© Estelle Hanania

© Estelle Hanania

Robert Walser, or a eulogy to dissolving

KLARA But where is Fritz?

PAUL Oh, he’s already on his way to the pond, just outside the woods. He said that…

KLARA What did he say again?

PAUL Oh, nothing in particular. He wants to drown himself.

Robert Walser, The Pond

From 28 to 30 April, as part of the FOG festival at Triennale Milano, French-Austrian director Gisèle Vienne is presenting her L’Etang, starring Adèle Haenel (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) and Henrietta Wallberg. This is a family drama based on the work of the same name (The Pond) by Robert Walser (Biel, 1878 – Herisau, 1956). It offers the opportunity to see a stage performance of one of the first works of the Swiss writer, a very prolific and eclectic author who only just avoided falling into literary oblivion. However, when examining Walser’s work, you have to reckon with one of those impulses that are entirely human and yet continually repudiated, which is the natural inclination to fade away. But let’s look at things in order.


One of the first things to know about Robert Walser is that he liked to move around. Making a topography of his life is complex – and perhaps not even as interesting as it may seem – but it is enough for us to know that he spent time in Zurich, Bern, Berlin and other German-speaking locations. It would not even be correct to write a biography of him in stages, as if it were a bicycle race or a path of growth, because all he did was move during his lifetime. He moved around, he was pure dynamism, and there was not even any recondite or unconscious desire to stop. He didn’t stop here or there. No, he moved from a to b, instantly making that place, b, obsolete, outdated, having moved to another, more distant, or simply different place. It has already been done, but let’s repeat this easy analogy with the work The Walk: here, by way of a summary of a life, of a character, Walser walked, the essence of the human nomadism that has united us all since our ancestral appearance.

“He was at home everywhere and nowhere. He had no home country, and of no state was he a citizen. Without motherland and without happiness he was; he had to live completely without love and without human joy … it seemed to me that he must live for eternity, only to be for eternity.”

Robert Walser © New Directions Books
Robert Walser © New Directions Books

In The Walk, these words refer to the giant Tomzack, one of Walser’s many doubles whom he encounters on the road. Words that are perfectly suited to his condition of perpetual motion. In his many wanderings around the world, he also ended up in an asylum, in Waldau, in 1929. His sister Lisa took him there. She couldn’t have done differently: the hallucinations assailed him with an invisible frenzy. One could say that his ongoing evasion of the world concluded at the clinic due to an excess of the world – imaginary, sick, schizophrenic – that invaded him at a certain point in his life. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia (haven’t we just mentioned doubles?), and he was almost reassured by the news that the continued suffering he had experienced thus far could now be explained. Moreover, in The Pond, Fritz’s mother asks her son the question to which Walser now seems to find an answer: “Why suffer needlessly?” The work that still arouses the most interest in Robert Walser today, namely micrograms, dates back to his four years in Waldau. It consists of more than 500 pages written in a microscopic hand, containing a collection of novels and poetic and theatrical works. It draws us closer to the impulse that was mentioned at the beginning. But one more small premise is required.


We said that Gisèle Vienne will be bringing Walser’s The Pond to the stage, and so we will start here to get to the point. It is a short work, indeed extremely short, which tells of a child called Fritz who feels unloved by his mother and stages his own suicide. He pretends to drown himself in a pond (“To this day no one has ever cried for me. Perhaps in this way they will realize that I count for something too,” says Fritz, retrieving his hat from the water). His brother Paul and sister Klara go to report the incident to their mother, who despairs over the death of her son. The drama lasts barely an afternoon, as the fake suicide returns home for dinnertime, and the last part of the play is devoted to his mother’s apology for not loving him enough. And that’s it.

Ph. Mathilde Darel © L'Etang
Ph. Mathilde Darel © L'Etang

One of Walser’s abilities is to make a text – any text – damnably artificial. In The Walk, for example, around thirty lines are devoted to the description outlined by the protagonist-narrator to ask a bookseller to show him his best-selling book. During a first hasty and superficial reading, it is natural to ask ourselves where is the emotion, the pathos, the drama? In other words, where is life? Initially, it is tempting to answer that life, in Walser, is nowhere to be found. And yet, upon reading and re-reading his works, making them talk to each other, we discover that beauty (I am talking about spontaneous, vital beauty, because there is no question of literary beauty) is nestled among the gratuitous abundance of words, expressions and complex syntactic constructions that fill Walser’s pages. In short, it is as if Walser had taken all the life he was imbued with, the suffering he felt in every moment of his existence, the enthusiasm he was filled with as a child, and dissolved them in his books. A little like sugar in coffee.


What is the reader expected to do? I think that Walser would respond: nothing. And so, we ask ourselves again, why suffer needlessly? Why seek out something that by definition is shocking and disquieting? Just leave it where it is. If anything, try to dissolve in the same way. With an unprecedented violence, The Pond shows us Walser’s plan, which from this moment onwards he will take to its extreme consequences, to the point of schizophrenia: his is a metaphysics to the contrary, an undoing of the world, of entity, into nothingness, a desire for non-life. But, we should take note, not for death. Fritz does not actually throw himself into the pond, he does not drown. He simply passes the afternoon living as if he were dead. And what does this child do to pass the time while waiting for his deception to be revealed? “That’s it! And now I’m going to walk like a vain Englishman in the woods nearby”.

Ph. Estelle Hanania © L'Etang
Ph. Estelle Hanania © L'Etang

Walser opposes the stasis of things, the immobility of the world, with movement. But movement – Fritz teaches us – means not existing. At least, not in the manner of entities. It means being infinitely, repeating oneself in others, or rather no longer making a distinction between the self and the other, but being a confused, magmatic whole. In each of his works, Walser’s being aims to dissolve into the world. To be an object among objects, but always different – everything changes, you might say. And then we try to understand why Walser adopts such a contrived language, or why his writings do not strike with the violence to which the present has accustomed us. Because, for Walser, the important thing is to conceal oneself and hide. To be untraceable. Like sugar in coffee. And to be inconsistent, like ash.

“Is it possible to be more helpless, more impotent, and more wretched than ash? Not very easily. Could anything be more compliant and more tolerant? Hardly.”

Essential reading

R. Walser, The Walk, Serpent’s Tail, London 2013

R. Walser, ‘The Pond’, in Conjunctions, no. 60, 05/2013

W.G. Sebald, ‘Le promeneur solitaire: on Robert Walser’, in A Place in the Country, Penguin Modern Library, New York 2015

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