I first met Howard when he played The Cleaner in a reading of a play of mine at what was then the old Playbox. He had a big entrance in the final act. Many years later — the mid-90s, I think — we bumped into each other again by chance and he mentioned a book by a writer no-one else seemed to have heard of but which he was thinking of adapting for the theatre. He asked was I interested. The book was Selected Stories by Robert Walser. To the best of my knowledge Howard owned the only other copy in Melbourne.
We met on and off over the following year and from the outset I was convinced that we could and should try to use Walser’s words verbatim — that is, essentially string a bunch of the prose pieces together without changing them internally. (My only concession — to the performer, not the audience — was to enjamb the lines for breath, so that laid out on the page the pieces actually looked like poems.) It did seem like an outrageous idea at the time, dramaturgically-speaking, but it worked surprisingly well. Because, of course, all of Walser’s short works are monologues, in essence, and all, more or less, are spoken by the same persona.
I am a little worn out, raddled, squashed, downtrodden, shot full of holes. Mortars have mortared me to bits. I am a little crumbly, decaying, yes, yes. I am sinking and drying up a little. I am a bit scalded and scorched, yes, yes. That’s what it does to you. That’s life. I am not old, not in the least, certainly I am not eighty, by no means, but I am not sixteen any more either. Quite definitely I am a bit old and used up. … Grouches, grouches, one must have them, and one must have the courage to live with them. That’s the nicest way to live. Nobody should be afraid of his little bit of weirdness.
I am small, says Walser. I am not only not bigger and more important than you, I am quite possibly a good deal smaller and less important. You won’t learn anything magnificent from a Walser narrator; in fact, he would be the first to declare himself on important matters a complete ignoramus. But put his words in the mouth of an actor in front of an audience and you quickly feel how intimate, eccentric, funny and honest his particular form of personal address is.
In J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007) — in my opinion one of the most interesting ‘I’ experiments of recent years — he has a top-page chapter called ‘On Authority in Fiction’ where, through ‘the professor’, he quotes Søren Kierkegaard. The idea of the author speaking ‘without authority’ is threaded throughout Kierkegaard’s work and perhaps given clearest expression in his preface to For Self-Examination (1851), where he exhorts the reader to read the work aloud. By doing so, he says, ‘you will gain the strongest impression that you have only yourself to consider, not me, who, after all, am “without authority” …’
So what does this mean, for an author to be without authority? Coetzee suggests, by way of contrast, that the ‘authoritative author’ might best be exemplified by Tolstoy. Authority, says Coetzee, is ‘what the great authors are masters of’. To be without it, we might infer, is to not be great. In what I like to think of as a prefigurement of this, Coetzee in his 2000 essay on Walser asks: ‘Was Walser a great writer?’ He quotes Elias Canetti in reply. ‘If one is reluctant to call him great,’ said Canetti ‘that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness.’ So unauthoritative is Walser’s voice, in fact, so far from the language of solidity and power, that it is tempting even to suggest he was not only without authority — or even against it — but intent, by virtue of his manic humility, to make it look stupid. Time and again the Walser persona lowers himself way more than he ought to. In her introduction to Selected Stories, Susan Sontag says:
The moral core of Walser’s art is the refusal of power: of domination. I’m ordinary — that is, nobody — declares the characteristic Walser persona.
It is no accident that Walser’s first published work, Fritz Kocher’s Essays (1904) — now available in English in A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories (2013) — is about a dementedly subservient schoolkid trying by all linguistic means possible to ingratiate himself to the cane-wielding authority figures above. In ‘The Job Application’, from some years later, we have the typical Walser-person, Wenzel, doing the typical Walser grovel: playful, funny and at the same time deeply sad:
I am seeking a suitable position, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free. I know that your firm is large, proud, old, and rich, thus I may yield to the pleasing supposition that a nice, easy, pretty little place would be available, into which, as into a kind of warm cubbyhole, I can slip. I am excellently suited, you should know, to occupy just such a modest haven, for my nature is altogether delicate, and I am essentially a quiet, polite, and dreamy child, who is made to feel cheerful by people thinking of him that he does not ask for much, and allowing him to take possession of a very, very small patch of existence …
If language is power and anarchy is power’s devolvement, then Walser was an anarchist, of sorts. One of the great pleasures in reading him is seeing what ‘free speech’ (these days a much abused expression) really looks like. All of Walser’s work is a playful, restless, ‘speaking of the mind’ and there are plenty of amusing anecdotes to suggest this anarchic, anti-authoritarian persona was maybe not that far from its author. One of my favourites, retold by Max Frisch, is of Walser bumping into Lenin on a street in Zurich and asking did he, too, really like pear bread? The comparison with Diogenes of Synope, who set the tone for this kind of meeting between the humble and the great, is irresistible. When Alexander the Great came across Diogenes sunning himself in an Athens street, he asked might there be anything he could do for him? Yes, said Diogenes, you could get out of my light.
