Ben Winch's Reviews > The Walk

The Walk by Robert Walser
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it was amazing
bookshelves: lost-modernists, swiss, short-stories, mainland-european, 5-stars

NOTE: This is a review of the Serpent’s Tail edition (a collection of stories) NOT the New Directions edition (a single novella). For those interested, a 2013 reprint of the Serpent’s Tail edition is available (ISBN 9781846689581); also the same text has been printed by NYRB Classics as Selected Stories (9780940322981) and, I believe, by Farrar, Straus, Giroux also as Selected Stories ( 9780374259013).

I have read many Walsers since but this was the first, and it contains my favourite story (so far) in all of world literature: “Kleist in Thun”. Just on this basis the book is worth five stars. Does it matter if, at the time I read it, I didn’t really comprehend most of the other (mostly autobiographical, occasionally drole and often very short) pieces in this book? When later I better understood Walser I came to like the long title story, and to enjoy the warm-hearted, lightly mocking humour of the other pieces, many of which were written for publication in the highbrow newspapers and journals of Switzerland and Germany before, during and immediately after the First World War, by a young Swiss “hayseed” who had wanted, upon his arrival in Berlin, to be an actor, and who despite early successes had become increasingly desperate in his search for a modest living. Masquerade & Other Stories may be a better overall introduction, and it’s certainly a beautiful paperback edition (John Hopkins University Press, I think), but it doesn’t have “Kleist in Thun”, and it doesn’t have Susan Sontag’s introduction.

As so often, Sontag is passionate here: “heartbreaking” is the word she uses, and in truth the entire story of Robert Walser is a little heartbreaking. I won’t outline his life here – this has already been done by many, often passionately, notably W.G. Sebald and J.M. Coetzee. Also a kind of cult appears to have developed around certain aspects of Walser’s life, much of it based less upon facts than on their absence. Luckily, I knew nothing of this when I first read “Kleist in Thun” in the winter of 1997 in Tasmania, having just found this book in its rare earlier Serpent’s Tail incarnation in an otherwise un-noteworthy secondhand bookstore in Hobart on one of my weekly expeditions to the city. At the time I was living in a cabin about ten minutes drive into the mountains from New Norfolk, up behind the Wellington Range whose front slopes can be seen from central Hobart. I was alone, writing, possibly the most receptive I would ever be to a story about the breakdown of a writer in the mountains in Switzerland – in surroundings, Walser says, “considerably more beautiful than I have been able to describe here, the lake is twice as blue, the sky three times as beautiful.”

There’s something indescribable that takes hold of you when you read certain of Walser’s sentences. Sometimes (as in The Robber, in his late work) they are jarring, apparently deliberately so, but in this story they lull you, soothe you, coo to you as if to a baby. There’s something childlike – like daubs on a canvas – about the whole way he describes Thun and its surroundings and Kleist’s life there. The picture seems as if backlit, illuminated. It glows. “The Alps have come to life and dip with fabulous gestures their foreheads into the water.” I have read this thing – it’s nine pages long – at least ten times now, more than the Jorge Luis Borges stories I so revered in my twenties, more than Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”, more than Carver, Kavan or Poe. Yet with each re-reading of Walser I hesitate; I want to savour it. And... I’m scared. This is writing that changes you – or changed me, at least. And it lingers. It haunts you.

Walser the person lingers too, as does Samuel Beckett when we read a lot of him, and know something of his life. Often this seems inevitable – for instance when Walser writes, as so often, of his endless walks, of his bedsit rooms, of the trials of his almost-invisible everyday existence. But in the Kleist story it’s something magical. A hall-of-mirrors effect: what we know or can discover of Kleist and what we know or have just read (in Sontag’s introduction) of Walser, and then every archetypal story we have heard of some writer’s breakdown in the mountains, from Georg Buchner’s Lenz (which must surely have influenced this) to King’s and Kubrick’s The Shining (not that Kleist or Walser ever go to work with the axe!) The thing is, Walser knows he is caught in this prison of reflections: “I know the region a little perhaps, because I worked as a clerk in a brewery there.” The story is beautiful and disquieting anyway, but with this added layer of Walser’s self-knowledge and self-reference intruding it is actually – Sontag’s word again – heartbreaking.

To me, it’s this quality above all that defines Walser’s writing – this self-referencing. As with another (in English) neglected modernist, Fernando Pessoa, certain critics have proclaimed Walser not merely a precursor of but an early example of postmodernism. I don’t know about this, but I do consider Walser unique, and if not ahead of his time then certainly outside of it. Still, I suspect this may be a side effect of that virtual invisibility which I mentioned earlier. Famously, Walser is supposed to have approached upper-class Viennese literary hero Hugo von Hofmannsthal at a dinner party with the words, “Couldn’t you just forget you’re famous for a while?” Self-importance – it’s in scant supply in Walser, even when he’s comparing himself to Heinrich von Kleist. Instead, a warm heart. A sense of humour. And – even allowing for hiccups in translation (which become clearer when you compare the work of his two main translators so far, Susan Bernofsky and Christopher Middleton, each with his/her positive and negative traits) – an imaginative approach to style almost without equal among his contemporaries. (Beckett and Kafka – an admirer of Walser – spring to mind as peers.)

In the past fifteen or so years I have encountered Walser with increasing rapidity, as a kind of snowball effect has made possible Bernofsky’s translations of all his major existing works. The Robber and The Assistant are both excellent, but nothing matches this one story. Bear in mind, the language is twice as potent as I have been able to describe here, the imagery three times as beautiful. And I know the region a little perhaps, because I spent some time there.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 1, 1997 – Finished Reading
June 17, 2011 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by Matthieu (last edited Jul 22, 2012 03:37PM) (new)

Matthieu Kleist in Thun changed my life. It's the purest story ever written, and reading it at seventeen was the best possible time for me to absorb it. Lenz is wonderful too, though slightly less enchanting.

