In brief, the story of Robert Walser is more or less as follows.
He was born in Switzerland in 1878, apprenticed in a bank in his teens, tried his hand as an actor, and worked briefly as a butler (an experience he later transformed into a novel, Jakob von Gunten). He began to make his living as a writer, creating short, slight pieces for newspapers as well as more substantial fare, but when the money from writing began to dry up he wandered from place to place and from one menial job to another.
His mental health became progressively more uncertain. Exactly what ailed him is disputed; it sounds like severe and chronic depression, though he was eventually diagnosed as a schizophrenic. His handwriting, once precise and calligraphic, evolved into a stylized, impossibly minute, all but illegible pencil script. After his death the script in the manuscripts from that time would, at first, be mistaken by his executors for some kind of cipher.
In 1929, he entered an asylum, at first voluntarily. In 1933, at the prompting of his family, he was committed to another institution in Herisau, and from that time on he no longer wrote.
Robert Walser remained at Herisau all through Europe's own years of madness. In December 1956 he went missing from the asylum. His body was found in a field of snow nearby on Christmas Day, 1956.
A number of years ago, in an issue of The Georgia Review, I came across Guy Davenport's miraculous short story, “A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg,” which is about Walser. At the time Walser's name was new to me and little of his work was available in English. Davenport's piece intrigued me enough that I eventually tracked down a copy of Jakob von Gunten. The book didn't make much of an impression on me, though, and after that I didn't go out of my way to read any more Robert Walser for some time.
Now and then I would read something about Walser that made me think I ought to give his writing another try. J. M. Coetzee wrote an interesting piece about him in The New York Review of Books in 2000. New editions of his short fiction were published in English. The Brothers Quay, the stop-action animators who created The Street of Crocodiles, made an animated short inspired (if somewhat inscrutably) by Walser, and made a feature-length live-action film, Institute Benjamenta, out of Jakob von Gunten.
Not too long ago I re-read Davenport's story and found that I still enjoyed it. I borrowed a copy of the Farrar, Straus edition of Walser's Selected Stories from the library and tried a few of the stories. They seemed impenetrable; I stopped reading.
Nothing much happens in a Walser story; they're mostly composed of impressions and sentiments, the kind of thing that usually doesn't travel well from one language to another. I don't read German. But more than language separates Walser from the contemporary English-language reader; the whole world he lived in is gone and, to some degree, unreachable.
But all of that is actually not the point of this piece.
I don't want to talk about Walser's writing, but about his not writing. Why did Walser abandon his craft?
Walser's own explanation, such as it is, was recorded by a friend, Carl Seelig, who occasionally visited him at Herisau. When asked if he was writing, Walser replied, “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” It may be Walser's one immortal line, but exactly what he meant by it is a bit opaque. Perhaps he was just, as ever, being ironic. Perhaps he resented his institutionalization and stopped writing out of spite. But who exactly would he punish by his silence? His audience, which was presumably negligible? His family, who were probably embarrassed by him and happy to have him shut up (in both senses)?
In Bartleby & Co., the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas surveyed those “artists of refusal” who turned away from their craft and lapsed into silence, writers like Salinger, Juan Rulfo, and Herman Melville. For him, the Swiss writer is an emblematic figure, a supreme practitioner of what he calls “the art of the No”: “Walser's entire work, including his ambiguous silence of twenty-eight years, is a commentary on the vanity of all initiative, the vanity of life itself.”
Susan Sontag, in the Foreword to the Selected Stories, without directly taking up the matter of Walser's silence, seems to point in the same direction when she writes (incidentally though unintentionally suggesting one of the reasons Walser is so utterly frustrating to read) that “the moral core of Walser's art is the refusal of power; of domination.”
And then there is Guy Davenport, who, ending his fictional recreation of Walser's story, puts these reflections into the writer's last moments:
And their books, these people who keep writing, who reads them? It is now a business like any other. I try not to bore them with an old man's talk when they come, the few who want to ask me about writing, about the time before both the wars, about Berlin. I do not tell them how much of all that misery was caused by writers, by men who said they were writers. I do not tell them that I quit writing because I had nothing at all, anymore, to say.For Davenport's Walser the equation of writing with power is explicit, and power, even just the ability to “put things in order,” is firmly and finally renounced, like Prospero drowning his book.
There are tracks of the rabbit. I think they said at the table that today is Christmas. I do not know.
But let us desist, lest quite by accident we be so unlucky as to put these things in order.
All of this tends to point to a connection between Walser's eventual silence and an aesthetic that was grounded in abnegation from the start. I'm not sure I buy it, or that his silence can be made to stand for anything other than the natural outcome of the progressive decline of a man who suffered through a lifetime of mental illness. It's true that I don't know how you draw the line to separate who Walser was from what his illness made him; to a degree at least, Walser was his affliction. So it may be a bit facile to think of him as, in the end, just a clinical case.
But if Walser really did stop writing because doing so represented the logical endpoint of his art, then he truly was a dead end. It would mean that he had followed the trail of “the No” to its ultimate emptiness, to the blank page and the field of snow.
At some point, before he began to slip into the abyss, Walser may have known that, may have understood that though there are worse sins than a passive life there is no hope for an artist who ceases to be willing to define the world as he sees it. And maybe he fell silent simply because he knew he no longer had the strength.