the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Walking with Robert Walser

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As I move further away in time from my suburban upbringing, where little was accessible by foot—a place where if neighbors see you walking on the side of the road they assume something is wrong—to life in a major city where cars are about as useful as an inner tube in the desert, I have become sensitive to speeds faster than a brisk walk or leisurely bike ride. Ten years on I am less inclined to want to move quickly through the streets.

If, on the odd chance that I’m in a taxi or hired car, my notion of Manhattan geography becomes distorted: 6th Avenue appears foreign; corners I encounter everyday no longer look familiar; I second guess my location at every major intersection; and there’s a profound disconnect between me and the people on the street with whom I normally jostle with for sidewalk space. I feel like a tourist, wide-eyed with wonder and amazement.

I believe it was my first roommate in Brooklyn who said, after just a few months of her living in this city, that she could no longer stand riding in cars, that the speed made her nervous. Whether it was power of suggestion or a phenomenon of urban living, soon I felt the same way. It didn’t take long before those 60 miles an hour on the highway, which in my teens were never fast enough, became moments of hyper awareness and breath-holding. After just a few short months of living the city life I, too, could no longer ride in cars comfortably.

Robert Walser, in his meditative novella The Walk, captures this feeling perfectly when he has the narrator say, “… I never shall understand, how it can be called a pleasure to hurtle past all the images and objects which our beautiful earth displays, as if one had gone mad and had to accelerate for fear of despair.”

The Walk begins with a writer taking a break from his daily work. He leaves his desk and steps out onto the “open, bright, and cheerful street, in a romantically adventurous state of mind”. Rather quickly, within the same paragraph, he hints at the shifts in mood ahead: “I vividly sensed a certain seriousness still before me and behind me.”

Largely composed of internal dialogue, the novel’s tone is determined by these sudden changes in the narrator’s reactions and diversions. A reader, unaccustomed to Walser’s writing, or sly comic writing in general, would be forgiven for at first being confused. They might even think twice about continuing. However, those who do will acclimate to the wild ups and downs, eventually find them endearing, and ultimately realize that this is where the humor lies.

The narrator, out on what will become a day-long walk, switches between aimless wandering and purposeful errand running. His mood vacillates from one extreme to the next depending on the environs. At one point he says, “almost everything I saw as I proceeded filled me with a fiery love” and, at another, “as I waked and marched along on the most beautiful of roads a juvenile, foolish shout of joy burst from my throat”. But soon, he sees a man he knows whose “sorrowful, gruesome air” fills him with “terror” and whose “tragic, atrocious appearance took every bright, beautiful prospect, all joy and gaiety” away from him. Then there’s the trip to the tailor that leaves him “vexed” and puts him in “ill humor”. Left in solitude long enough, he even ventures into mystical whimsy: “In the sweet light of love I believed I was able to recognize—or required to feel—that the inward self is the only self which really exists.”

Anyone who spends a considerable amount of time alone with their thoughts has had similar experiences with a quick-shifting mood, or so I’d like to believe. For those, like me, walking through a crowded city, one is faced with a range of emotions—sometimes changing as quickly as the traffic lights. On any given day I come across many things that can easily affect how I feel: a group of friends walking in a row on a narrow sidewalk; an elderly couple holding hands; an ill-behaved kid and a mom raising her voice; a pre-teen reading a book in a coffee shop rather than texting; 16-year-olds screaming down the street as school lets out. The possibilities are endless.

Not only does Walser express beautifully the reality of being out in the world and all the feelings that come along with it, but The Walk illustrates the philosophical turns the mind takes while in motion.

… all sorts of thoughts continue to preoccupy me, since, when I’m out walking, many notions, flashes of light, and lightning flashes quite of their own accord intrude and interrupt, to be carefully pondered upon …

How it might look that he’s out for a walk instead of at home writing frequently enters the narrator’s mind, making him self-conscious and, as mentioned above, forces him to mix his leisurely activity with a trip to the tailor, post office, and tax collector. “It will be seen how much I have to do, and how this apparently idele, easygoing walk is virtually teeming with practical business affairs,” he assures himself.

He’s not entirely paranoid. When he meets with the inspector of taxes and attempts to convince him of a low rate, he must defend his walks against an accusation of an idle lifestyle.

”Walk,” was my answer, “I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could neither write the half of one more single word, nor produce a poem in verse or prose. Without walking, I would be dead, and would have long since been forced to abandon my profession, which I love passionately. Also, without walking and gathering reports, I would not be able to render the tiniest report, nor to produce an essay, let alone a story. Without walking, I would be able to collect neither observations nor studies. …

On a far-wandering walk a thousand usable thoughts occur to me, which shut in at home, I would lamentably wither and dry up. …

I could go on quoting this incredible passage with all its wisdom on how to, as a writer, be an effective walker but I don’t want to rob even one person of the experience of reading it on their own in context.

The Walk was my first foray into Robert Walser’s work and, like the many writers and critics who appear to unequivocally love his writing, I know that this is just the beginning of my experience with him. As was said in 2008 on KCRW’s Bookworm, there appears to be something of a “Walser Bug.” I believe I’ve caught it and I can only hope it’s communicable.

Find The Walk a local independent bookstore
An Introduction to Robert Walser (Words Without Borders)
The Genius of Robert Walser by J.M. Coetzee (New York Review of Books)
Still Small Voice: The fiction of Robert Walser (The New Yorker)
A Celebration of the Work of Swiss Writer Robert Walser (KCRW’s Bookworm)
A Tribute to Robert Walser at PEN
The Walk reviewed at Three Percent


Written by Gabrielle

July 24, 2012 at 7:04 am

4 Responses

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  1. This sounds amazing. My “to read” list is looking pretty great after your last few posts Gabrielle. I’d not heard of Robert Walser before either.


    July 24, 2012 at 8:20 am

    • He’s great. Everyone who reads him winds up obsessed. You’re warned!


      July 24, 2012 at 9:03 am

  2. The way you write is so lovely. I think I will purchase this book.


    July 24, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    • Thanks. Hope you like it!


      July 24, 2012 at 8:52 pm

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