Reading on Coincidence: Robert Walser

It’s one thing or the other. Robert Walser is either fashionable in Brazil right now or I am an intersection of coincidences. Two friends, who I’m almost certain don’t know each other, have been reading him recently. One emailed me of one of his, Walser’s, prose pieces just before the new year; another was seen last week in a square with a newly published prose collection in his bag. Two friends, at least, are reading Walser.

The newly published part may be the key, but chance and coincidence have always influenced my reading habits (maybe more on that and William Gerhardie some other time), especially when the coincident writer is one who has been in the known-but-unread, admired-by-the-admired orbit for more than ten years. I studied German at university, but Walser—Robert, there is another, unrelated Martin—barely came up. Perhaps because he’s Swiss and German departments inevitably (?) concentrate on literature from Germany, rather than literature in German; but I may be being unfair and he may have been on a reading list that I ignored to read as much of Kafka as I could. But Kafka—like Susan Sontag, like Hermann Hesse, like W. G. Sebald, like J. M. Coetzee in this essay, perhaps like even more writers I was reading at the time—was an admirer of Walser, so perhaps the coincidence was there already and could or should have been seen sooner. But coincidence cannot be ignored forever. So I did pick up a slim volume from the Rio’s Goethe Institut library. So I did read it.

The slim volume was Poetenleben (A Poet’s Life, not translated as such, but some of the stories are spread over the New York Review of Books Classics editions, A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories and Berlin Stories), Walser’s 1917 collection of feuilleton prose. The texts are, like much of Walser, at least partly autobiographical, and ordered according to Walser’s own biography in Switzerland, sometimes in southern Germany, later in Berlin, later again in Switzerland. The first half of the collection, especially, feels marinated in the Romantic sensibility of German poets like Eichendorff and Hölderlin (the first mentioned in the text, the second the subject of the penultimate story), with all the naivety, innocence, love of nature and inappropriate dress that the term implies. In the second half, the speaker seems, and autobiographically-speaking is, older with a more ironic detachment from the world.

From the distance of a century’s hindsight, the first half feels strange, being published close to the end of the First World War—Switzerland was neutral, but Walser was on frequent military service. The first half feels strange, coming on the cusp of Modernism—Tristan Tzara published the first edition of Dada (the review) in the same year, close by in Zürich. It feels strangely out of time (the Coetzee essay mentions how Walser was left behind by the new interwar Modernist sensibility).

But should it feel strange? Philip Larkin wrote “Never such innocence again”, from the British perspective there are stories of soldiers going to war with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in their packs, and there are similar stories of innocence in German and French literature. And in this collection, one of the final stories, “The Worker”, is made up of two utopian visions by an apolitical idealist writer and ends with the worker happily marching to war and soon it came to the battle, and who knows, perhaps the worker was one among those who fell for the fatherland—this is reminiscent of the end of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The next story is about the Romantic poet Hölderlin, born to sway through dreams and fantasies, who takes on the terrible commitment to play the prudent, proper and honourable man, and fails. There are biographical similarities between the two writers: both had to take on this “terrible commitment” to support themselves in the bourgeois world of work, Hölderlin as a tutor, Walser in a bank, in industry, in a duke’s mansion; and, in an uncanny pre-shadowing of Walser’s own future, both spent their final decades in mental institutions. It can’t be too much of a leap to see Hölderlin as a stand-in for Walser and as the penultimate story, this movements seems to sum up the trajectory of the collection. Rather than being a group of unconnected prose pieces, it comes together through autobiography, through identification, more as an episodic and multi-protagonist Künstlerroman.

There are plenty more volumes of Robert Walser’s complete works in the library, including his novels and far more famous short prose pieces. I will go back for more.

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