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Posts from the ‘Robert Walser’ Category

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. Read more

Robert Walser’s Schoolboys

Walser Schoolboys Diary

Time seemed to stand still because it had to stop and eavesdrop on all the beauty and all the evening magic.  Everything dreamed because it was alive, and everything lived because it was permitted to dream.  [“The City,” 1915]

Is there any writer who seems more clinically optimistic than Robert Walser?  His deliciously confounding narrators – many of which are children or servants – instinctively grasp that ignorance is a precondition to certain types of happiness and wisdom, just as they understand that it is often the so-called unimportant things that really matter. Read more

Sebald’s Walser

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. Read more

Jelinek Plays with Walser

Cahiers 18 cover

Sylph Editions and The Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris continue their outstanding collaboration with their Cahiers Series 18, Her Not All Her: on/with Robert Walser, a play by Elfriede Jelinek.  The only stage direction in the play is this: “A number of people to each other, all very friendly and well-behaved (perhaps lying in bathtubs, as was once the custom in mental hospitals),” which obviously provides wide latitude for producing the piece on the stage.

There are no characters or voices identified; instead, the play is written in paragraphs, just like a short story or essay.  Without the clue provided by the stage direction, it would be eminently reasonable to read straight through Her Not All Her as if there was but a single voice that probably emanates from Walser.  “Would you like to hear the novel of my life?”   But on closer inspection, it becomes less and less clear who might be speaking at times.  In some paragraphs the first-person narrator seems as if it could be no one but Walser.  At other times it appears that someone else might be addressing Walser; or, it could well be that Walser is addressing himself in the third person – a not unreasonable possibility.  But even when it seems like it might be Walser speaking, it isn’t always discernible which Walser is speaking – the young Walser-as-successful-writer or the elderly Walser who spent the final three decades of his life in a mental institution, where he wrote but meagerly.

Memory is a hardware store where writers try to help themselves to something for free until all of the suffering falls on their heads because they pulled the bottommost plank out of the pile first.  So now I garb myself in delicate absentmindedness and no one can ask anything of me now, I’m dreaming, or temporarily dead at the moment.

Who speaks?” asks Reto Sorg in an afterword to the play.  “This question returns insistently in modernity…”

What Jelinek’s play highlights is that the act of literary confession, striving for self-determination, is always also an attempt to free oneself from just this obligation to have any identity at all.

To be sure, an overriding attribute of this play is uncertainty.  Her Not All Her forces the determined reader – and even more so, the stage director – to invent distinctions in and contexts for the text.  As Jelinek says in a statement about the play:

Robert Walser is one of those people who do not mean themselves when they say “I.”  It is true he never stops saying “I”, but it’s not him.

The title Her Not All Her is an English adaptation of the German original (Er nicht als er), which itself is a wordplay built out of the German syllables of Walser’s name, as if Walser was himself was a literary construction.  There are several brief, but extremely evocative videos of a 2011 production of Er nicht als er at Meetfactory in Prague under the direction of Katharina Schmitt here and here and here, which show one approach to producing this on stage.  For anyone who wants still more, there is a CD horspiel of the play available here, spoken by Bruno Ganz.

Cahiers 18 inside


This is the first time the play, which premiered in 1998, has appeared in English.  The 40-page pamphlet also includes a brief statement by Jelinek, an essay on Jelinke and Walser by Reto Sorg, Director of the Robert Walser Centre, and reproductions of thickly impastoed paintings of faces by British artist Thomas Newbolt.   The translations are by Damion Searls.  I previously wrote about Cahiers Series 14, Animalinside by László Krasznahorkai.

[Photographs courtesy Sylph Editions.]

