The other day, a fog hung low over Commugny like a lingering depression, and I found myself listless and uninspired. The holiday season often does this to me, with conflicting demands of generosity and frugality battling within myself. On this particular morning, the world was enrobed in a vague cloak of white that mirrored my state of uncertainty: uncertainty about my talent, uncertainty about my career, uncertainty about the wisdom of working six years on a novel that in all likelihood will go unnoticed and unread.
With these thoughts in mind, I resolved to go for a walk. And not my usual walk into the agricultural fields and small forests above Lac Leman, but in a direction I rarely go on foot: through the upperclass suburbs that sit between my home and Geneva. I did so in the spirit of Switzerland’s greatest writer, Robert Walser, who for most of his life was unpublished and unrecognized, and who was, even on the final day of his life, an avid and obsessive walker.
Born in Biel, on the boundary of the French-speaking and German-speaking cantons of Switzerland, Walser established himself early on as a writer, working for newspapers in Berlin and publishing several novels before the onset of the First World War. He acquired a small following among German intellectuals, but he was (in his own words) a “ridiculed and unsuccessful author.” During the war, Walser returned to Switzerland, where he spent time in Biel and Bern. During this period, in addition to working in various bureaucratic government jobs, he wrote sketches known as feuilleton for the newspapers–short, quirky first-person accounts replete with gossip, observations on art, slightly surreal tales, and scenes he encountered on his long walks.
Later in life, Walser began to lose his sanity. Never married, he became increasingly solitary, living the life of an impoverished hermit who rarely accepted guests. He began keeping notebooks in a tiny, coded script he called Bleistiftgebiet (the Pencil Zone). It was not until the 1990s that these works were completely decoded and published, and only in the last five years have translations in English become available).
Walser checked himself into Bern’s Waldau mental hospital in 1929 and he was committed forcibly to the asylum in Herisau in 1933. Eventually he gave up writing altogether, telling a friend in the late 1930s “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” He never gave up walking, however.
W.G. Sebald once described Walser (who had a great influence on his own, intentionally antiquated style) as a “clairvoyant of the small.” Walser’s Selected Stories, masterfully translated by Christopher Middleton and others, is a wonderfully odd assortment of pieces, ranging from an imagined scene from the poet Kleist’s later life on the River Aare to a love story between a stork and a hedgehog. In these brief, meandering tales we meet a man who questions the existence of every object he sees and a monkey dressed as a dandy who lives the life of a flâneur in the cafes of Zurich.
But a good share of the stories are about wandering, most notably Walser’s lengthy story The Walk, which at 50 pages ranks as something of an epic in the Liliputian world of Walser’s prose. It is a bizarre ramble, in which the writer/narrator visits the bank to find a sum deposited by a mysterious donor, inquires at a bookshop for the most popular book but then leaves without purchasing it, chats up a beautiful woman, encounters an intimidating giant named Tomzack, argues with his tailor, tries to convince a bureaucrat he’s so poor he should be exempt from taxes, stops at the post office to send a biting critique to a rival, etc. etc. In short, nothing much happens. But as in Joyce’s Ulysses, it is in the telling of this nothing that it becomes ennobled. In The Walk, he writes:
So solemn was it in the forest that lovely and solemn imaginings, quiet of their own accord, took possession of the sensitive walker there. How glad I was at this sweet forest softness and repose! From time to time, from outside, a slight sound or two penetrated the delicious seclusion and bewitching darkness, perhaps a bang, a whistle, or some other noise, whose distant note would only intensify the prevailing soundlessness, which I inhaled to my very heart’s content, and whose virtues I drank and quaffed with due ceremony. Here and there in all this tranquility and quietude a bird let his blithe voice be heard out of his charmed and holy hiding place. Thus I stood and listened, and suddenly there came upon me an inexpressible feeling for the world, and, together with it, a feeling of gratitude, which broke powerfully out of my soul. The pines stood straight as pillars there, and not the least thing moved in the whole delicate forest, throughout which all kinds of inaudible voices seemed to echo and sound. Music out of the primeval world, from whence I cannot tell, stole on my ear. “Oh, thus, if it must be, shall I willingly end and die. A memory will then delight me even in death; a thanksgiving for the pleasures, for the joys, for the ecstasies; and thanksgiving for life, and a joy at joy.”
Meanwhile, my own walk proceeds through the suburbs past modern little mansions shielded by neatly-trimmed hedges, the residences of bank executives and diplomats and NGO officials on generous Geneva salaries working long hours to promote the health of refugees, to improved the lives of the poorest of the poor, the salt of the earth. The clean streets are empty. But my path, which happens to be along one of the marked walking routes for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, is filled with unseen quirks if one pays attention: the Marilyn Monroe stencil graffiti, the little creek lined with a thicket of bamboo, a fountain dating from 1815 (perhaps Byron watered his thirsty horse here on his way to the castle of Chillon), an obscure Vietnamese-owned fish market closed for the holidays, and a long-vanished missing cat poster on a utility pole, the remnants of which bubble and stick to the black surface in a strangely regular and beautiful pattern: order out of random chaos.
I soon arrive in Pont Ceard, a dense housing project on the edge of Versoix, and here I finally see other human beings: mothers pushing strollers; a father with a baby in a front-carrier, her arms stiffly thrust into the sleeves of a puffy pink coat; old women pushing colorful grocery carriers, two dark-haired immigrant teens having a friendly dispute in accented French with their New York Yankee caps sitting backward upon their heads and oversized headphones slung around their necks. I catch the train from here, at a station emblazoned with rainbows of graffiti. I have seen the Switzerland one does not encounter on tourist websites.
My mood has improved. The blood is flowing again, and the half-delusional, half-optimistic faith of the active writer returns. All it took was a walk, and looking. In his story, A Little Ramble, Walser put it nicely: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see too much.”