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Damn, I missed your comment again Matthieu - what is Goodreads up to? You read it at 17? I was 24, I think, but that was the best possible time for me! It was weird though, feeling as if I'd discovered 10 of the best pages ever written and no-one else had read them. Then years later when I got the internet I found an article by J.M. Coetzee which mentioned 'Kleist in Thun' specifically and I thought, yes, someone agrees! And now I find Goodreads and people like yourself and the tables have turned.

God, but that story is incredible though, isn't it. Tears dripping down the face incredible. Lenz doesn't match up, but then what does?

message 3: by Matthieu (last edited Jun 28, 2017 09:43AM) (new)

Matthieu I can't think of anything even remotely close to that story. The interaction with his sister at the end is absolutely devastating. A dear friend cried when she read it, which I thought was quite appropriate. The tears never came for me, but I felt it deep in my chest. Some sort of indefinable pain; but at the same time, the exposure to the purest, most gentle space. Some beautiful, blossoming thought-construct.

That story is a secret. Even if millions read it, it'll still be a secret.

message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Secret - I guess so. Must be why people can read it among others of his stories and not remark on it. I mean, how?! It's of another order! And yeah it's devastating, but beautiful - and makes a convincing link between the beauty and the devastation, something artists are forever stretching after but here it just emerges unbidden.

My wife understood - she loved it, but otherwise... Maybe I'm not good at keeping secrets.

message 5: by Ben (last edited Aug 14, 2012 09:20PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch PS: Have you read Hamsun's Pan?

message 6: by Matthieu (last edited Jun 28, 2017 09:43AM) (new)

Matthieu I think it's a secret because it only really touches those who are attuned to its frequency. You'd think it'd be more universal (reading to a loved one on a snowy night), but it seems to be neglected for whatever reason (his novels being the big hit). It is as if he has a block of stone to lift from his mouth before he can smile. That one kills me.

And yes, I have read Pan—I did right after reading Hunger. Marvelous book.

Jimmy Kleist in Thun is special, one of my favorite short stories ever. I'm still not sure WHY it's so great, except I'm sure it is.

Pan is great too. I thought it was better than Hunger.

Great to find like minds.

message 8: by Ben (last edited Aug 17, 2012 08:48PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch And you've both read Hamsun's Mysteries, right? It's the best! The reason why I mention Hamsun is cos it suddenly struck me that he also makes that connection between beauty (and/or exhilaration) and devastation.

You're right Matthieu, you have to be tuned to its frequency. When Kleist wants to 'give himself up to the catastrophe' of being a poet - when he wishes for something to push against (I can't remember the exact phrase) - it's such a fine line Walser is walking there, so close to self-pity, and yet totally transmuted by the tangible joy he feels in writing it.

Maybe the reason the story is so secret is that, even when writing about a topic as serious as this, Walser undercuts the seriousness at every point with what must seem to many people childishness or a kind of primitivism. Plus he only gives it 10 pages! But I'll take 10 great pages over 300 indifferent pages any day.

The only other author I know of who is so wilfully 'immature' is Witold Gombrowicz - but even in his case he makes a manifesto of it, whereas Walser lets it stand without comment.

Good to meet ya Jimmy. Thanks for your comment.

Jimmy I hadn't re-read Kleist in Thun in a while, but I just re-read it this morning. The last time I read it, I had not yet read any Kleist, and I had not read Lenz yet either. So strange to now read it while knowing a bit more of its mysteries and origins.

I liked parts of Lenz a lot, and I can see a lot of that in Thun. I didn't know it was a type of tradition to write a story in this way. But Lenz ultimately was only great in parts. I didn't get carried away by it the way I was with this story. Maybe if it was condensed into 10 pages...

You're right about Walser's delicious undercutting. He writes all this turmoil in such a nonchalant way, but it's so well balanced.

Jimmy I'm also interested in what you think the strengths/weaknesses are of Bernofsky/Middleton and how they compare. It's hard for me to figure out without knowing the original, but I don't know German well enough.

message 11: by Ben (last edited Aug 20, 2012 05:44PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch I guess I'm thinking partly of the tradition of visionary experiences in the wild - ascetics in the desert and so forth. And yeah I agree, Lenz is not as good; it's the work of a very young man (Buchner died in his early 20s) who only senses or infers what Lenz went through, so it's a little overwrought. What's so moving about 'Kleist in Thun' is that Walser seems very close to Kleist as he writes it, as if maybe he could cross over into that state if he let himself, but even more movingly he doesn't, he retains his dignity.

As to the translators, I like them both, though maybe Middleton feels more natural. But maybe he's let go of something to achieve this naturalness? Berenofsky's style seems to suggests so. But I'm no expert.

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Fabulous review, Ben. Happy to find people alive.

message 13: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Thank you Timmy. This was the first review I wrote for Goodreads. I think I'd been waiting to write about 'Kleist in Thun' for years - just to say, hey, does anyone else see what I see in this story?

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Ha, ha, yeah I hear you. Amazing the connections our internet brings us.

message 15: by David (new)

David Robert Walser! Another author who consistently melts my globule!

message 16: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Yet still no comment on McEwan. David, I'm beginning to suspect you're an Atonement disciple.

message 17: by David (new)

David Oops. No, I actually have never read any McEwan—or even seen a film adaptation of his novels. And I'm proud to say I haven't even been tempted.

Sometimes we just have an instinct about writers we won't like.

message 18: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Yeah I had that instinct too, but I foolishly tried to be 'open-minded'. Never again.

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