Sebald (and more) Events in March-April 2012

[Portions of Nach der Natur installed in Don Soker Contemporary Art, San Francisco, 2006]

If you are in the San Francisco Bay area, drop by the Berkeley Art Center, where five works by Christel Dillbohner relating to W.G. Sebald’s Nach der Natur are on display until April 1.  According to the artist’s website, her artwork entitled Nach der Natur “is a multipaneled ‘wax engraving’ on paper. In seventeen one-hour sessions, Dillbohner engraved W.G. Sebald’s prose poem Nach der Natur into a layer of wax which was applied on blackened mulberry paper (69” x 190”). After completion she then glazed the wax with white oil paint, which makes the fine (filigree) markings of her writing visible.”

Here are further details on the previously announced Festival Robert Walser being held in Newcastle upon Tyne, March 19-23.

Mon. 19/03 6pm
Short stories by Robert Walser.  Read by Tim Bennett, Gabriele Heller and Claire Webster-Saaremets
City Library, 33 New Bridge Street West, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE18AX, Tel: 0191 277 4100

Tues. 20/03 1– 2.30pm
A radio discussion on the role of madness in art and artistic legacy.
Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Grand Assembly Rooms, Kingʼs Walk, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, Tel: 0191 246 4607

Wed. 21/03 6.30-9pm
OPPRESSIVE LIGHT at The Lit and Phil
Selected Poems by Robert Walser.  Book launch – New translations by Daniele Pantano
DEEPLY MORBID at The Lit and Phil
An illustrated lecture on romance by Tender Buttons.  Written by Stevie Smith and Robert Walser. Performed by Tessa Parr, Directed by Tess Denman-Cleaver
New compositions by John Pope
Literary & Philosophical Society, 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SE,
Free but booking essential: Phone 0191 232 0192 to reserve a ticket

Thur. 22/03 6pm
Opening exhibition night with work by Billy Childish, Roman Signer and others
Newcastle University students show filmic work in response to Robert Walserʼs Microscripts.
Vane Gallery, 1st Floor, Commercial Union House, 39 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6QE, Tel: 0191 261 8281, Email:

Fri. 23/03 4.30-7pm
A talk by Reto Sorg about Robert Frankʼs exhibition Ferne Nähe /Distant Closeness at the Robert Walser Zentrum, Bern March 2012.
Followed by a panel discussion with Jo Catling, Lars Iyer, Daniel Medin, Daniele Pantano, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams about Walserʼs unique
7.30pm MORE ON THIS LATER at Culture Lab
A theatre performance by Gabriele Heller (theatre-between) and Claire Webster-Saaremets (Skimstone Arts).
Followed by a musical piece by Phil Begg and a musical performance by Joe Murray.
Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Grand Assembly Rooms, Kingʼs Walk, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, 0191 246 4607

Finally, on another note entirely, Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) will be shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19-May 3.

Sebald Events February-March 2012

“Festival W.G. Sebald: Politique de la Mélancolie” will take place in Paris at Centre Pompidou from February 22 through MARCH 12.  Participants include: Muriel Pic, Martine Carré, Jean-Christophe Baill, Martin Rueff, Ulrich von Bülow, and Jürgen Ritt.  von Bülow will apparently speak about the Sebald archive at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.  According to the website:

Valérie Mréjen launches an investigation into writer W.G. Sebald and his work. Following upon the “lecture-performance” and the “spoken painting” that previous editions of the Festival have introduced as new and viable genres of contemporary art, this forensic investigation calls upon the ghosts of the past to cast a glimmer of light on the unknown future. 

“The SIP Re/View # 2: W.G. Sebald” will take place in Tel Aviv on March 5, 2012.

The Shpilman Institute for Photography and Holon Mediateque (Israel) are proud to announce The SIP Re/View # 2: W.G. Sebald, an interdisciplinary event dedicated to the works of noted German writer and scholar, whose work continues to resonate in contemporary art and culture.  The evening will begin with a panel of local artists and writers: artist Zvi Goldstein, psychoanalyst, artist and art-critic Itamar Levi and The SIP’s research manager, Dr. Romi Mikulinsky will, present three perspectives about Sebald’s evocative use of images and photography as vehicle to convey and distort meaning.  The event will feature keynote speaker Grant Gee, acclaimed documentary film-maker and director of Patience (After Sebald). This multi-layered film is narrated through a walk through coastal East Anglia whilst tracking Sebald’s  The Rings of Saturn. Gee will host an open debate with the public, following a screening of the film.

