enrique vila-matas on robert walser

Sometimes one stops writing because one simply falls into a state of madness from which one never recovers. The best example of this is Hölderlin, who had an involuntary successor in Robert Walser. The former spent the last thirty-eight years of his life enclosed in the attic of the carpenter Zimmer, in Tübingen, writing strange and incomprehensible verses which he signed with the names Scardanelli, Killalusimeno and Buonarotti. The latter spent the last twenty-eight years of his life shut up in the mental hospitals first of Waldau and then of Herisau, engaged in a frenetic activity of microscopic handwriting, fictitious and indecipherable gibberish scrawled on minute pieces of paper.

I think it might be said that, in a certain way, both Hölderlin and Walser carried on writing. “To write,” Marguerite Duras remarked, “is also not to speak. It is to keep silent. It is to howl noiselessly.” Of Hölderlin’s noiseless howls, we have the record of, among others, J. G. Fischer, who gives the following account of his final visit to the poet in Tübingen: “I asked Hölderlin to write some lines on anyone topic, and he asked me if I would have him write on Greece, on Spring or on the Spirit of Time. I replied the last of these three. And then, with what might be described as a youthful fire burning in his eyes, he settled himself at his desk, took a large sheet of paper, a new pen, and began to write, marking the rhythm on his desk with the fingers of his left hand and expressing a hum of satisfaction at the end of each line while nodding his head in a gesture of approval … ”

Of Walser’s noiseless howls, we have the copious testimony of Carl Seelig, the loyal friend who continued to visit the writer when he ended up in the mental hospitals of Waldau and Herisau. Out of all the “portraits of a moment” (the literary genre Witold Gombrowicz was so fond of), I choose the one where Seelig caught Walser at the exact moment of truth, that instant when a person, with a gesture — Hölderlin’s nodding of the head, for example — or a phrase, reveals who they really are: “I shall never forget that morning in autumn when Walser and I were walking together from Teufen to Speichen, through a thick fog. 1 told him that day that perhaps his work would last as long as Gottfried Keller’s. He stood rooted to the spot, viewed me with utter seriousness and asked me, if I valued his friendship, never to repeat such a compliment. He, Robert Walser, was a walking nobody and he wished to be forgotten.”

Walser’s entire work, including his ambiguous silence of twenty-eight years, is a commentary on the vanity of all initiative, the vanity of life itself. Perhaps that is why he only wanted to be a walking nobody. Someone has compared Walser to a long-distance runner who is on the verge of reaching the longed-for finishing-line and stops in surprise, looks round at masters and fellow disciples, and abandons the race, that is to say remains in what is familiar, in an aesthetics of bewilderment. Walser reminds me of Pique mal, a curious sprinter, a cyclist in the sixties who suffered from mood swings and would sometimes forget to finish a race.

Robert Walser loved vanity, the fire of summer, women’s ankle boots, houses illumined by the sun, flags fluttering in the wind. But the vanity he loved had nothing to do with the drive for personal success, rather it was the sort that is a tender display of what is minimal, what is fleeting. Walser could not have been further from the heady heights, where power and prestige dominate: “Were a wave to lift me and carry me to the heights, where power and prestige are predominant, 1 would destroy the circumstances that have favoured me and hurl myself downwards, to the vile, insignificant darkness. Only in the lower regions am I able to breathe.”

Walser wanted to be a walking nobody and what he most desired was to be forgotten. He realised that every writer must be forgotten almost as soon as he has stopped writing, because the page has been lost, has literally flown away, has entered a context of different situations and sentiments, answers questions put by other men, which its author could not even have imagined.

Vanity and fame are ridiculous. Seneca claimed that fame is horrible because it depends on the judgement of many. But this is not exactly what made Walser desire to be forgotten. More than horrible, worldly fame and vanity were, to him, completely absurd. This was because fame, for example, seems to assume that there is a proprietorial relationship between a name and a text that now has an existence, yet which that pallid name can surely no longer influence.

Walser wanted to be a walking nobody, and the vanity he loved was like that of Fernando Pessoa, who once, on throwing a chocolate silver-foil wrapper to the ground, said that, in doing so, he had thrown away life.

­—from Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby & Co. (translated by Jonathan Dunne), New Directions, 2004

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