Eating Oatmeal Soup with Robert Walser
“only the journey to oneself is important.”
On a mild, early spring Sunday in February 1950, the writer Robert Walser and his friend Carl Seelig were eating in a pastry shop in St. Gallen, Switzerland. “Robert rolls a misshapen cigarette,” Seelig writes. “Since it isn’t well tamped, it flares a bit. The couple next to us begins to giggle; they apparently take Robert for an unworldly farmer. He tells me that now he sorts and unravels twine for the post office. But he is content with the work. He simply takes what comes.” This episode delights me no end, in part because it occurred on the very day on which I was born, in part because it epitomizes the spirit of Robert Walser.
As we learn from Carl Selig’s book Walks with Walser, Walser was a man who was both simple and complex. A writer of tremendous invention and honesty, called by Susan Sontag “a Paul Klee in prose” and “the missing link between Kleist and Kafka,” Walser was content, if not delighted, to spend the final thirty-six or so years of his life in Swiss mental institutions, far from the big cities and the literary and artistic circles he had enjoyed in his youth. Much of what we know about Walser’s life we know because of this slim book written by Seelig and first published in 1957 as Wanderungen mit Robert Walser.
For anyone who has watched with anticipation as the writings of Robert Walser (1878-1956) have slowly appeared in English over the past two decades or so, Carl Seelig’s Wanderungen mit Robert Walser has been high atop the list of Walser-related books we have wanted to see translated. This is Seelig’s narration of dozens of walks and conversations that he had with the writer over the twenty-year span from 1936 to 1956, when, usually several times a year, he would call upon Walser at a sanatorium in Herisau, Switzerland, where Walser had lived since 1933. Walser, whose books by then were largely forgotten, suffered from schizophrenia, anxiety, and possibly other disorders and had essentially withdrawn from society. Seelig, a patron of writers and biographer of Albert Einstein, seems to have been just about the only visitor Walser received. Eventually he became Walser’s legal guardian and the person primarily responsible for promoting the continued interest in Walser’s writings.
Now, sixty years after its first appearance, Seelig’s book has finally appeared in English as Walks with Walser (New Directions) and it doesn’t disappoint. On those long walks through the countryside and nearby villages, Seelig tried to draw the reticent Walser into talking about his past, his books, other writers, and numerous topics of interest. Walser, it turns out, seems to have been more or less like some of the great characters in his fiction — a delightful and sometimes wily crank who could easily have been mistaken for an unsophisticated soul.
Do you know what my downfall has been? [Walser says during the walk of June 27, 1937.] Listen carefully. All the dear sweet people who think they have the right to criticize me and order me around are fanatical admirers of Herman Hesse. They don’t trust me. For them it is either/or: “Either you write like Hesse, or you are and always will be a failure.” They are extremists in their judgment. They have no faith in my work. And that’s the reason I have ended up in this asylum . . . 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 of success rises before you . . . I am seen as rather merciless, which I am. And thus no one takes me very seriously.
Walser frequently spoke about other writers and their books. He admired Dostoevsky, Dickens, Gottfried Keller, Georg Büchner, and a number of other now-forgotten European writers. He believed that Tolstoy’s Resurrection “is one of humanity’s sacred books” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “brilliantly naïve,” while Rainer Maria Rilke was “bedtime reading for old maids.”
One of the unforeseen delights of reading this book is the description of the many meals that the two walkers shared as they tramped through small Swiss villages. Walser and Seelig are constantly stopping for a café crème, a glass of wine or a beer, a small snack, or a full meal. “Lunch at Schäfli in Trogen. We both have a huge appetite and clean every plate: the oatmeal soup, the bratwursts, the mashed potatoes, the beans, and the pear compote.” Or “a lavish meal ” of “meat broth, tender schnitzel topped with a fried egg, beans, carrots, noodles, salad, and frozen meringues, accompanied, according to Robert’s express wish, by a Spanish red wine.” Or this: “soup with omelet strips, schnitzel, Brussels sprouts, peas, potatoes, cake and vanilla ice cream.”
On occasion, Walser and Seelig even talked politics, war, and peace. After watching an aerial dogfight take place above them near the end of World War II, Walser remarked “At some point this silly Hitler-worship had to come home to roost. Anyone exalted to the skies the way he was must eventually fall into the abyss. Hitler hypnotized himself into a cynical complacency.” Then, at the onset of the Korean War in 1950, Walser went on a thirty-minute harangue about American intervention.
Have you seen their faces? They’re the faces of gangsters, executioners: foolishly proud, arrogant, and predatory. What business do the Americans have with a civilized society’s fight for freedom? Of course they will destroy everything with their ultramodern war machines, and they’ll win. But afterward how will the capitalist beast be driven back into its cage? That is another, more protracted question. In any case, Washington isn’t exactly full of the best and brightest.
Even for readers who haven’t read any of his great books (many of which I have written about before), Walks With Walser (New Directions) is a delightful introduction to a true character. Translated by Anne Posten.