The Anti-Canon: Robert Walser's The Walk by James Stirling

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the friends of Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

‘I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know any more for sure what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.’

Robert Walser's The Walk is a story that bears testament to the act of walking and its power to release us (momentarily, at least) from our inner demons. Stepping out onto the 'open, bright and cheerful street', the narrator quickly forgets his phantoms, he is released from 'brooding gloomily over a blank sheet of paper' and plunged headlong into an exciting world where he finds wonder in every detail, however small: ‘An unassuming pedestrian should not remain unconsidered, or unrecorded.’

The story takes the reader on a short walking tour through town and country, into the home of a humble housewife, into the tax office and a bookshop, and along a country road where we encounter the 'woeful, gruesome' giant Tomzack. It is a short tale with a big heart, at times, fantastical and, at others, wonderfully banal.

Celebrated by such esteemed writers as W.G. Sebald and Susan Sontag, Walser has been championed as a ‘clairvoyant of the small’ and a ‘miniaturist’; a voice for the anti-heroic and the humble. As his protagonist wanders through the streets of his nameless town, he is taken aback by the most prosaic of sights: ‘God! What did I see, likewise under leaves, but a bewitching, dainty, delightful butcher shop, with rose-red pork, beef, and lamb displayed. The butcher was bustling about inside, where his customers stood also.’ A less discerning writer might have overlooked this image; Walser, however, sees the profound in the everyday: ‘We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary, we already see so much.’

For Walser, the act of wandering is inextricably linked to the act of writing; it is what allows him to write: ‘On a lovely and far-wandering walk a thousand usable and useful thoughts occur to me.’ Far removed from the blank page in the gloomy solitude of his room, moving about outside provides his imagination with the requisite stimuli to write. In a rare moment of abandoning his humility before the reader, he even posits the idea that anyone who walks would be imprudent not to write: ‘There accompanies the walker something remarkable, some food for thought, something fantastic, and he would be foolish if he did not notice this spiritual side, or even throw it away.’ These little titbits, the cast-offs of lesser writers, are Walser's stock-in-trade.

For the narrator, his journey quickly transcends the physical and becomes a spiritual act. As he leaves the town behind and enters the countryside, he becomes one with his surroundings - is free of the burdens of time and place – and joyously glides along: ‘Earlier walks came before my eyes; but the wonderful image of the humble present became a feeling which overpowered all others. The future paled, and the past dissolved.’

Walking momentarily dispels the anxieties and concerns of past and future, only the eternal present and the 'raptures of freedom' exist and, through our intimacy with the narrator, we too experience this delight.

This sense of intimacy between storyteller and listener is something that Walter Benjamin, writing twenty years later, contends has been lost in modern society: ‘It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken away from us: the ability to exchange experiences.’ He proceeds to extrapolate that 'one reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value.' For Walser and his protagonist this claim is evidently untrue; every experience, however mundane, is worth sharing. Halfway through the story, for example, the narrator reports that he has ‘two or three important commissions to execute and several insuperable arrangements to make’. As his travelling companions, we are brought along to these 'insuperable arrangements' and accompany him in the execution of these distinctly mundane errands.

Standing before a bakery who’s pompous, ostentatious sign has upset the narrator's modest sensibilities, he utters: ‘Since, dear kind reader, you give yourself the trouble to march attentively along with the writer and inventor of these lines . . . now we both arrive in front of the aforementioned bakery with the gold inscription, where we feel inclined to stop.’ In establishing this intimate bond between storyteller and listener, Walser is hearkening back to the humble, archaic traditions of storytelling. ‘A man listening to a story’, writes Benjamin, ‘is in the company of a storyteller; even a man reading one shares this companionship.’

Despite his moments of glee and revelry, the narrator is, in essence, a depressive character. As the day draws to a close and his meanderings reach their denouement, so too does his mood wane: ‘As I looked at earth and air and sky the melancholy unquestioning thought came to me that I was a poor prisoner between heaven and earth, that all men were miserably imprisoned in this way.’

His words echo Walter Benjamin's characterisation of the predicament of modern man: ‘A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.’ The innocence and sweetness of childhood rusticity has been usurped by death and destruction and man has realised that he is cast adrift in an unfriendly world.

The story is bookended by the narrator's melancholic thoughts. For all his good cheer, he is plagued by feelings of loneliness and emptiness. His gloomy 'brooding [ . . . ] over a blank sheet of paper' is mirrored in the story's ending by the onset of darkness: ‘I had risen up, to go home; for it was late now, and everything was dark.’ In taking the reader along with him on his gallivant he sought to dispel this darkness; at nightfall, however, it is unavoidable. He gathers a bunch of flowers and holds them in his hand but wonders for whom is he holding them. He thinks ‘of a beautiful girl, and of how alone [he is] in the wide world, and that this could not be quite right’ before letting the flowers fall from his empty hand; the blank sheet of paper, however, is empty no more.

James Stirling is based in Camberwell, London and is currently toiling in a secondary school in Deptford whilst studying for an MA in English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London.