GMR‘s Slow Burn series looks back at titles that continue to smolder, still, beneath the embers of last year or even the year before. –The Editors
It’s hard to miss how the story of Robert Walser’s death—in the snow, hat thrown off, alone on a walk outside the sanatorium at which he spent the last decades of his life—dominates most everything written about him. Walser’s romantic end, his years committed, his failure to find success (he published early, sold poorly, and spent the rest struggling to write without audience) is catnip to a certain sort of reader.
That sort of reader wanders through Berlin Stories, recently and beautifully translated by Susan Bernofsky, attuned to signs of Walser’s particular end: “You love solitary walks,” he writes, “and often go into the woods, that you might be contemplating doing yourself harm, or else that something unfortunate might befall you there in the forest.”
And yet the pieces that make up Berlin Stories were written almost fifty years before that so solitary death. Broken into sections (a “four-part symphony,” Bernofsky calls it), with disparate narrators and subjects, Berlin Stories still has a clear arc: the young artist arriving in the big city and then, bit by bit, growing disillusioned enough to wander home.
At first, freed by the city’s large-scale indifference, he is excited by the attractive city dwellers, who can take a streetfight “neither with indifference nor with any sort of vehemence.” And of course he’s drawn to the endless flow of passersby, to eye contact and flirtation and passing on to the next bit of eye contact and flirtation. But anonymity eventually becomes isolation, and the city a “savage metropolis,” where each person “does his best to cast down the other’s success.”
It’s not an unusual story, and to a degree it’s not Walser’s: the pieces in Berlin Stories were arranged by his long time editor and culled from scores of short bits of writing. But it’s almost archetypal, and as readers we should know where and how it goes. In Walser’s hands, though, as in all of his writing, there is an unsettledness, a bending unpredictably from one sentence to another. He wanders wildly even in these short pieces: hopping from sausages, to breasts, to the activity of the street, to pointing out that he has just struck a bargain for a pound of walnuts. And there’s always something comical in his jaded city dweller, who has achieved “a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead,” and something disingenuous about his naïf, who has “no use for days or weeks of genius, or an extraordinary Lord God.” There is always, in Walser’s writing, something odd.
It’s been said that in this oddness, too, Walser’s coming difficulties were foreshadowed. But as W.G. Sebald suggested, it’s precisely “his uniquely overwrought art of formulation which true readers would not be without for the world.” To see it as sign of illness ignores what so carefully offers the most possible delight. Who else, after all, could throw off a narrative mid-stream by declaring: “Much of what I have experienced in the wide world has vanished completely from my head over the years but . . .”