The Walk by Robert Walser

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Robert Walser’s legendary novella Der Spaziergang (The Walk), the first work of his to appear in English and the only one to be translated during his lifetime, is now available in the revised version he published three years after the original edition of 1917. Susan Bernofsky (who has translated numerous works of Walser’s including The Tanners, The Assistant, and the famous Microscripts, which were long believed to be written in an indecipherable code) has adjusted Christopher Middleton’s original 1955 English rendition by rearranging, adding, or deleting in faithful adherence to Walser’s own, often subtle, revisions. In the preface, Bernofsky speculates that the Swiss author undertook these changes “for the sake of minimizing the divide between the writing protagonist and the walking protagonist;” perhaps it was less a matter of minimizing a divide, however, than fine-tuning the precision of its ambiguity—for it is this very ambiguity that is so essential to the book’s uncanny atmosphere. As Bernofsky remarks, “The Walk is an episodic comedy with darkness at the edges, its gravity becoming apparent only gradually as one follows the narrator’s perambulations.”

As the story begins, the writer flees his gloomy room and the blank sheet of paper on his desk to embark on a walk through a provincial Swiss town and its rustic environs. Along the way he encounters a professor, a “foremost authority” and “incontrovertible power in person” whose mouth is “juridically clamped tight”; a bookseller who offers him, upon request, a “universally admired, thunderously applauded masterpiece” of contemporary literature which he “cold-bloodedly” leaves behind; a bank clerk who informs him that a society of benefactors has credited his account with a considerable sum, an “alleviation of a delicate nature” that he most assuredly needs; a bakery shop sign that induces him to stop in his tracks, indignant at the sight of “such golden inscriptional barbarities, which impress upon our rustic surrounds the seal of greed, moneygrubbing, and a miserable coarsening of the soul”; and a woman he takes to be a former actress and in whom he confides that not long before, he had been “hostile to the world and to myself, and a stranger to both” and from whom he soon thereafter takes his leave with “an exquisite and very scrupulous courtesy […] as if nothing in the least had transpired.”

As he leaves the town by a country road and continues on his way like a “better sort of tramp, a vagabond, a pickpocket, idler or vagrant,” a shadow suddenly descends on the writer/walker’s account. The giant Tomzack crosses his path, an outcast from whose eyes “there broke a glare of grief from underworlds and overworlds, and indescribable pain spoke from each of his slack and weary movements.” Without so much as looking back, Walser’s narrator strides onwards and soon happens upon a young girl singing. Enraptured, he listens to her delicate voice, congratulates her vigorously when she is done, and admonishes her to “diligently preserve it from deformity, mutilation, thoughtless premature exhaustion, and neglect,” for she will be “expected industriously to sing further every day.” He then proceeds to Frau Aebi’s home, who serves him a grotesquely overabundant lunch and, in somewhat surreal manner, continues to press food upon his terrified person even after he’s well past the bursting point, assuring him that “there is no possibility that you will leave this table before you have eaten up and polished off everything that I have cut, and will cut, off for you”; continues on his way to mail a letter to a “leading, influential personality” to whom he writes a diatribe several pages in length which we soon learn amounts to an act of professional suicide: “you do not keep your word, injure without a second thought the virtues and reputations of those who have to deal with you, you rob unsparingly where you pretend to institute beneficence.” He then marches off to his “obstinate, recalcitrant” tailor who is “convinced of the infallibility of his doubtless eminent skill, as well as completely saturated with a sense of his own efficiency.” He is to try on a suit he expects to reveal “entire multitudes of mistakes, defects, and blemishes”: a jacket that makes him look like a hunchback and a “miserable, ridiculous, and terrifyingly idiotic work of trouserly art” that together evince “something despicable, deplorable, petty-minded, something inane, fearful, and homemade.”

Walser’s writing cunningly masquerades irony with self-effacement, and vice-versa; embodied in the figure of the bedraggled walker/poet, an almost baroque politesse spills over into the incongruous, the obsequious, and the disconcerting. Articulated in a language of hallucinatory virtuosity, the narrator’s soliloquies reveal a social awkwardness that makes it difficult for him to navigate his environment unharmed. His basic underlying state is fear, and his writing a compulsive flight from that fear. Endless elaborations are delivered with a decorousness W.G. Sebald terms “anarchistic”; they serve to buy time, to delay the inevitable—for while he remains at a safe-enough distance from nearly every individual he encounters, disdain and humiliation always seem close at hand, potential threats ready to pounce on him and blot him out.

Among Walser’s early admirers were Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, and Franz Kafka; indeed, many years later, Martin Walser (who is unrelated to the late Swiss writer) called him “Kafka’s closest twin brother.” In his 1929 essay on Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin asserted that everything the author had to say was essentially overshadowed by the significance of writing itself. “The moment he takes a pen to hand, he is seized by a desperado mood. Everything seems lost to him, a gush of words comes pouring out in which each sentence has the sole purpose of rendering the previous one forgotten.” This “shame,” this “chaste, artful clumsiness” is transformed into “garlands of language” with thought stumbling through them in the form of a “pickpocket, a scallywag, and a genius, like the heroes […] that come out of the night where it is at its blackest.” Flickering in this blackness, however, are “meager lanterns of hope.”

