The Walk by Robert Walser. Trans. Christopher Middleton & Susan Bernofsky. New Directions, 2012. pp 90. $10.99
Despite his boasting one of the most distinguished cast of supporters in all 20th Century literature (Kafka, Benjamin, Bernhard, Hesse and Sontag to name just a few) the great, mad tragi-comic Swiss writer Robert Walser has remained something of a well kept secret. A cultish figure whose work anticipated Kafka as well as the surrealists, Walser’s work is spun out of a bizzare hybrid of pastoral and modernist qualities, alternately realistic and whimsically imaginative, his approbation of all things small and unintentionally beautiful giving way to wild confrontations and social misunderstanding. As translator Susan Bernofsky writes, his voice comprises a “mix of solemnity and whimsy, impertinence and veneration.” Sontag compared him to a good natured Beckett.
The Walk is the most recent of the half a dozen or so of his titles that have made their way into English in the past couple of years, and it is one of the best yet. Quite simply, it is a novella length fictionalization of a day’s journey on foot, a loose chronicle of an unnamed narrator’s (presumably Walser) informal stroll with attending sights, sounds, encounters and appointments both stilted and successful described, our perambulatory hero extolling the virtues of walkers and the malice of engines all the way through.
The subject fits Walser’s rambling, intuitive and discursive style perfectly, as the pace of the mind settles into that of the foot (or vice versa?), so that more typically edifying reflections upon writing and the mind are peppered with speculations upon the miserliness of tailors; “youthful presumed budding cantatrices” and “alleged retired actresses” roam the countryside among stray dogs and distasteful giants; and luxuriant pensiones bear placards with several hundred word essays advising potential “candidates” as to the ridiculous litany of virtues necessary to make the cut.
One of Walser’s greatest qualities as a writer is that he is effortlessly, perhaps unintentionally humourous, as if he can’t help himself, and this hilarity doesn’t preclude a genuine emotional engagement, a vague understated sadness. He doesn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body, and indeed his criticisms are always immediately followed by long fawning apologies to the reader who cannot help but fall pray to his charm. Hermann Hesse infamously said that if Walser had a hundred thousand readers the world would be a better place, and I believe he is right. With that many readers experiencing such unadulterated delight, who couldn’t help but crack a smile?