Sunday, September 03, 2017

A meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses

'For anyone who has watched with anticipation as the writings of Robert Walser (1878-1956) have slowly appeared in English over the past two decades or so, Carl Seelig’s Wanderungen mit Robert Walser has been high atop the list of Walser-related books we have wanted to see translated. This is Seelig’s narration of dozens of walks and conversations that he had with the writer over the twenty-year span from 1936 to 1956, when, usually several times a year, he would call upon Walser at a sanatorium in Herisau, Switzerland, where Walser had lived since 1933.  [...] Now, sixty years after its first appearance, Seelig’s book has finally appeared in English as Walks with Walser (New Directions) and it doesn’t disappoint. On those long walks through the countryside and nearby villages, Seelig tried to draw the reticent Walser into talking about his past, his books, other writers, and numerous topics of interest. Walser, it turns out, seems to have been more or less like some of the great characters in his fiction — a delightful and sometimes wily crank who could easily have been mistaken for an unsophisticated soul.' - Terry Pitts, on his always-fascinating Sebaldian blog, Vertigo, 6 July 2017
Last month I had the pleasure of reading Walks with Walser in Swtizerland, though sadly not in the region where Walser and Seelig did their walking. I won't set down here my own reflections on this marvellous book because you can read other reviews online - I recommend an excellent piece by Dorian Stuber (like him I am intrigued to know the fate of Bob Skinner's earlier, never-published  translation).  What I have done though, in addition to plotting the dates in a chart (see below - the gaps are in 1939 and 1951), is create a map of the forty-four walks described by Seelig.  Click on one and you will see I have included a short quote which, where possible, relates to the landscape they passed through.  The colours refer to the seasons and my use of a little sporty hiker icon is a joke, because Walser did all these often-strenuous sounding hikes wearing a suit and carrying an umbrella, as can be seen in the photograph used on the book's cover.

Here are twelve of the quotes used on the map:
July 26 1936 (the first walk).
'Silence is the narrow path on which we approach each other. Our heads burning in the sun, we ramble through the landscape - the hilly, tranquil landscape of woods and meadows.'

June 27 1937
'Incidental remark: "Nature does not need to make an effort to be meaningful. It simply is."' 
April 15 1938
'Robert stops often to admire the charm of a hill-top, the sturdiness of a tavern, the blue of the paschal day, the peaceful seclusion of a stretch of landscape, or a greenish-brown clearing.'
July 20 1941
On the way to Appenzell they see a baroque building.
"Shall we look in?"
"Such things are prettier from the outside.  One need not investigate every secret."

May 16 1943
'He says "I don't care a fig about superb views and backdrops.  When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer.  What more do we need to be satisfied than a meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses.'
July 24 1944
'As we reach the church in Arbon, an air-raid siren wails.  We hear the crack of antiaircraft guns on the far shore of Lake Constance.  Robert grows quiet.'
April 9 1945
'Far above us, a dogfight. The farmers stop their work and stare at the sky.  Robert, on the other hand, turns to the fir trees and flowers, the clean little Appenzell houses and steep rocky slopes.  For him the whole morning walk is one great delight.'

September 23 1945
'He comments that he often welcomes rain.  It makes the colours and scents more intense, and under an umbrella one can feel quite at home.'

November 3 1947
'A silent hike to Oberberg Schloss, which lies perched on a hill.  The honey-yellow flames of the fruit trees seem to soothe Robert a little.'

January 23 1949
'We climb higher up the Freudenberg, past frozen ponds and into snowy woods.  "It's like a fairy tale," he whispers, laying his hand lightly on my arm.'

Christmas 1952
'We enjoy these springlike hours, praising the woods, Lake Constance, which shimmers like a landscape of dunes, and the joy of walking.'

July 17 1955
The penultimate walk recorded by Seelig. 'Is his condition more serious than I realize?  I am wracked with worry.  As we part his last words are: "Did you see the heavenly colours of Lake Constance?"'
I have chosen these quotes because they convey an idea of Robert Walser's attitude to landscape, something I have discussed here several times before, e.g. in his novel The Assistant.  But they give a very unrepresentative idea of Walks with Walser, which is full of fascinating biographical material and Walser's thoughts on writers and books.  Then there's the food... I could easily have made an alternative Google Map based on the breakfasts and lunches the two writers enjoyed on their day-long excursions.  Last month I visited the Robert Walser Zentrum in Bern and talked to one of the team there about Walks with Walser - we agreed that both the length of the walks and the writers' appetite for good food and wine afterwards was impressive and life-affirming.  There is great poignancy in the contrast between these moments and Walser's daily life in the hospital at Herisau.

I took these two photographs in the Robert Walser Zentrum.  The first shows a beautiful, very expensive set of Walser manuscripts published by Schwabe, the world's oldest publisher (founded in 1488).  The second is a bookshelf which gives the impression there is still a lot more by and about Walser that it would be wonderful to have in English.  In one of the last walks with Walser, Seelig told him about the first English translations that had just appeared, done by Christopher Middleton 'with admirable sensitivity'.  Walser responded 'with a curt "Really!"'  Walks with Walser ends a few pages later with Walser's death during his final solitary walk on Christmas Day 1956.  There is snow everywhere and the sun is weak, 'tenderly melancholic and hesitant, as if today it would like to give the lovely landscape over to night sooner than usual.'

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