Book of a Lifetime: Selected Stories, by Robert Walser

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The Independent Culture

"We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much." These lines, at the end of the single-page story "A Little Walk" (in which it appears, at first sight, that nothing happens) epitomise the work of the Swiss novelist Robert Walser. Having voluntarily entered a lunatic asylum in the late 1920s, he wrote nothing more for the last 20-odd years of his life. When asked by a friend if he was working on anything in the asylum, he famously replied: "I am not here to write, but to be mad." It is a stunning, and tragic, claim.

Walser was one of those individuals who stand at a slight angle to the world: first impressions suggest words like quirky, or surreal. But, if anything, his art was a beautifully sane challenge to the systematic assault on the subjective and quotidian that was already grinding away when he entered the madhouse. In an age that found it possible to diagnose the inner life as a sticky mass of tics and neuroses, Walser became a polite but stubborn champion of an everyday life in which psyche may play a central role, but pathology is not necessarily a given.

"About strange influences we still know very little," he says in "An Essay on Lion Taming", to explain why "I only glanced fleetingly at the actual person of the tamer, because I was afraid of doing him some harm. For, if I look at someone, I might be taking away his thoughts, his powers." Some may see this as symptomatic of madness of "paranoia" but for me it is the expression of a near-angelic courtesy, a wonderful readiness to make space for, and be careful of, the other.

Walser's work is shot through with such courtesies and with a fear that, in modern life, the space of the other is in constant danger of being violated, just as the self is in constant danger of becoming a set of symptoms.

"Nobody should be afraid of his own bit of weirdness," he says.

Walser's reputation has suffered from our inability to pigeonhole his works, especially the shorter pieces included in Selected Stories and Speaking to the Rose. Yet he saw himself simply as a novelist, explaining that "the novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself." Yet, though he seemed not to have continued this novel in his later years, perhaps the case of Robert Walser is not as clear as the mere facts suggest. Fondly, and perhaps foolishly, I like to think that he did carry it on, after he put down his pen and decided to be mad, but that for reasons of his own, he didn't choose to commit that work to paper. The task of imagining what that unwritten work might be is left to all of us, and that, too, is the legacy of this great novelist, one of the last century's finest.

John Burnside's new novel is 'Glister'(Jonathan Cape)