Walks with Walser by Carl Seelig

Walks with Walser BY Carl Seelig. New Directions. Paperback, 200 pages. $15.
The cover of Walks with Walser

It’s perilous when the words spoken by a writer end up more well known than those he actually wrote. The line “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad” has appeared in most articles about Robert Walser written since his death in 1956. The “here” is, supposedly, the Sanatorium of Appenzell in Herisau, Switzerland, and the hearer was, allegedly, Carl Seelig, whose recollected visits to the no-longer-writing writer, Walks with Walser, was just published by New Directions.

In 1936 Seelig, a literary admirer, began traveling to Herisau to see Walser, then fifty-eight years old. Together they would set out on ambitious train rides and hikes through the countryside, rain or shine, while Seelig recorded their conversations. It had already been seven years since Walser had checked himself in to a mental clinic following a nervous breakdown and suicide attempts. He was later diagnosed schizophrenic (a label his symptoms likely wouldn’t produce today), and involuntarily committed to the closed asylum in Herisau, where he would live out his days.

Walks with Walser, translated from German by Anne Posten, is the latest in the “second wave” of revitalizing and contextualizing the still-too-little-known writer. The slim book will likely surprise his fans. It contradicts the dominant tendency to idealize and pathologize the writer, who has been portrayed as a prescient genius and eccentric outsider, particularly because of this final, reclusive period of his life.

Starting at the turn of the twentieth century, Walser wrote short stories and feuilleton pieces for newspapers and magazines and published several novels, which were admired by the likes of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin. But after his death, his biography and archive lent themselves easily to mythology. Reliable information about his life was hard to come by. In the years before the asylum, he rarely had a permanent address, relocating from one furnished room to another. He never married, though apparently he proposed to many women “in rapid succession.” The small scraps of paper he kept, covered with nearly illegible pencil marks, each letter one millimeter high, were for years thought to be the coded messages of paranoid mania, written by a man curling himself up in solitude. It was only when the text was identified as the obsolete Sütterlin script, a system of handwriting taught to German schoolchildren, that translators began to tackle these “microscripts,” discovering entire unpublished novels therein.

Seelig’s book provides yet another translation; his personal, firsthand account is the closest we will ever have to a Walser memoir. The questions he poses to Walser, regarding his personal and professional history and his literary and political opinions, seem like those of an oral historian, and Walser, trusting his companion, answers with presence of mind, inflecting the conversation with his characteristic humor and unusual observations.

Seelig claims to have recorded their walks, but it’s unlikely he lugged along a tape recorder, and he never mentions taking notes along the way. “It would be pointless to compose a retouched picture of Robert Walser that does not correspond to reality,” Seelig writes, but the suspicion that he wrote the entire book from memory deflates the quotation marks with which he surrounds Walser’s words. Certainly the Walserian sensibility, which produces asides like, “When newspapers smile, mankind weeps,” is something that Seelig, despite proving to be a thoughtful narrator, couldn’t possibly have managed on his own, but did Walser know of Seelig’s project, and did his speech extend all the way to testimony?

Curiously, there is one quote that does not appear in the book: “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad. ”Since the line is always attributed to Seelig’s visits I had expected to find it, and when I asked Susan Bernofsky (who has translated several books by Walser) about its absence, she wrote via email that the line has never been found in German, only in English:

My guess is that [British translator Christopher] Middleton was the first person to write it down, codifying something Seelig told him in conversation. Seelig was probably speaking loosely, using indirect discourse, and in Middleton’s English language version it wound up between quotation marks. If it were a genuine quote, Seelig would definitely have put it in his book. So I think it isn't something Robert Walser actually said.

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If Seelig did not write during their walks, it is apropos; it’s precisely the impossibility of writing while walking that made the latter so appealing to Walser. In his early works, he often sets up a conflict between the two activities. In “Poetry (I)” he laments his inability to write in summertime: “Often in the remote room that I inhabited, I threw myself on my knees and begged God to give me a pretty line of verse. Then I walked out the door and lost myself in nature.” In “News Number Two,” he writes, “In the afternoons and evenings I’m occasionally happy. That’s when I take a walk along some path, if possible a new one each time, and try to distract myself.” Many of his early feuilleton writings are remembrances of walks, written with such briskness that the reader can almost hear the door to one of his rented rooms having just shut and can smell the fresh air still on his overcoat.

Ben Lerner has written that “Walser is often less concerned with recording the finished thought than with capturing the movement of a mind in the act of thinking,” and since Seelig’s book focuses on the act of walking, he writes in a similar mode. An aimless walk is an offering to the incidental, its scenery a gift without expectation or occasion. Seelig and Walser chose their routes based not on destination but distance, weather, time to spare.

