Author Robert Walser’s life was a quiet disaster

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The Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) was an avid hiker. Sometimes he bragged about it. During a walk with Carl Seelig in 1941, he says that as a young man he went to Würzburg to visit an admired writer, a distance of 80 kilometers. It took him ten hours. That’s 8 kilometers per hour. We can assume that he rested now and then, ate or drank something, and that the speed was often even higher. It’s no longer a walk: it’s a trot. He also did it in sandals. “My feet were blistered when I arrived.”

The pace is also fast during the walks with the Swiss writer and patron Carl Seelig. Seelig talks about running, marching and running. On a hot July day, they maintain an almost furious pace.

Usually the hikes lead through the hilly landscape of eastern Switzerland, but now and then they venture higher, such as to the summit of Säntis, partly by cable car. On the way, there is a ‘quiet hailstorm’ and ‘ice and snow lumps begin to clatter on the windows’. At the top of the mountain, they trudge through ‘half a meter of snow’ ‘in a freezing northeast wind’. Walser does this ‘without coat and hat’.

Fortunately, there is regular eating and drinking. Seelig describes the refreshment carefully, every time. ‘We drink red Buchberger and let the menu come, (…) veal schnitzel with mashed potatoes, beans and peas.’ Walser likes to eat, sometimes quite greedily. In a patisserie, he eats ‘contentedly’ eight cakes, on another occasion he licks a ‘cup of fruit jam (…) like a cat’. Often there is also time for an assessment of the waiter. “She has a bosom like a swan!”

A silent disaster

I know Walser thanks to WG Sebald, who in Accommodation in country house wrote a very fine essay about him. Sebald describes Walser’s life as a ‘silent disaster’: Without being able to directly point out why it went wrong, everything went wrong. Walser gradually lost all meaningful contact with others. He lost his already meager possessions. His work was marginalized in a literary climate dominated first by left-wing ideology and expressionism and then by fascism and folk kitsch. Eventually this man lost all grip on himself, if he ever had it. He spent the last 27 years of his life in psychiatric institutions.

Carl Seelig got to know Walser after the disaster had already happened, in 1936, when Walser had already spent some time in a mental asylum in Herisau. Seelig visited him there several times a year for walks, first driven by admiration for the author, but eventually also by love. It is largely thanks to Seelig that Walser’s work gained recognition after his death because he stubbornly continued to publish it. Walser is now known for novels such as Jacob von Gunten, the robber, The tanners and The waiter.

Carl Seelig in 1944. Image Getty

Carl Seelig in 1944.Image Getty

The conversations that Seelig had while walking with Walser are often about literature and writing. Walser has strong opinions. He likes Dickens and Gogol, but Rilke “belonged on spinsters’ bedside tables.” Artists must not pass [de samenleving] be pampered, for otherwise they feel obliged to flatter themselves against the given proportions.’ He hates popular writers. “You must be a real chump if you base your talent on wanting to write even more popularly than others.” He has a harsh judgment on a writer who, in his opinion, was a vain bitch: The man ‘constantly allows himself to be enlightened by others because he does not shine himself’.

Every now and then the outside world intrudes. Seelig is mobilized during the war and has to fight to get some time off for the walks. Sometimes there are food stamps and shortages, sometimes there are air raid sirens or anti-aircraft guns. Walser sees the benefits of war. “Could we have talked so undisturbed, without the smell of petrol and the driver’s cursing, on this country road, if petrol had not been rationed?” After the war, the Korean War quickly broke out. “True civilization, at least, does not live in Washington,” notes Walser.

Seelig describes Walser as headstrong and opinionated, shy, a little drunk, but not insane. In the institution, he behaves discreetly: he cleans, sticks paper bags and sorts lentils, beans and chestnuts. His mood can vary quite a bit. At times, Walser is silent and does not even look Seelig in the eye. Other times he is just extraordinarily cordial. Saying goodbye at the station, Walser shakes Seelig’s hand several times, runs after my train and waves until it disappears around the corner.

Too much attention

The most striking thing is that Walser cannot stand attention – in this respect, Seelig’s portrait fits well with Sebald’s. Seelig is an admirer of Walser’s work and sometimes shows it, but Walser invariably curtails that attention. When Seelig connects him with the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, Walser stops with ‘a violent jerk’. ‘No no! I must urge you never again to mention my name in connection with such masters.’ On another occasion, Seelig asks why he doesn’t write more. Walser reacts annoyed: ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.’

In other situations too, Walser’s attention quickly becomes too much. He keeps his distance in the institution. ‘Anyone who doesn’t keep their distance from him,’ Seelig notes, ‘risks being roughed up.’ It is generally not allowed to take a picture. Conversations about the sometimes fragile health are taboo. When he tries on a new suit, his head turns redder and he eventually takes his legs. On another occasion, Walser says that he is very satisfied with his almost anonymous life. “It suits me to disappear as inconspicuously as possible.”

Walser died of a heart attack on Christmas Day 1956 while walking alone in the snow. He was found by some children. The police took pictures of the body. I never got around to looking at it for long because it’s such an incredibly sad picture, but after reading Seelig’s book I did. Walser lies on his back, left arm outstretched, right hand on chest. His hat is rolled off his head and is a meter away. His mouth is open. In the foreground are – I assume – his last footprints. The image is unavoidably sad, but also makes it clear that death mercifully came, suddenly, during a walk in the snow that Walser loved dearly. He got the ending he hoped for. That death did not give him more attention than was strictly necessary also has something to do with all grief.

Seelig gets word of Walser’s death in the afternoon. His Christmas has already been ruined because his dog is very sick, and the news of Walser’s passing doesn’t make things any better. “I couldn’t see a Christmas tree that night,” he notes. “The light of it hurt me too much.”

Carl Seelig: Walks with Walser. Translated from the German by Machteld Bokhove. Copernicus; 199 pages; €21.50.

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