Robert Walser’s walks

In this age of blogging and the short form, Walser’s experimental, high-modernist short prose appeared aesthetically visionary, and now there were visual artists as well as writers obsessed with his work. (Susan Bernofsky)

I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,..Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, Heimat with exile…On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. (WG Sebald trans. Jo Catling)

Every holiday has its writer, who helps to make connections to the familiar, and who may/not stick…in the case of Switzerland it was Robert Walser (1878-1956; Wikipedia), coinciding neatly with my discovery of walking as a thing.

Spots on the ground included the Robert Walser Zentrum (chronology & links; FB) in Bern, which was closed, it being 2 January, although the lights were on. In Basel a Thomas Schütte exhibition was advertised by Schütte’s head of Walser’s (imagined) wife (vid; more); with accompanying events such as Bruno Ganz readings, a conference in the Zentrum Paul Klee and an exhibition on RW’s years in Biel.

There is no shortage of secondary literature and broader responses. Here’s a selection:

In 1933 RW is admitted to a sanitarium in Herisau and abandons all literary activities. Things look up a little in 1936 when he receives his first visit from journalist Carl Seelig, and over the following years they take long walks together through eastern Switzerland. In 1944 Carl is declared Robert’s legal guardian. On Xmas Day 1956 Robert dies on a walk through the snow. (Some things you can’t make up.)

Carl records their conversations in Vandringer (1957), finally published in English as Walks with Walser in 2017. (Earlier attempts: Bob Skinner (Wayback Machine) & Sam Jones (Wayback Machine; started on the 50th anniversary of RW’s death). See also Sam’s introduction.

Sam also created Wayfaring maps, annotated with RW-related locations in Bern, Zurich, and Berlin, accessible after a fashion on the Wayback Machine. What remains is the Robert Walser Pfad (PDF) in Herisau, Switzerland’s first literary path.

Sadly, back home I struggled with RW’s style, or maybe the translations. I invested in The walk and other stories, not least due to its great cover, but I’ve picked it up and put it down several times since. I should go back to the source German for the key texts, which offer such gems as this:

We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.

From A little ramble, channeled by Mark Mason in Walking the lines:

Still plenty of wandering to do. Plenty of wondering as well: what will X be like, what will I find at Y? That’s the joy of this. They don’t have to be exciting places, they simply have to be new.

(trailer for Percy Adlon’s 2013 film about Carl and Robert, Der Vormund und sein Dichter)

Last updated, and largely rewritten, on 29 July 2020.

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