Yet the hope that shines forth in the moments of self-knowledge, transcendence, and grace Walser describes is anything but meager. On the contrary, it is exultation the writer feels when he perceives the sublime in the tiniest details of everyday life. As the narrator passes through the gentle countryside, he enters a rapturous state in which he attains to an almost holy connection with the present: “I felt as if someone were calling me by name, or as if someone were kissing and soothing me […] the soul of the world had opened, and I fantasized that everything wicked, distressing and painful was on the point of vanishing […]. All notion of the future paled and the past dissolved. In the glowing present I myself glowed. […] The earth became a dream; I myself had become an inward being, and I walked as in an inward world. […] In the sweet light of love I believed I was able to recognize—or required to feel—that the inward self is the only self which really exists.” Yet the terrifying Tomzack, the destitute giant who has crossed the narrator’s path only a short time before, is surely a mirror image of the author, who must have intimated the fate in store for him. One can’t help wondering what effect Walser, who spent the last twenty-seven years of his life in an asylum, might have had on modern literature (or even European history) if his writing had found a wider public. In a remark that was perhaps less a naïve belief in the power of literature to save humanity from its own catastrophes than a reflection on the unbridgeable distance between Walser’s unique sensibility and the cultural climates that evolved during the rise of Nazi Germany and in the aftermath of the war, Hermann Hesse once claimed that “if poets like Robert Walser could be counted among our foremost intellects, there wouldn’t be any war. If he had 100,000 readers, the world would be a better place.”

In his essay “Le promeneur solitaire,” Sebald describes the difficulty in categorizing Robert Walser: on the one hand he was oppressed by shadows and on the other radiated amicability. He composed humorous works out of sheer desperation in an elusive prose teeming with fleeting images and ephemeral figures. The self remained missing or hidden behind an array of passers-by; he almost always wrote the same thing, yet never repeated himself. Sebald points out that Walser’s writing tended towards a radical minimalism and abbreviation from the very beginning, while simultaneously exhibiting a contrary propensity for the minutely described detail, the playful arabesque.

Throughout Der Spaziergang, walking coincides with the act of writing, of telling a story; it also serves to deflect attention from the essential matter at hand, which becomes clear in the book’s closing pages. And so writing becomes a means of escaping life, its method continuous postponement. Moreover, notwithstanding Walser’s profound delight in nature and lifelong practice of walking great distances, there are numerous indications that most, if not all, of the narrator’s encounters are symbolic of something larger than his clever caricatures of them might initially suggest. The Walk, then, is not the narrative delivered in temporal continuity it purports to be, but an allegory, a series of vignettes strung together to delineate the outside forces prevailing upon the writer’s existence: rigid academic authority; the grim fact that the literature with the greatest market success is also the literature that is generally most admired; the smothering attentions of a beneficent, but clueless public; the necessity of remaining civil to powerful people one wholly despises are some of the social parameters the writer is forced to navigate between. For Walser, the market’s vicissitudes, public opinion, and the power of critics and academia became the bars of a cage that ultimately prevented him from practicing his profession altogether.

Walser’s “walk” is many things at once: the walk of life as in Dante’s cammin di nostra vita; the fusion of a Romantic’s celebration of nature as the source of all knowledge and inspiration with a Modernist’s playful intertextuality and layering of language; the artistic process in conflict with the conditions of material existence. Palpable throughout the story are echoes of wanderers and outsiders that have always been suspect to settled society: the vagabonds, artisans, circus performers, journeymen, and nomads who were exempt from the duties and moral codes that order, tame, and impose limitations on human coexistence. I cannot help but suspect that Walser remained in the asylum to preserve his state of inner exile; in any case, there is ample evidence that he was anything but psychotic and that his nervous breakdown was in all likelihood caused more by the hopelessness of his professional, financial, and social situation than by inner demons. Walser must have sensed that he’d lost the audience receptive to his work and would not recover it, at least not in his lifetime. If his writing retained its mischief, whimsy and wonder, it also masked a defiant plea for the legitimacy of his vision and literary achievement. In an effort to have his taxes reduced, Walser’s walker/writer feels called upon to defend his profession and—by implication—justify his very existence: “There accompanies the walker always something remarkable, something fantastic […] by thinking, pondering, drilling, digging, speculating, writing, investigating, researching, and walking, I earn my daily bread with as much sweat on my brow as anybody. And although I may cut a most carefree figure, I am highly serious and conscientious, and though I seem to be no more than dreamy and delicate, I am a solid technician! Might I hope, through the meticulous explanations I have brought forth, to have convinced you completely of the obviously honorable nature of these endeavors?”


The paraphrases and quotes in this essay are the author’s own translations from the original German editions:

W.G. Sebald, Le promeneur solitaire in: Logis in einem Landhaus, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1998.

Walter Benjamin, Robert Walser in: Illuminationen. Ausgewählte Schriften 1, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1977.

The remarks by Martin Walser and Hermann Hesse stem from a portrait of the author aired on Swiss TV in the 1970s.


Andrea Scrima is the author of the novel “A Lesser Day” (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2010), literary critic for The Brooklyn Rail and The Rumpus, and co-editor of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. She lives in Berlin. More from this author →