When I read Robert Walser I have the feeling that something has gone the way it should in the universe, and I confront my Hubris. For I can no more justify my right to suppose how the universe should go than deny my feelings. In my version of the universe an artist like Robert Walser is not forgotten. For sure, a man can fall face-first into a snowy ditch and die all alone, it happens all the time, and the natural order of things would seem to be, if that man was Robert Walser, he would be utterly forgotten. And so, something went right in the universe, for I was able to send out an electric communiqué authorizing the release of a small sum of money and, like magic, one of Walser’s books appeared on my doorstep. Or wrong, say something went wrong with the universe, something so wonderfully, perfectly wrong. I’ll have it either way.
When I read this book by Robert Walser, I have the feeling that either way—subjectively right or objectively wrong—both options meet in the middle, that even though I will die alone facedown in a ditch, a remnant may be saved, if I can learn to use my resources wisely, and I feel very wise skipping my chores, flouting my commitments and ignoring my studies to read this book by Walser, for there is the possibility (if it happened once it could happen again) that this remnant will be the Golden One, out of the incalculable knot that is a human life.
Reading this book I don’t escape, via illusions cheap or illustrious, the festering sores that will one day do me in. If they are not my friends then neither, on a grey day in November, are they my enemies. They are me, and that is all.
Halfway into Walser’s Jakob von Gunten I understand what Hesse meant when he said, “If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place.” And yet the world for me is already a better place because it was big enough to allow this incredible accident to slip through: Jakob von Gunten was published in Germany in 1909. A hundred-plus years, major wars, untold death and suffering later, and the book is still here. ‘How ineffective!’ you say. I say, ‘How amazing that it even exists!’ Like a wildflower. They’re just weeds, you know.
I’m glad I’m reading Walser a day before the American election for president; it helps me fuse the discordant voices.
In the dream I had become a very bad man indeed…. I was crude, from top to toe, a dressed-up, crass, and cruel bit of human flesh…. Things were going splendidly well for me…. I felt so completely that I could give commands and let fly with moods. Beside me, on a table richly spread, shone the objects of an insatiable appetite for food and drink, bottles of wine and liqueurs, and the most exquisite cold dishes. I had only to reach out a hand, and from time to time I did so. To the knives and forks clung the tears of enemies I destroyed, and the glasses sang with the sighs of many poor people, but the tear-stains only made me want to laugh, while the hopeless sighs sounded to me like music…. Oh, oh, how I reveled in the knowledge of having pulled the ground from under the feet of a few fellowmen! And I reached for the bell and rang. An old man walked in, no, excuse me, crawled in, it was Wisdom, and the fellow crawled up to my boots, to kiss them…. That’s what I call being rich…. I rang again and in came Seriousness, a handsome, slim, but poor young man. He was one of my lackeys, and I ordered him…. Soon after this, in came Zeal…. Then Virtue…. I took her on my knee and fooled around with her…. and then I whistled and God himself appeared. I shouted: “What? You too?
-Robert Walser, from Jakob von Gunten, translation by Christopher Middleton
What will we dream, and, come Wednesday morning, regardless of the outcome, how will we find our way?