Pure and Buoyant Mood of Convalescing Life (On the works and lives of Robert Walser)

Robert Walser Unknown photographer, Public domain

They come out the blackest part of the night, a venecian one, as you will, lit by meagre lanterns of hope, with a little sparkle in their eyes, but perturbed, sad and crying. What they cry is prose. For sobbing is the melody of Walser’s ramble. It reveals to us, from where his loved ones come. Out of madness, that is, and nowhere else. Because they are figures that have the experience of madness behind themselves, they remain of such rendering, wholly unhuman, imperturbable superficiality. If one wants to name the delight and uncanniness that emanates from them with a single word, it would be admissible to say: they are all healed. The process of healing we certainly never discover…


These stories are strangely tender. That much everyone understands. But not everyone sees, that it is not the nervous tension of decadent life, but the pure and buoyant mood of convalescing life that lies within them. “The thought that I could have success in the world horrifies me", Walser writes in a paraphrasis of Franz Moors Dialogue. All of his characters share this horror. But why? Certainly not for a loathing of the world, moral resentment or pathos, but for wholly epicurean reasons. They want to enjoy themselves. For that they have an entirely unique skill, nobility and right. Because no one enjoys like the convalescent.

Everything orgiastic is foreign to him: he hears the streaming of his renewed blood sounding from streams, hears the purer breath of his lips sounding from the treetops. Walser’s characters share such childlike nobility with the figures of fairy tales, which have similarly resurfaced from out of night and madness, namely, of myth.


These figures are of course not identical to those of Walser. They still struggle to free themselves from their suffering. Walser begins where the fairy tale ends. “And they all lived happily ever after”. Walser shows how they live. His works are called: stories, essays, poems, small prose and similar.

Walter Benjamin, 'Robert Walser', Illuminationen, 351-2. Translated by Swen Steinhäuser.

The pure and buoyant mood of convalescing life, which Walter Benjamin finds abound in the fictional world of Robert Walser, stands in stark contrast to the life of its author. Its playful lightness emanates from a dream of convalescence, imagined in flight from the harsh reality of a deep insecurity - social, economic existential - and the increasing mental strain that issues from it. As W.G. Sebald has pointed out, Walser’s continuous, obsessive, life-long writing practice takes place against the background of an ever-increasing difficulty in face of professional and social rejection, ‘up to the pain barrier and probably beyond’. Embattled by various shadows that throughout his lifetime gradually become longer, Walser is driven by the hope, as Sebald observes, of transforming a great weight into something almost weightless, spreading the friendliest light on each page whilst beset by a darkness, composing humorous sketches out of sheer despair. The inner exile and retreat that his fictional world becomes for him, takes on a formal dimension in Walser’s famous microscripts, 526 pages composed between 1924-1933 filled to the brim with millimeter-small writing.

Microscript from Robert Walser, Microscipts, translated from the German and with an introduction by Susan Bernofsky, New Directions/Christine Burgin Gallery, 2010.

In Sebald’s account, Walser’s ‘salvation’ [Rettung], an expression that comes close to Benjamin’s description of the latter's characters as ‘geheilt’ – both healed and saved – is coincidental with his total wreckage as a patient at the sanatorium in Herisau, where, having finally stopped writing (“I am not here to write, but to be mad”, he reputedly says to his friend and guardian Carl Seelig on one of their walks) ‘we see him … cleaning vegetables in the kitchen, sorting tin foil, reading a novel …and sometimes, as Robert Maechler recalls, simply standing stiff in a corner’.

His writer’s ideal, as Sebald puts it, was the overcoming of gravity. 'Always, in his prose pieces, he wants to reach beyond the weight of life on earth, wants to gently and quietly float away into a freer realm’.

At Herisau, as Seelig reports, he is finally content, as he himself reputedly puts it, ‘to remain prone like a felled tree, without having to move one’s little finger. All desires drift off to sleep, like children tired of playing’.

Robert Walser on April 23, 1939. Photograph by Carl Seelig/Keystone/Robert Walser Foundation

W.G. Sebald, 'Le promeneur solitaire: Zur Erinnerung an Robert Walser' in Logis in einem Landhaus.

Carl Seelig, Walks with Walser.

For further information on Robert Walser see Robert Walser Zentrum, Bern.