The event will also present a temporary library, focusing not only on Sebald’s work, but also on contemporary reactions in art, culture and literature, featuring the works and writings of international creative forces. As well as history and architecture books, special photography books and art manuscripts will be presented at the mediatheque during the first weeks of March.

Robert Walser

“Festival Robert Walser” will take place March 19-24 in Newcastle Upon Tyne.  A number of familiar names – including Jo Catling – will appear.  From their website:

One of the most remarkable artists of the Twentieth Century, the Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) has had a huge influence on a long list of literary, artistic and philosophical figures from Franz Kafka to Walter Benjamin, W.G. Sebald to J.M. Coetzee, musicians such as Heinz Holliger, contemporary visual artists from Fischli & Weiss to Billy Childish, and filmmakers including João César Monteiro, Percy Adlon and the Brothers Quay.  In recent years, international interest in Walser’s work via a growing number of world class translations has generated a wealth of new writing, artwork and critical discussion which continues to explore Walser’s unusual legacy.  The Institute Robert Walser will use Walser’s multi-disciplinary appeal as the basis for a week long arts festival in Newcastle upon Tyne in arch 2012. The festival will bring together local and international writers, academics, performers, musicians and visual artists. Participants include: Billy Childish (artist/writer/musician), Roman Signer (artist), Daniele Pantano (writer) Luke Williams (writer) and Jo Catling (translator/academic). The festival will also serve to showcase the extraordinary cultural and artistic diversity in the city of Newcastle at this time; it will be launched on March 19th at Newcastle City Library and will take place across a range of venues.

Happy travels!

The Beggar at the Door

I’m still standing at the door of life, knocking and knocking, though admittedly none too forcefully, and breathlessly listening to see whether someone will decide to open the bolt and let me in.  A bolt like this is rather heavy, and people don’t like to come to the door if they have the feeling it’s just a beggar standing outside knocking.  I’m good at nothing but listening and waiting, though in these capacities I’ve achieved perfection…

I’ve been reading Robert Walser’s The Tanners for more than a month.  It’s a novel best consumed in small doses, full of wonderful writing and a touch of madness.  In a way, it strikes me as the novel that I imagine to be most like Walser himself: contradictory, plotless, modest, and occasionally magical.  It deals with dichotomies: freedom and dependence, city and country, money and the lack of money.

The Tanners is the story of the Tanner siblings: Klaus, Hedwig, Emil, Kaspar, and Simon, who is the main character.  Simon is a man of little ambition, drifting through life, jobs, borrowed places of residences, friendships. lovers.  His real talent is the gift of gab and its offshoot – the gift of self-delusion.  As he alternates between berating himself for his total lack of ambition and cherishing his utter independence, Simon spends an inordinate amount of time convincing himself – at least momentarily – of the goodness of his intentions, whatever they may be at the moment.   People either flee him in disgust or adopt him.

It’s curious that The Tanners, written in 1907, was never translated into English before this year, for the book would have been a Bible to the hippies and the Beats of my generation.  “Misfortune is educational,” Simon declaims, echoing a sentiment many of us shared as we muddled through the awful 60s.  Simon’s philosophy of life was one I could have called my own forty years ago: “I currently enjoy the respect of only a single person, namely myself.  But this is the one whose respect is worth the world to me; I am free and can always, when necessity commands, sell my freedom for a certain length of time so as to be free again after.”  What Simon rarely sees is the effect his dependence has on others; and, of course, no one can ever become dependent on Simon.

As I noted earlier, this publication of The Tanners contains the first English translation of W.G. Sebald’s essay Le Promeneur Solitaire, one of his most revealing pieces of writing on literature.

