THE LONELY VOICE #13: Walser on Mission Street


I confess I like reading stories about people who are more depressed than I am. Other people’s misery has a way of lifting the soul a little.  Happy stories?  They’re even duller than happy families.

Am I alone here? Doesn’t it seem as though there is a lot of pressure these days to be positive? For instance, Facebook [1] is so relentlessly cheerful that it feels like entering some kind of Stepford universe. Which can be pleasing. I mean the Stepford wives are all beautiful and they live in beautiful, mortgage-free houses. And I speak as someone who is just as guilty of spreading this false positivity as anybody else. Just the other day I posted a picture of me and my kid. I’m not saying she’s not adorable, and I’m not saying I don’t want to show her off, but note that I didn’t post a photograph of the epic meltdown she had the other day at the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor when she threw a half eaten chimichanga at an elderly diner. Only the good times, only the perfect moments.

There are days I wish I lived a long time before the internet, say back in the 1860’s, when America had a great, depressed president. Not that there weren’t other problems those years. Huh? Where was I? Oh. This is The Lonely Voice, a column for the sad out there who still read books made of murdered trees. Think of the Lonely Voice as the opposite of self-help. What I’m after is giving you a unhelpful dose of fresh grief. And though I’m not entirely sure anybody actually reads this, here we are again. If writing short stories is like blowing your nose into oblivion that writing about short stories is a little like…

I can’t come up with anything.

Right now I am alone in my garage, with my books, and the rim of an old car tire from a car that no longer exists. Here and there the gnawing mice peep out of the walls. They say hello. I say hello back. I say, I’m reading a great story by so and so. They retreat to their wood chips and old, rusty dust.

The Lonely Voice takes its name from one of the few great books about short stories, Frank O’Connor’s 1962 book of the same title. O’Connor argues that great short stories are often the voice of the outsider, the voice of a member of a submerged population. I love this idea. Certain novels are said to capture the Zeitgeist of certain generations. A story, no matter the time or place, is always a lone voice, seeking your attention, your love even, by virtue of its singularity. No Zeitgeist, an annoying word anyhow, needed.

In O’Connor’s theory, stories speak for the least heard among us, for instance, the poor in a rich country. Put your ear to the floor and listen.

I try and write about stories because I believe someone should. I’m by no means the only one who does so. (See the great stuff out of England at The Short Review, a site run by a short story writer, Tania Hershman.) Somebody should because for as long as people have been scribbling stuff down on murdered trees, some of the most dangerous writing has been in the form of the shortish story. Think Job, think Herodotus. Leap a few years to Melville. “Bartebly ” has more provactivity  (Isaac, is this a word? [2]) in it than how many millions of pages written since? Every time I read Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” I am more befuffeled  (even if this isn’t a word, leave it[3]) and more in love with Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield, a couple who make up one of the strangest of all literary marriages. (Brief plot summary: Mr. Wakefield moves around the corner and one city block away from his wife – and lives there, unbeknownst to her, for the next thirty years, watching her get old.) Why does he do it? The world will never know. The plot isn’t half of it. The story is 9 pages long, and bottomless.

The characters in certain stories are the family I never fight with. Virgie in Eudora Welty’s “The Wanderers” is one of the heroes of my life. If I could only be as brave facing my failures as Virgie is.  And again, I don’t love “The Wanderers” because I understand it, or because it teaches me anything, or because it explains my fucked-up society, but because it captures, fleetingly, both the pain and exhilaration of being alive.

Are “Bartelby,” “Wakefield,” and “The Wanderers,” happy stories? Not a one. But the misery is truly wondrous. Bartelby dies, unknown and unknowable, in prison. Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield are reunited but not before their lives are nearly over. Virgie may yet triumph, but the weight of all that’s gone wrong in her life will always drag her down, bring her home, at least in her mind, wherever in the world she happens to end up.  But I’m always out here wishing her well, and thus, in my mind, Virgie never dies.

I’ll leave my personal giants, Melville, Hawthorne, and Welty, for another day. Today’s installment of the column concerns a lesser-known, Swiss author, and yet someone who is no less a world-class storywriter: Robert Walser.  So unique was Walser in his time that his contemporaries compared Franz Kafka to him, not the other way around. I worry that these days Walser is more known for how he died than what he wrote so lets get this out of way. Walser died in a Swiss insane asylum after famously declaring, “I didn’t come here to write, I came here to be crazy.” One day he roamed away from the asylum and into the adjacent forest. Later, they found him frozen to death in nothing but a bathrobe.

Before Walser retreated into self-imposed madness he wrote some of the oddest stories of the last century. Among them is “Kleist in Thun” about the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, author of “The Marquise of O,” a story that begins with this remarkable sentence:

In M –, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O –, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children, inserted the following announcement in the newspapers: that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; that she was resolved, out of consideration to her family, to marry him.

“Kleist in Thun” opens with the narrator reading a plaque on a house. We never learn exactly what the plaque says. Presumably something like Here once slept the legendary German writer Kleist. From the plaque there is a brilliant transition-less movement directly into Kleist’s psyche as he wanders around Thun taking in the sites – in 1802.