For his whole life Walser used walks for writing material and as a coping mechanism. When nightmares made sleep a chore, he would set out on walks until the morning, once walking from Bern to Thun and back again, totaling about twelve hours on foot. When he decamped from Berlin, he tells Seelig, “I took solitary walks day and night; in between I carried on the business of being a writer.”

This business, and its growing pressure, is ruefully addressed in his 1925 story “Walser on Walser.” To him, the conundrum is clear: the writer's material is experience, but he cannot experience anything if it is only for writing's sake. So he splits himself in two: “In no way am I concerned about the writer Walser at present seemingly asleep. On the contrary, his conduct pleases me,” the writer Walser writes, from the perspective of the un-writing Walser, “I would remind a writer more of a human being than of a writer. Writing indeed originates in what is human.” And what, exactly, is human? “Walser takes a walk each and every day for a little hour, instead of getting his fill writing.”

In Walser’s stories, the desk is a recurring villain, an enemy of joy, and an obstacle to productivity. Walser is thought to be the first Swiss writer to make a subject of the menial workday. He had worked this kind of job himself, intermittently and very briefly, quitting as soon as he had enough money—or experience—to write. But when Seelig asks repeatedly why his writing never supported him, Walser treats the writing desk like an office one, saying he only wrote “out of a sense of duty, and in order to earn a little something to eat.” He says, “For me it was work like any other.” On one walk he takes a more self-reflective stance, saying he “possessed too little social instinct,” while on another, self-pity creeps in, as he blames the “fanatical admirers” of Hermann Hesse. “That’s the reason I have ended up in this asylum,” he insists, “I simply lacked a halo, and that is the only way to be successful in literature. Any aura of heroism, martyrdom, or the like and the ladder to success rises before you.”

Despite these contradictions, he seems sure that whenever recognition is received, it should be rejected or ignored. When the doctors delivered newspaper clippings bearing his name he would refuse to read them. On Walser’s seventy-fifth birthday, Seelig wrote, “If anyone mentioned the tributes he received that day in the newspapers and on the radio, he would answer: ‘That’s nothing to me!’”

By recollecting his time with Walser, Seelig seems to have felt as much responsibility to Walser’s legacy as the writer himself did not. The friendship deepens over nineteen years, and the visits acquire the ceremony of tradition: always for Walser’s birthday and Christmas. But Seelig’s devotion cannot displace the tension crouching in their relationship. Eventually Seelig became Walser’s official guardian, and he maintains an air of paternal concern and curiousness that curdles their power dynamic. The two men are not quite companions; at times they seem to be using each other for their own ends, Seelig for the book, Walser for the chaperon.

Seelig took the photographs we have of Walser in old age, except the final one. Having postponed his annual visit, Seelig was at home on Christmas day in 1956, when he was informed that Walser had been found dead in the snow, where the police had photographed his body. Seelig translates the blunt image into a touching imagining of “The Last Walk.”There he exposes the accumulated intimacy of their walks: the uncanny access a traveler has to his companion’s thoughts, synced as they are to one another in pace, and the compassion he has for the other’s body, weighed against the path’s demands.

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Not only did Walser likely never say, “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,” the sentiment may itself be false. Walser’s biographer Catherine Sauvat interviewed someone from the sanatorium who said Walser wrote “on scraps of paper that he kept in his vest pocket and refused to show to anyone. He wrote standing up at a windowsill after meals, using a small pencil also kept stowed in a pocket.” The attendant had assumed Walser was delivering the papers to Seelig, but from Walks with Walser we can tell that Seelig had no knowledge of the texts. In their conversations Walser insists vehemently he no longer wrote. “It is absurd and brutal to expect me to scribble away even in the asylum,”he told Seelig, “The only basis on which a writer can produce is freedom. As long as this condition remains unmet, I will refuse to write ever again.”Walser realized the political reality would make publishing his work nearly impossible: “My world was shattered by the Nazis. The newspapers I wrote for are gone; their editors have been chased away or are dead.”

In her introduction to Walser’s posthumously published novel The Robber, Bernofsky warns, “It is crucial to remember the obvious but sometimes elusive difference between portrayals of madness and its expression.” If Walser lied about not writing for twenty-seven years, he may have viewed it as a strategy: if he wrote, people insisted he was mad to not want fame. The portrayal that he wasn’t interested gave him space for his own expression. For the years he lived there, the asylum offered a circle of isolation concentric within that of Switzerland, a political island in an ocean of embattled land. Walser’s resistance was limited to the Sütterlin script he wrote on scraps lining his vest pocket, which had been banned by the Nazis in 1941. His battle was against his legacy, and his tactic was subversion. He laid out guidelines back in 1925, in “Walser on Walser”: “I wish to go unnoticed. Should one nevertheless want to notice me, I for my part won’t notice the noticers . . . Don’t come to me about my ‘early books!’ One shouldn’t overestimate them, and concerning the living Walser, one should try to take him for what he is.”

Sarah Cowan is a writer in New York and a video editor and producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.