Walser The Tanners

Robert Walser, My Constant Companion

Walser The Tanners

“Walser has been my constant companion.”

Some artists obfuscate when it comes to talking about those who influenced them, while others readily identify their own artistic forerunners for us.  When W.G. Sebald reflected back on Robert Walser’s writings in an essay first published in 1998, he also traced a deliberate path connecting his own writing with Walser’s.  The essay, Le Promeneur Solitaire, which recently appeared in English in the guise of an Introduction to the new translation of Walser’s novel The Tanners (New Directions, 2009), is every bit as revelatory about Sebald as it is about Walser.

Originally published in his book of essays Logis in Einem LandhausLe Promeneur Solitaire begins with photographs of Walser – specifically seven portraits that span Walser’s lifetime, plus a series of snapshots of Walser posing during his infamous hikes.  Every time he looks at those photographs, Sebald writes, “I think I see my grandfather before me,”  and he reproduces two unidentified snapshots that seemingly show himself as a young boy hiking with his grandfather (the two photographs at the top of the right hand page below).  After enumerating several similarities between the lives of Walser and his grandfather, Sebald asks:

What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, 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 is beyond our comprehension?

There is scarcely a better description of the pattern behind Sebald’s own prose than this.

Walser Portraits

Sebald identifies so closely with Walser that he “has the persistent feeling of being beckoned to from the other side.”  So, when he writes about Walser, it can be instructive on occasion to simply substitute Sebald’s name for Walser’s.

[Sebald] hoped, through writing, to be able to escape the shadows which lay over his life from the beginning…transforming them on the page from something very dense to something almost weightless.  His ideal was to overcome gravity.

[Sebald was the] clairvoyant of the small.

Sebald pays much attention to Walser’s fragile state of mind, his remoteness from other people and from the momentous events of his own time, his utter lack of possessions, his lonely hikes, his eventual institutionalization.  “He was the most unattached of all solitary poets.”   He sees the handful of portraits of Walser as “stations in a life which hint at the silent catastrophe which has taken place between each.”  Sebald turns all of this into something resembling a state of grace.  “On the subject of the collective catastrophes of his day he remained resolutely silent.  However, he was anything but politically naive.”  For Sebald, Walser’s “purity” becomes the source for what he sees as Walser’s “aesthetic and moral assurance.”

Le Promeneur Solitaire is surely one of Sebald’s most personal essays about literature and it is wonderful to have it translated into English at last.

Forthcoming: Sebald’s “A Place in the Country”

Somewhat buried in the notices on the copyright page of the recently published novel The Tanners by Robert Walser is the first notice I have seen that an English translation of W.G. Sebald’s Logis in einem Landhaus is in the works.  The Tanners opens with Sebald’s essay on Walser called Le Promeneur Solitaire (more in this in a forthcoming post), and the related copyright notice indicates that this essay from Logis in einem Landhaus has been translated by Jo Catling “from the forthcoming work A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald to be published by Random House.”  There is currently no mention of the book on the Random House website.

Logis in Einem Landhaus

As I have written earlier, Logis in einem Landhaus (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1998) includes essays on Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, and Jan Peter Tripp. Undoubtedly influenced by his earlier forays into fiction – Die Ausgewanderten (1992) and Die Ringe des Saturn (1995) – Sebald inserts images of all types into the essays in Logis in Einem Landhaus. In fact, each of the six essays receives a large foldout image in full color.  Will Random House spring for the expense to do the same?  Until Catling’s translation of Le Promeneur Solitaire, the only essay from Logis in Einem Landhaus to have appeared in English is the one on artist Jan Peter Tripp, which is included in the British and American editions of Unrecounted, the book on which Sebald and Tripp collaborated.

Wandering with Robert Walser

walserumbrellaRobert Walser

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.  Even though his translation is still a work-in-progress, it makes for very compelling reading on several levels.  His Wandering with Robert Walser shows the sometimes crotchety 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.