Spring has come. Around Thun the fields are thick with flowers, fragrance everywhere, hum of bees, work, sounds fall, one idles about; in the heat of the sun you could go mad. It is as if radiant red stupefying waves rise up in his head whenever he sits at his table and tries to write. He curses his craft. He had intended to become a farmer when he came to Switzerland. Nice idea, that. Easy to think up in Potsdam. Poets anyway think up such things easily enough. Often he sits at the window.

I’ve got a friend who manages the family farm in Georgia, Sapelo Farms. Some of the most succulent produce in America is grown there. I am always threatening to quit my day job – what is my day job? – and take the bus south and throw myself onto the fertile Georgian soil. I’d be as useless as Kleist.

Often he sits at the window.

Why is this line so devastating?  It’s hard for me to say exactly. I relate, that’s part of it. If there was a window in this garage, I’d be looking out of it right now. I think writers even without windows spend most of their lives looking out the window. What do we hope to see out there?

Part of it is because Kleist will commit suicide a few years after his stay in Thun, a fact that is left out of the story, and yet at the same time it is here, somehow, in every line.

It’s clear that in Thun, Kleist is a bit unhinged; he lurches from suffering to ecstasy, often in the same paragraph, sometimes within the same sentence. Walser so inhabits his character that from the second paragraph you completely forget that there’s somebody from another era narrating this story. So effective is Walser’s ventriloquism that even when he tells you, I am being a ventriloquist, you could care less. As a reader, Kleist’s voice overcomes you, so fully are you in his mind, and in his heart, as he tries, vainly, to control the sensations that are flooding his imagination.

His problems seem to be that he feels too much. He can’t turn down his emotions. Everything he sees in this perfect little Swiss town begins to mean something, to take on almost sacred significance.

Sundays Kleist likes, and market days also, when everything ripples and swarms with blue smocks and the costumes of the peasant women on the road, and on the narrow main street…Grocers announce their cheap treasures with beguiling country cries. And usually on such a market day there shines the most brilliant, the hottest, the silliest sun. Kleist likes to be pushed hither and thither by the bright bland throng of folk. Everywhere there is the smell of cheese.

You’d think Kleist was actually happy, and in a way, he is. He’s happy the only way miserable people know how to be, which is whole hog.

He walks on, past women with skirts lifted high, past girls who carry baskets on their heads, calm, almost noble, like the Italian women he has seen carrying jugs in paintings, past shouting men and drunken men, past policeman, past schoolboys moving with their schoolboy purposes, past shadowy alcoves which smell cool, past ropes, sticks, foodstuffs, imitation jewelry, jaws, noses, hats, horses, veils, blankets, woolen stockings, sausages, balls of butter, and slabs of cheese…

Alice Munro once wrote that she was in such awe of Eudora Welty’s prose all she could do in an essay was quote her. I feel similarly here about the apparent ease of Walser’s sentences. Even in translation, this list is breathtaking. Woolen stockings, sausages, balls of butter! Can’t you see it all? All the natural bounty, all the bland prosperousness of this Swiss town. Kleist is the sort of writer – the sort of person, let’s say – who become more alive, the more he watches other people going about their daily business. And think about it, if you pause a little and simply watch people, the world does become, in all its mundanity, a little miraculous. This morning, out for a walk early on Mission Street I stopped in front of the fish store between 22nd and 23rd and watched the arrival of the day’s delivery. Two men were draining fish from a tank attached to the back of flatbed truck into a barrel set on the street. Some of the fish didn’t make it into the barrel, and I watched one – it may have been a mackerel – flop in the middle of Mission.

With apologies to PETA, there was something thrilling about that fish fighting for life. Then: A Chevy with shiny chrome hubcaps ended it all.

Now I may have been under the spell of Walser at that moment. I’d been reading “Kleist in Thun” as I was walking down the sidewalk. So it may be that was especially alive to the details of my own world, details that I often ignore. But in a larger sense I think it was simply because I’d stopped to watch the moment unfold.

I’d never thought about it before. How did fish get from trucks into the fish store itself? For that matter, I’m not sure I’ve ever thought much about how fish get from the ocean to my plate. And there it all was. On Mission Street. The whole story with a different ending. A mackerel crushed dead by a souped-up Impala.

Stories that make us pause a little, that’s what I guess I’m advocating for today. But not in a cheesy, joyful, easy embrace of life way. Life isn’t beautiful, but it can be a warped miracle, if we pay attention.

Maybe we write in order to try and feel things we know we should feel in life but often don’t. Maybe we write – and read – because we don’t pay enough attention when we’re out in the world. In Kleist’s case, or at least in Walser’s imagining of Kleist’s case, his attempt to replicate what he saw and felt watching the good people of Thun, failed. Kleist stops being able to write because his words so pale in comparison to what he gets – as an outsider – merely from looking out his window.

What he writes makes him grimace: his creations miscarry.

Not that paying attention itself isn’t dangerous. It is. Maybe this is why so few people seem to do it for any serious length of time. (Again, I include myself. There are days I spend more time checking my email than I spend with my daughter.) Kleist, according to Walser, paid too much attention, and was, eventually, overcome by it.

There’s no lesson here.


[1] I exclude from this flippant analysis the Facebook that, among other things, drives the Occupied protests, brings down tyrannical middle-eastern governments, and helps financially strapped authors sell books.

[2] “Isaac” is the Rumpus managing editor, and he would like the reader to know this note was left intentionally.

[3] As was this one.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →