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Robert Walser: Der Spaziergang (The Walk)

As the title tells us this story is simply about a man taking a walk in his home town though the word simply when applied to Robert Walser is not the quite the same as when applied to the rest of us. His approach is often aggressive. He certainly observes and comments to himself, to us and to others, on what he sees and does.

We see this from the very first paragraph. He meets a a woman who looked like a Spaniard, a Peruvian, or a Creole before deciding that she was a Brazilian lady, or whatever she might be. Despite this somewhat negative start, he is in a good mind and looking forward to his walk. Still in the first paragraph, he meets Professor Meili. His gait was like an iron law, his hat was like an irremovable ruler, yet he appeared sympathetic .

His first stop is the local bookshop though before that – we are only in the second paragraph – we get a list of several other people he sees and describes, commenting, for example, on the children – Age one day will terrify and bridle them. He speaks flatteringly of the bookshop though admits he is not a wealthy buyer. Nevertheless he asks the owner for the book that is both serious and most popular. The owner willingly complies but when the owner confirms that it is widely read and also a book one has to read, our narrator walks out of the door, without purchasing it.

His next stop is a financial institution where he learns to his (and our) surprise that a society of philanthropic ladies has given him a thousand francs. We do not know why they have done this but he is naturally happy to receive and leave it for now in the bank, as he is setting out for a specific destination – the house of Frau Aebi, where he is invited for lunch. After a long paragraph condemning the gold lettering on the the bakery (his comments tend to be long and verbose), he tells us about what he is wearing – a bright yellow English suit which, apparently makes him feel a great lord and grand seigneur, a marquis strolling up and down his park.

He can be flattering too, telling a woman he sees that he thinks she should be an actress or a woman singing that she should be an opera singer. However, when he goes to try on a suit that he is having made he is brutally critical of the tailoring and has no qualms about telling the tailor what he thinks. He also writes a letter – we do not who to or, indeed, why – damning the recipient (You betray confidence, do not keep your word, injure without a second thought the virtues and reputations of those who have to deal with you; you rob unsparingly where you pretend to institute beneficence).

The book was written during World War I and though of course Switzerland was not a participant, they did have an army (Walser served in it) and there is evidence of military activity in this book as well as military metaphors. I have recently come to the conclusion that the art and direction of war is almost as difficult, and requires almost as much patience, as the art of writing, he comments, going on to say Books attract discussions, and these sometimes end in such a fury that the book must die and its writer despair of it all.

It is not all bad for a writer, though. He goes to the tax office, pleads poverty because of his profession and they promise to consider a lower rate. He pleads his case well. (Exceedingly few persons profess a lively interest in literature.) I suspect that this tactic would meet with less success nowadays.

However, he has enjoyed his walk. He has seen a circus arriving, had lunch with Frau Aevi, been rude to several people, ruminated on various topics and imagined giving a thousand lashes to people who chop down fine trees. Something akin to sorrow’s golden bliss and melancholy’s magic breathed around me like a quiet, lofty god. “It is divinely beautiful here,” I said to myself.

I suspect only Walser could make as much out of a simple walk as he has done here. It is highly amusing, very colourful, imaginative, original and very much confirms Walser as a different and unusual writer.

Publishing history

First published in 1917 by Huber
First English publication in 1957 by John Calder
Translated by Christopher Middleton