Paperback review: The Walk, By Robert Walser (Trs Christopher Middleton)

Part Kafka, part Dostoevsky, but all original

The Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) influenced the likes of Herman Hesse and W G Sebald, but he remains an obscure figure on these shores. Perhaps this has something to do with his offbeat prose style, which takes some getting used to. The title story of this collection is representative: ostensibly it is an account of a countryside stroll, but the narrator continually pauses and digresses ("But stop! Uninterrupted writing fatigues, like digging") and the pace slows to a strange, languorous rallentando.

As Susan Sontag once noted, it is tempting to try to make sense of Walser by way of comparison. There are macabre fragments here that bring to mind Kafka ("Once there was a man and on his shoulders he had, instead of a head, a pumpkin. This was no great help to him"). The eponymous office worker of "Helbling's Story", who wallows in self-loathing and social humiliation, would seem to take after Dostoevsky's underground man.

But one soon realises that Walser is, in fact, an original. The book's centrepiece, "Kleist in Thun" (1913), is a mixture of fact and fiction: it depicts the romantic author's sojourn in the Swiss mountains, a sense of despair preventing him from fully enjoying the splendour of his surroundings ("What rapture this is, but what agony it can also be"). It is at once a deft literary portrait, a vivid piece of nature writing, and an autobiographical insight into Robert Walser's own mental fragility. All in all, it is as beautiful and moving a story as I have ever read.

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