‘Helbling’s Story’ by Robert Walser

It’s one of the great challenges of fiction: how to be interesting about boredom? This story walks that line perfectly, capturing the texture of nothingness without succumbing to it. I also love Helbling’s insistence on his own mediocrity, an averageness that is so profound it becomes unique.

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

‘The Walk’ by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton et al

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.

So begins Walser’s long short story ‘The Walk’. There is so much to love about this piece of autofiction: Walser narrates a day’s worth of physical and psychic travel through the city and its environs. We encounter his ambitions, his pleasures, his frustrations; the things that draw him and repel him. It is a discursive, playful, sometimes Rabelaisian ramble. It seems to be written for the joy of consciousness itself. There is also something delicious about the way Walser addresses his readers, vacillating between formality and intimacy, sometimes as spectators, sometimes participants in a private discourse. Nothing is fixed. The story starts where he starts it and ends where he decides it must end. Reading it is like entering a fugue – wonderful.

First published in German as ‘Das Spaziergang’, Huber, 1917. First published in English in The Walk and Other Stories, Calder, 1955. Now available in various editions, including Selected Stories, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982. Also available from Serpent’s Tail, 1992 and 2013

‘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

‘Autumn Afternoon’ by Robert Walser, translated by Tom Whalen, with Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner

Robert Walser described his stories as ‘shortish or longish chapters of a novel. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced up or torn-apart book of myself.’ Autofiction, then. In ‘Autumn Afternoon’, the narrator goes for a walk through a hyperreally voluptuous countryside. Read in hindsight – it was written in 1914; Walser was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered from hallucinations; his dead body was found in a field – it is almost unbearable.

First published in English in Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories, NYRB, 2016. Read online here

’Kleist in Thun’ by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton

There are few stories that make me feel as unstable as ‘Kleist in Thun’. Describing a visit by the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist to the Swiss town of Thun, the text lurches between descriptions of natural beauty and nightmarish fears. At one moment Kleist’s surroundings are “like one vast embrace”, the next, “terribly cold and void”. Sentences suddenly drop into darkness, as if the ground has opened under our feet. “Around Thun”, one begins, “the fields are thick with flowers, fragrance everywhere, hum of bees, work, sounds fall, one idles about; in the heat of the sun” – and here we lose our footing – “you could go mad”.

In the first part of the story Kleist wanders the district. He goes boating on Lake Thun, visits the market, and sits on a churchyard wall as the evening grows damp and sultry. Some of Walser’s greatest writing is found here, such as when the distant Alps “come to life and dip with fabulous gestures their foreheads into the water. His swans down there circle his quiet island, and the crests of trees in dark, chanting, fragrant joy float over – over what? Nothing, nothing.”

In the story’s final section Kleist grows frustrated with his writing. “He wants the highest mastery, good, good. What’s that? Not sure? Tear it up. Something new, wilder, more beautiful”. But what he writes “makes him grimace: his creations miscarry”. He “wants to abandon himself to the entire catastrophe of being a poet” – a line that sounds to me like one of Frank O’Hara’s brilliant exclamations – but all that his frenzy leads to are his manuscripts lying scattered on the floor, “like children horribly forsaken by father and mother”.

On the last page, as Kleist and his sister leave Thun in a stagecoach and return to Germany, Walser steps into the foreground, snapping us into the story’s present day. The tempestuous emotions of the story recede, replaced instead with desultory chat about trade fairs and the Bernese Oberland. The shift is surprising and even feels gratuitous, but it can be understood if we consider the ways in which Walser’s life echoed Kleist’s, only in a minor key: Kleist became a national poet, Walser a literary curiosity; Kleist killed himself after shooting his terminally ill lover, Henriette Vogel, while Walser’s suicide attempt ended in failure – “I couldn’t even make a proper noose”, he later noted. In Thun, Kleist wrestled with genius and madness, while Walser, according to the story’s brilliant and unexpected closing lines, “worked as a clerk in a brewery there”. Yet Walser’s story, a unique blend of humour and horror, is also a defiant act: in the minds of those who fall under its influence, it unites these two unalike men forever.

From The Walk, Serpent’s Tail 1992, first published in I think 1913 although some sources claim 1907 – an uncertainty that’s entirely fitting

‘The Job Application’ by Robert Walser

Robert Walser is a bit like Marmite, if you can imagine a variety of Marmite that nobody could possibly hate. I could have chosen any story; they are all exactly the same. If an adult can be innocent, then this is surely true of Walser. Technically, is he any good as a writer, or are we really just seeing the world as described by a man with certain cognitive areas exaggerated at the expense of others? Imagine caring about the answer to such a hideous question. Read Walser and see the world, really see it. This story takes the form of a job application letter which only Walser could have sent. Maybe he really did send it. I hope so. Don’t look him up on Google images, it’s depressing.

(early 1900s? Now in The Walk and Other Stories, Serpent’s Tail. Translated by Christopher Middleton. Pdf here