The fifth essay in A Place in the Country, Jo Catling’s new translation of W.G. Sebald’s Logis in einem Landhaus, is devoted to a “singular, enigmatic figure,” German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956). Not long into the essay, Sebald declares “one cannot really speak of a story or of a biography at all, but rather, or so it seems to me, of a legend.” “Le Promeneur Solitaire: A Remembrance of Robert Walser” is quintessential Sebald – and it’s also the best essay in the book, in my opinion.
Compared to the previous essays on Hebel, Rousseau, Mörike, and Keller, Sebald delves deeper into both Walser the man and Walser the writer and addresses the complex relationship between the two. At the same time, Sebald makes clear the profound impact that both Walser and Walser’s writings had on him.
It is telling that Sebald subtitled this essay a “remembrance” (“erinnerung,” in German). Even though he never met Walser, Sebald felt what was nearly a blood kinship with the Swiss writer, who he saw as the embodiment of his own beloved grandfather in manner and appearance. Sebald even shows photographs of his grandfather (with small Sebald holding his hand) to demonstrate the closeness in appearance. After he summarizes at some length the similarities between the two men, Sebald proceeds to ask a series of questions that lie at the heart of all of his own work as a writer.
What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps and coincidences? Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?
Sebald acknowledges that in his own writings he often tried “to mark my respect for those writers with whom I felt an affinity.” But his relationship with Walser was of a different order. “It is one thing to set a marker in memory of a departed colleague, and quite another when one has the persistent feeling of being beckoned to from the other side.”
Among my early encounters with Walser I count the discovery I made, in an antiquarian bookshop in Manchester in the second half of the 1960s – inserted in a copy of Bächtold’s three-volume biography of Gottfried Keller which had almost certainly belonged to a German-Jewish refugee – of an attractive sepia photograph depicting the house on the island in the Aare, completely surrounded by shrubs and trees, in which Kleist worked on his drama of madness, Die Familie Ghonorez, before he, himself sick, was obliged to commit himself to the care of Dr Wyttenbach in Berne. Since then I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time, the life of the Prussian writer Kleist with that of a Swiss author who claims to have worked in a brewery in Thun [Kleist lived in Thun for several important years], the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee [a reference to Kleist’s suicide] with the view from a window of the Herisau asylum [where Walser lived for more than twenty years], Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history with the history of our industries, that of Heimat with that of exile. On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. I need only look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings. [My parenthetical comments – TP]
Catling’s translation of this essay first appeared in 2009 as the Introduction to Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Walser’s 1907 novel The Tanners. All of my posts on A Place in the Country (Logis in einem Landhaus) can be found here.