WANDERING WITH ROBERT WALSER
by Carl Seelig
3 January 1937
Wandering by way of St. Gallen and Speicher to Trogen, which is familiar to me from my school days. Lunch at the Hotel Schäfli. To honor my mother’s ancestors, who for centuries owned vineyards in Buchberg in the Rhine valley, I ordered a glass of strong Buchberger. Radio chatter as unwished for accompaniment: a Swabian comedy.
Afternoon in a melancholy snowscape on Gäbris where, as a cadet lieutenant with a mighty sword borrowed from the village doctor, I cut a laughable figure. At times a sharp east wind. Robert without overcoat. On the return by train: his face is now spiritedly luminous like a lit torch. Deep, dolorous streams from the tip of his nose to his strikingly red, fleshy mouth. The train platform from St. Gallen twinkled with tiny pebbles. Robert had tears in his eyes. Heavy, hasty handshake. Excerpts from our conversations:
His stay in Zürich lasted, with interruptions, from the fall of 1896 to the spring of 1903; for a short time he had a room on the Zürichberg, for a short time on Spiegelgasse and on the Schipfe, shortly also in Aussersihl. His stay in Berlin lasted seven years (from 1906 to 1913), his time in Biel lasted another seven years after that. He had already remarked how the number 7 recurred periodically in his life.
In Berlin-Charlottenburg he had a two-bedroom apartment, first with his brother Karl, then to himself. Eventually his publisher, Bruno Cassirer, refused to help him further financially. In his place a wealthy woman with a good heart looked after him for two years. After her death, in 1913, he returned out of need to his homeland. Still, for a long time he remembered the silent beauty of the Brandenburg forests.
In Bern, where he spent eight years, from 1921 on, his habits during that time proved conducive to poetic production. However, the inclination towards drinking and lethargy had had negative repercussions.
“In Bern, at times it was almost as if I was possessed. I hunted, like a hunter after his prey, for poetic motives. The most fruitful thing turned out to be strolling down the street and taking long walks around the outskirts of the city. The thoughts I harvested there I then put on paper at home. All good work, even the smallest thing, requires artistic inspiration. For me the business of the poet can only blossom in freedom. My best times for work were before midday and at night. The hours between midday and sunset bewildered me. My best client at that time was the newspaper Prager Presse, financed by the Czech state, whose literary editor, Otto Pick, published everything I sent him, even poems that flew back from other newspapers like boomerangs. Before that I used to send things to the Simplicissimus as well. Of course they returned my submissions repeatedly because they found them insufficiently funny. But what they accepted, paid well. At least fifteen marks for a little story, which was a small fortune in my pocket.
I: “Perhaps the milieu of the sanitarium and its residents will give you more original material for a novel?”
Robert: “I doubt it. In any case, I won’t be able to develop it, as long as I’m in there. Of course Dr. Hinrichsen has provided me with a room to write. But I crouch there as if nailed in and produce nothing. Perhaps if I spent two or three years in freedom outside the sanitarium, the big breakthrough would come…”
I: “How much would you need in order to live like a writer in freedom?”
Robert, after reflecting for a few moments: “About 1,800 franks a year.”
“Oh, that would be enough. How many times I’ve had to make do with much less in my youth! One can live quite properly without material goods. Even then I wouldn’t be able to commit to a newspaper or a publisher. I wouldn’t want to make promises I can’t keep. Everything must grow out of me uncompelled.”
Later: “If I could turn back again to my thirtieth year, I wouldn’t write in the sky like a romantic airbus (Luftibus), aberrant and unencumbered. You can’t negate society. You must live in it and fight for it or against it. That is the defect of my novels. They’re too quirky and too reflexive, and in their composition often too slipshod. Wrapped up in artistic legitimacy, I simply improvised. Before its republication, I’d gladly cut The Tanner Siblings down to seventy or eighty pages; I find that today you can’t publish such intimate judgments about your own siblings.
I: “I recently read Jakob von Gunten, with much enthusiasm. Where did that occur to you?”
“In Berlin. For the most part, it’s a poetic fantasy. A bit venturesome, isn’t it? Of my longer books, it’s my favorite.” He paused. “The less action there is, and the smaller the environment the poet needs, the greater his talent. I automatically distrust writers who go too far with action and need an entire world for their characters. Everyday things are beautiful and rich enough to provide plenty of poetic spark.”
Conversation about the playwright August von Kotzebue, whose charm and social flexibility Robert much admires. He recalls that in the early 19th century Kotzebue was exiled for one year to Siberia, which he memorialized in a biographical work of two volumes. His end had also been dramatic, murdered by an ultrapatriotic student named Karl Ludwig Sand. In his stance against Schiller and Goethe, Kotzebue had served as a reactionary stumbling block. Robert doesn’t believe in the possibility of progress for Swiss literature, as long as it remains anchored in the rural. It must become urbane and open to the whole world, not just creeping along the shallow earth and clinging to rural trifles. He praised Uli Braker, the poor man from Toggenburg, and his essays on Shakespeare. Even Gottfried Keller, whose “There wandered a pretty proverb” he cited from beginning to end, had other ideals, superior to those of modern writers. His Green Henry will remain for generations a marvelously informative book worth reading and loving. “A little while ago a sanitarium employee tried to force me to read Stifter’s Witiko, but I told him that I didn’t want anything to do with overweight novels. Stifter’s studies on nature are enough for me–those incomparably intimate observations into which he has so harmoniously slips human beings. And what of that potbelly of a Joseph Trilogy by Thomas Mann? How can one even dare to potboil the Bible in such a way?
On revolutions: “It’s absurd to provoke uprisings outside the cities. If you don’t have the cities you can’t have the heart of the people. Every successful revolution has begun in the cities. That’s why I’m sure that in the Spanish Civil War the government will win in the end.
The age of Wilhelm came from the artists and made them behave in eccentric and extravagant ways. Yes, you might even say that it doted on quirkiness. But artists must also secure themselves legitimacy. They can’t turn into tomfools.
Translated by Smyth and Rosi.
This first appeared at Wandering with Robert Walser which has embarked on the first English translation of this entire work.
Carl Seelig’s book, Wanderungen mit Robert Walser, recounts conversations Seelig had with Walser (1878-1956) over more than 20 years, usually during long walks across the Swiss countryside.