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Authors: Robert Walser

The Tanners

BOOK: The Tanners

The Tanners

Robert Walser

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

With an introduction by W. G. Sebald

(translated by Jo Catling)


The Tanners


A Remembrance of Robert Walser

by W.G. Sebald

The traces Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint as
to have been almost effaced altogether. Later, after his return to Switzerland in
the spring of 1913, but in truth from the very beginning, he was only ever connected
with the world in the most fleeting of ways. Nowhere was he able to settle, never
did he acquire the least thing by way of possessions. He had neither a house, nor
any fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are
concerned, at most one food suit and one less so. Even among the tools a writer
needs to carry out his craft were almost none he could call his own. He did not, I
believe, even own the books that he had written. What he read was for the most part
borrowed. Even the paper he used for writing was secondhand. And just as throughout
his life he was almost entirely devoid of material possessions, so too was he remote
from other people. He became more and more distant from even the siblings closest
him––the painter Karl and the beautiful schoolteacher Lisa––until in the end, as
Martin Walser said of him, he was the most unattached of all solitary poets. For
him, evidently, coming to an arrangement with a woman was an impossibility. The
chambermaids in the Hotel zum Blauen Kreuz, whom he used to watch through a peephole
he had bored in the wall of his attic lodgings; Fräulein Resy Breitbach in the
Rhineland, with whom he maintained a length correspondence––all of them were, like
the ladies he reveres so longingly in his literary fantasias, beings from a distant
star. At a time when large families were still the norm––Walser's father Adolf came
from a family of fifteen––strangely enough none of the eight siblings in the next
generation brought a child into the world; and of all this last generation of
Walsers, dying out together, as it were, non was perhaps less suited to fulfil the
prerequisites for successful procreation than Robert, who, as one may say in his
case with some fittingness, retained his virginal innocence all his life. The death
of Robert Walser, who, inevitably rendered even more anonymous after the long years
in an institution, was in the end connected to almost nothing and nobody, might
easily have passed as unnoticed as, for a long time, had his life. That Walser is
not today among the forgotten writers we owe primarily to the fact that Carl Seelig
took up his cause. Without Seelig's accounts of the walks he took with Walser,
without his preliminary work on the biography, without the selections from the work
he published and the lengths he went to in securing the
, the
writer's millions of illegible ciphers, Walser's rehabilitation could never have
taken place, and his memory would in all probability have faded into oblivion.
Nonetheless, the fame which has accrued around Walser since his posthumous
redemption cannot be compared with that of, say, Benjamin or Kafka. Now as then
Walser remains a singular, enigmatic figure. He refused by and large to reveal
himself to his readers. According to Elias Canetti, what set Walser apart from other
writers was the way that in his writing he always denied his innermost anxieties,
constantly omitting a part of himself. This absence, so Canetti claimed, was the
source of his unique strangeness. It is odd, too, how sparsely furnished with detail
is what we know of the story of his life. We know that his childhood was
overshadowed by his mother's melancholia and by the decline of his father's business
year after year; that he wanted to train as an actor; that he did not last long in
any of his positions as a clerk; and that he spent the years from 1905 to 1913 in
Berlin. But what he may have been doing there apart from writing––which at the time
came easily to him––about that we have no idea at all. So little does he tell us
about the German metropolis, so little, later, of the
around Biel
and his years there, and his circumstances in Berne, that one might almost speak of
a chronic poverty of experience. External events, such as the outbreak of the First
World War, appear to affect him hardly at all. The only certain thing is that he
writes incessantly, with an ever increasing degree of effort; even when the demand
for his pieces slows down, he writes on, day after day, right up to the pain
threshold and often, so I imagine, a fair way beyond it. When he can no longer go
we see him in the Waldau clinic, doing a bit of work in the garden or playing a game
of billiards against himself, and finally we see him in the asylum in Herisau,
scrubbing vegetables in the kitchen, sorting scraps of tinfoil, reading a novel by
Friedric Gerstäcker or Jules Verne and sometimes, as Robert Mächler relates, just
standing stiffly in a corner. So far apart are the scenes of Walser's life which
have come down to us that one cannot really speak of a story or of a biography at
all, but rather, or so it seems to me, of a legend. The precariousness of Walser's
existence––persisting even after his death––the emptiness blowing through every part
of it, lends it an air of spectral insubstantiality which may deter the professional
critics just as much as the indefinability of the texts. No doubt Martin Walser is
correct in remarking that Robert Walser––despite the fact that his work seems
positive to invite dissertation––always eludes any kind of systematic treatment. How
is one to understand an author who was so beset by shadows and who, nonetheless,
illumined every page with the most genial light, an author who created humorous
sketches from pure despair, who almost always wrote the same thing and yet never
repeated himself, to whom his own thoughts, honed on the tiniest details, became
incomprehensible, who had his feet firmly on the ground yet was always getting lost
in the clouds, whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only
few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, event and things of
which it spoke. Was it a lady called Wanda or a wandering apprentice, Fräulein Else
or Fräulein Edith, a steward, a servant or Dostoyevsky's
, a
conflagration in the theatre or an ovation, the Battle of Sempach, a slap in the
face or the return of the Prodigal, a stone urn, a suitcase, a pocket watch or a
pebble? Everything written in these incomparable books has––as their author might
himself have said––a tendency to vanish into thin air. The very passage which a
moment before seemed so significant can suddenly appear quite unremarkable.
Conversely, Walser's
often conceal the profoundest depths of
meaning. Despite such difficulties, however, which seem designed to foil the plans
of anyone intent on categorization, much has been written about Robert Walser. Most
of it, admittedly, is of a rather impressionistic or marginal nature, or can be
regarded as an act of
on the part of his admirers. Nor are the
remarks which follow any exception, for since my encounter with walker, I too have
only ever been able to read him in an unsystematic fashion. Beginning here and now
there, for years I have been roaming around, now in the novels, now in the realms
(Pencil Regions), and whenever I resume my
intermittent reading of Walser's writings, so too I always look again at the
photographs we have of him, seven very different faces, stations in a life which
hint at the silent catastrophe which has taken place between each.

The pictures I am most familiar with are those from his time in Herisau,
showing Walser on one of his long walks, for there is something in the way that the
poet, long since retired from the service of the pen, stands there in the

that reminds me instinctively of my grandfather Josef Egelhofer, with
whom as a child I often used to go for walks for hours at a time during those very
same years, in a region which is in many ways similar to that of Appenzell. When I
look at these pictures of him on his walks, the cloth of Walser's

three-piece suit, the soft collar, the tie-pin, the liver-spots on the
back of his hands, his neat pepper-and-salt moustache and the quiet expression in
his eyes––each time I think I see my grandfather before me. Yet it was not only in
their appearance that my grandfather and Walser resembled each other, but also in
their general bearing, something about the way each had of holding his hat in his
hand, and the way that, even in the finest weather, they would always carry an
umbrella or a raincoat. For a long time I even imagined that my grandfather shared
with Walser the habit of leaving the top button of his waistcoat undone.

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