That said, it is difficult to know how much we should we conflate the persona of the stories with Walser the man. Was the whole project, perhaps, little more than a rhetorical trick — a bit like Karl Kraus’s, say — designed to wrong-foot the powerful and dack them? I don’t think so. Walser’s ‘nobody-ness’, as Sontag might have called it, was not just affectation. Especially in the second half of his life, after he had stopped chasing his brother’s fame and, not without a certain bitterness, abandoned Berlin for good, he contented himself with being a lowly type and was mostly a stranger to ambition. He himself noted at one point, with little rancour, how even Thomas Mann — ‘you know, that giant of the novel’ — regarded him as a child. And Mann was probably not wrong. There is above all in all of Walser’s work a wonderful sense of childish play. Precisely the quality, in other words, that makes for great theatre, cabaret, music hall and circus, and what has always distinguished these art forms from so-called ‘serious’ literature.
This guileless sense of presence, of now — so evident in my and Howard’s adaptation of Walser’s words for the stage — is, I am inclined to think, something Walser first learned from the preeminent master of drama and prose, Heinrich von Kleist, a writer he greatly admired. In his own ‘Kleist in Thun’ — unquestionably one of Walser’s greatest stories, and not just in my opinion — he rides, wave by wave, like the protagonist, the inexorable series of moments towards the heartbreaking denouement. No past, no future, no great exposition: just a series of present moments, unfurling one from the next. Exactly like the theatre. Because what else defines a great performance if not the actor being entirely, as we say, in the moment? This too Kleist spoke of — Walser would surely have read it — in his essay ‘On The Marionette Theatre’, where a puppeteer is explaining to the narrator the idea of ‘affectation’ and why his puppets are so incapable of it. ‘For affectation is seen, as you know,’ says the puppeteer ‘when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the centre of gravity of the movement’ (my italics). The performer must be entirely present, in other words — in their body, in the moment — for the work to attain transcendence and truth. In the passage mentioned earlier from Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee asks, apropos authority: ‘But what if authority can be attained only by opening the poet-self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically?’ To not try, in other words, to be great, authorial, but to simply place one’s soul ‘at the centre of gravity of the movement’?
Much has been written about the latter part of Walser’s life, spent voluntarily in asylums. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to write him off as mad. But I don’t think he was any madder at the finish than at the start. If he was mad at all. When Carl Seelig (from 1944 his legal guardian) asked him at Herisau whether he was doing any writing, Walser replied: ‘I am not here to write, but to be mad.’ In light of what we now know, even this seems like a cheeky bit of subterfuge.
Walser’s works from ‘the pencil zone’ only came to light after his death. Published originally in six volumes in German, we are now blessed in the English speaking world to have from this time both the late novel, The Robber (2000), and the selection of shorter pieces reproduced in the magnificent Microscripts (2010). Both were translated by Susan Bernofsky, who I think I have a crush on. Collectively, they suggest the seemingly self-propelled Walser writing machine didn’t stop until the end — until the day, that is, aged 72, when out walking in the Herisau snow his heart stopped. He was a walker all his life, no less so than near the end, and it’s a lovely metaphor for how he lived and wrote: moments fleeting, passing, gone. Nearly all the late pieces were written with a stub pencil in a seemingly indecipherable script on otherwise discarded things: a used envelope, inside the cover of a cheap paperback, a sheet from a tear-off calendar, a slip of paper cut from a magazine. They are, if nothing else, a declaration of writing’s impermanence. They were certainly nothing precious. They seem to be saying, defiantly: I have no ambition, I won’t get hung up on fame, recognition, an eternal name. I am without authority. I live now: moment to moment, step by step, ‘at the centre of gravity of the movement’.
I want to end by quoting my favourite Walser piece, ‘A Little Ramble’ — in full, if you’ll excuse me. The translation is by Tom Whalen. It was the last piece in that show I made with Howard. It still gives me goose bumps now.
I walked through the mountains today. The weather was damp, and the entire region was grey. But the road was soft and in places very clean. At first I had my coat on; soon, however, I pulled it off, folded it together, and laid it upon my arm. The walk on the wonderful road gave me more and ever more pleasure; first it went up and then descended again. The mountains were huge, they seemed to go around. The whole mountainous world appeared to me like an enormous theatre. The road snuggled up splendidly to the mountainsides. Then I came down into a deep ravine, a river roared at my feet, a train rushed past me with magnificent white smoke. The road went through the ravine like a smooth white stream, and as I walked on, to me it was as if the narrow valley were bending and winding around itself. Grey clouds lay on the mountains as though that were their resting place. I met a young traveller with a rucksack on his back, who asked if I had seen two other young fellows. No, I said. Had I come here from very far? Yes, I said, and went farther on my way. Not a long time, and I saw and heard the two young wanderers pass by with music. A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white cliffs. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.
J. M. Coetzee, ‘Robert Walser,’ Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 (Knopf, 2007).
J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year (Text, 2007).
Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, translated by Richard and Clara Winston(Schocken, 1977).
Robert Walser, Selected Stories, translated by Christopher Middleton (Carcanet, 1982; NYRB Classics, 2002).
Robert Walser, Masquerade and Other Stories, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).
Robert Walser, Jacob von Gunten, translated by Christopher Middleton (NYRB Classics, 1999).
Robert Walser, The Robber, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Bison, 2000).
Robert Walser, Berlin Stories, translated by Susan Bernofsky (NYRB Classics, 2012).
Robert Walser, Microscripts, translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 2010).
Robert Walser, A Little Ramble, translated by Tom Whalen (New Directions, 2013).
Robert Walser, A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, translated by Damion Searls (NYRB Classics, 2013).