August 14, 2009
Many things connect the two writers Robert Walser and W.G. Sebald, but probably nothing more than the passion each had for walking.
Between 1936 and 1955, Carl Seelig, who would become known as a biographer of Albert Einstein, took nearly fifty long walks with his friend the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Seelig would meet Walser at the train station at Herisau in eastern Switzerland or at the sanitarium where Walser had been since the early 1930s, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Seelig’s notes of their walks and conversations have appeared in German as Wanderungen mit Robert Walser and in French translation, but the book has never appeared in English.
Bob Skinner has been working on a draft English translation of Seelig’s book and has decided to share the results with readers of Vertigo. Even though his translation is still a work-in-progress, it makes for very compelling reading on several levels. Wandering with Robert Walser shows the sometimes crotchedy Walser talking about his own books, other authors, his life, and a long list of other topics, including Hitler and the Nazis.
W.G. Sebald was a great admirer of Walser (I have written about Walser several times before), so, in order to make a link between the two I thought I would excerpt several passages that reflect on the topic of Sebald’s book The Natural History of Destruction. On several occasions, Walser talks with Seelig about the aerial destruction of Germany by the Allies.
[from 2 January 1944] We spoke first about the bombing of German cities. I noted that I found is awful to wage war against women, children, and the sick, regardless of which side was doing it. Hitler’s bombing of London didn’t excuse the Allies’ use of this inhumane tactic. Robert objected sharply that I was being too subjective and sentimental. A country in as much danger as Britain must pursue the most hard-hearted Realpolitik. The Hitler-Huns deserved no better. When it’s a question of survival every nation becomes selfish; even Christianity must content itself with a secondary role.
[from 24 May 1944] On the aerial bombardment of Berlin: “Perhaps this horror has the benefit that residents of big cities will return to a simple, natural life. How much musty history has been dragged through the centuries! By the way, it can’t hurt the Germans to come under a foreign yoke again. Even civilized countries must learn to knuckle under if they want to be able to rule.”
I had my own brief Sebaldian moment when Seelig recounts a walk with Walser on February 5, 1950, which is the day I was born.
In a confectioner’s Robert rolls a shapeless cigarette which starts a little fire when it’s lit. A couple nearby snickers; they think he’s a hick. He says that in the sanitarium he’s now sorting and untying string for the Post Office. This work is all right with him; he’ll take what comes.
After Walser’s death, Seelig reflected on the walks and his notes:
[from Christmas 1955] If in Wanderungen mit Robert Walser the subject is frequently food and drink, and certain subjects repeat themselves in occasionally contradictory ways, and passages occur which may perhaps shock a few readers, I’ve risked that for the sake of the integrity of a unique personality, even if that serves to cast a shadow on him. It’s a consolation for me that our strolls brought some variety to the monotony of decades in confinement. I’ll never find a more enthusiastic walking companion than him.