‘Helbling’s Story’ by Robert Walser

If we want to push against received wisdom about short fiction being efficient above all things (and I think we should) then Robert Walser’s an ideal palate cleanser. If you’re looking for immaculately designed Swiss watch stories, Walser is not your man, Swiss though he was.

‘Helbling’s Story’ is typical of his work, (arguably) lacking almost completely supposedly fundamental elements of a story, like scene, like conflict, plot, or setting. It is instead an immense self-reflective monologue, the Helbling of the title examining his own existence which is, by his own account, exceedingly mundane and moderate. 

Had I come to it earlier in my life, I would have found it embarrassingly solipsistic or twee. That comes, I think, from its generosity. Helbling has remarkable clarity of insight into nearly everything about himself – his context, his behaviors – and he is endlessly gentle. Reflecting on reactionary tendencies, he says: “… yes, it almost seems that the childish defiance with which I justify myself before my fellow men is a sign of weak-mindedness. But, but: it suits marvelously my character, which always instructs me to act a little out of the ordinary, even if it is to my disadvantage.”

Walser’s effect is one of disarmament, existing as he does on the porous borderland between prose and prose poetry. It’s worth treasuring for many reasons, the least of which is that it suggests the pliancy of fiction in form and purpose. I can only imagine the shellacking Walser would receive were he subjected to any modern fiction workshop. I can also imagine him leaving, unprovoked, and heading for the nearest public park to reflect on the depths of lives beyond him.

First collected in German in Werkausgabe, Verlag Helmut Kossodo, Geneva and Hamburg 1966. Published in English in Selected Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982

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