Drifting and striding with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Monday, October 6, 2014


And speaking of black dogs, I’ve been rereading Robert Walser’s short story, sometimes referred to as a novella, “The Walk,” in which, at one point, the narrator encounters a hound:
“To a good honest jet-black dog who lay in the road I delivered the following facetious address: ‘Does it not enter your mind, you apparently quite unschooled and uncultivated fellow, to stand up and offer me your coal-black paw, though you must see from my gait and entire conduct that I am a person who has lived a full seven years at least in the capital of this country and of the world, and who during this time has not one minute, let alone one hour, or one month, or one week, been out of touch or out of pleasant intercourse with exclusively cultured people? Where, ragamuffin, were you brought up? And you do not answer me a word? You lie where you are, look at me calmly, move not a finger, and remain as motionless as a monument? You should be ashamed of yourself!’”
He then adds, “Yet actually I liked the dog.”

Robert Walser (1878 – 1956), was a German speaking Swiss who published quite  widely as a young man, but he was increasingly beset with mental and emotional problems that eventually stopped him writing altogether.  
And although he wrote four novels (or which only three survive), he’s generally regarded, and cherished, as a writer whose creativity came in fragments, sometimes in the form of "microscripts."  He might have been a great blogger.
  He was also a walker, no doubt a flaneur (he certainly wrote like one), and walking features regularly in his work, but it’s “The Walk” that pulls it all together, and is an excellent point of access to his writing, not least because the very idea of a (or the) walk creates a structure, and the story does have something resembling a narrative at least to the extent that things happen one after another.

A man goes for a walk, wearing his “yellow English suit.” He goes to a bookshop, a bank, the tax office, has more or less unsatisfactory encounters; with neighbors, his tailor, a beautiful woman, and indeed a dog.  Parts of it are very funny (I’m reminded of George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody as well as Kafka), but the ultimate effect  is a soft, deep and eventually all-enveloping melancholy.

 “The Walk” was first published in German, as Der Spaziergang  in 1917, and I discover there’s a later, apparently quite different version, though the one I know is the early one as it appears in the nyrb edition of Selected Stories, translated by “Christopher Middleton and others.” 

As I reread “The Walk” I thought it was just great; funny, awkward, profound, gently tragic, and yet I was struck by how little of it I actually remembered from my previous reading.  Of course I’m happy enough to accept that this is because of the failings of my own memory, and yet, I’m relieved to find that W.G. Sebald had some of the same problems.

         Sebald writes about Walser in a chapter of the book A Place In the Country, and describes him as a writer, “whose prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which it spoke. Was it a lady named Wanda or a wandering apprentice, Fräulein Elsa or Fräulein Edith, a steward, a servant, or Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, a conflagration in the theater or an ovation, the Battle of Sempach, a slap in the face or the return of the Prodigal, a stone urn, a suitcase, a pocketwatch or a pebble? Everything written in these incomparable books has—as their author might himself have said—a tendency to vanish into thin air. The very passage which a moment before seemed so significant can suddenly appear quite unremarkable.”

         Yes and yes.  And now there’s a new collection of Walser fragments titled A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, translated by Damion Searls, introduction by Ben Lerner.  In it there’s a piece, hardly a story, titled “Two Things” consisting of just two discreet paragraphs, which perfectly demonstrate the way Walser’s prose can evaporate before your mind’s eye.  The second paragraph, in its entirety, runs as follows:
       “I was walking just so and while making my way along just so I ran into a dog, and I paid careful attention to the good animal, by which I mean to say that I looked at it for rather a long time. What a fool I am, am I not? For is there not something foolish about stopping on the street due to a dog and losing valuable time? But in making my way along just so I absolutely did not have the sense that time was valuable, and so, after some time, I continued on my leisurely way. I thought, ‘How hot it is today!’ and indeed it was really very warm.” 
There’s just no getting away from those dogs.

The date of Robert Walser’s death is generally given as Christmas Day, 1956, but I think he must have died earlier than that, for reasons I’ll explain.  He was an inmate at the sanatorium (some describe it as a mental hospital) in Herisau: long country walks were one of his few pleasures.  He evidently died of a heart attack while walking across a snowy field, and his frozen body was found by children who were themselves out for a walk on Christmas Day. But it seems to me, assuming Walser didn’t set off before  first light, and assuming the kids weren’t walking after dark (reasonable though I agree not cast-iron assumptions), and I know it gets chilly in those parts, but still, it seems there wasn’t enough time for a body to go from alive and warm to frozen solid.  In other words didn’t he probably die at least the day before? Not the very biggest deal, but something worth considering.
Either way, it must have been quite a Christmas to remember for the kids. 


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