In a turn-of-the-century portrait (c.1893), Robert Walser appears as an overgrown boy, alone, maybe 15 years old, with rough hair and a woozy gaze. Somewhat hunched, as if intrigued by a little noise, he looks like a fairy-tale combination of a puppet and a bear cub, complete with awkward paws for hands. Once you begin reading his books, Walser starts roaming around your mind, this baffled innocent lost in a constant state of surprise. All his sentences quiver with oddball energy: he once described a fire as ‘a glowing red-coloured drunkard, smashing and destroying everything it can get its hands on’. Franz Kafka was among his early admirers; he used to creak with laughter whenever he attempted to read Walser’s stories aloud. For the last three decades or so of his life, Walser was confined to several mental institutions, scribbling in what was thought to be a madman’s code until scrutiny with a magnifying glass showed it was nothing more than a miniature yet traditional form of German. He died in deepest obscurity, of a heart attack in a snowy field, on Christmas Day 1956. According to a short author’s note he left in 1929, all of his writing comprises the ‘torn-apart book of myself’.
That mighty book expands a little further with the arrival of Looking at Pictures (2015, masterfully translated by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis and Christopher Middleton), a slender collection gathering Walser’s writings on art from various long-vanished magazines. It’s a cause for joy that Walser was a practitioner of this vagrant mode, allowing him to be counted alongside such esteemed figures as John Ashbery or Charles Baudelaire, who moonlighted as art critics, too. But this little volume is also the latest proof that he’s somehow inexplicable, touched by a peculiar sensitivity expressed in works coupling high-spirited mischief with a strange, bruising sadness. Amongst other things, Looking At Pictures is instructive for the present moment in its omnivorousness because it finds Walser eagerly melding everything – autobiography, fiction and essay – into an as-yet unnamed animal. It might also be the most eccentric compendium of art criticism yet published.
The contents supply us with a collection of strategies for revivifying that wonderful and difficult activity of shaping the experience of art into words. Frequently rambunctious and heartbreaking, they’re also necessary correctives to what the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard later wisely identified in his novel Old Masters (1985) as the art ‘twaddle’ (theoretical graffiti and soporific sentences) that pollutes so much writing on the subject. Whenever Walser gazes at a painting, some gleeful impulse sparks in his brain and he finds himself making up another tale to match the scene, or climbing over the frame to wake its occupants. Running amok in Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), he whispers memories of fruit into the sylphlike subject’s confused ear after she purrs: ‘Tell me a story!’
There are also ghoulish theatrics, such as a little piece on Narcisse Virgilio Díaz de la Peña’s painting The Forest Clearing (1875), in which he imagines a mother abandoning her son within its depths and a heap of dead leaves murmuring creepy metaphysical secrets to the child for nightmarish consolation. With typical feeling for the supposedly inanimate, he writes that ‘painted objects can in fact dream, smile inwardly, speak for themselves or mourn’. He chases the conceit that there’s an enchanted consciousness swirling around, say, a lush scene by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, with manic abandon. Every work of art becomes a self-contained world for an adventurous mind to inhabit. The smartest description for Walser’s project might lie in the critic Bruce Hainley’s recent claim (in a 2015 catalogue essay on the artist Albert York): ‘The canvas is a psychic territory.’ If only Walser were here to look at Karen Kilimnik’s Snow White confections with all the waywardness they deserve. Maybe the catalogue essay is today’s experimental space for such fanciful responses, but Walser’s writing pinpoints something deeper about the substance of style.
Looking at Pictures provides the accidental outline for an idea of criticism at its most playful, responding with magic versatility to the restless questions of form and tone that trouble the making of every piece of writing. Such an experimental spirit might be the canniest way to proceed with the critic’s task, because what serious thinking about art really involves is throwing yourself into stuff that’s frequently mute, tricky, dream-like and dragged from the jungle of somebody else’s consciousness to haunt your own. Art will be eager to outfox all the usual apparatuses of knowledge or hit some new area of feeling: a unique thing requesting a singular response. Oblique or peculiarly personal writing might offer far more illumination than a sober approach.
Where Walser finally escapes all other company is in the sheer anarchic texture of his prose, with its voice at once heart-warming and a little perverse. Stories begin by leaping up, jack-in-the-box-like, to offer a screwball intimation, then lurch into a far more subdued mood: ‘I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers.’ Others are lyric essays about his love for winter, zoos or cake, walking a tightrope from factual calm to funfair delirium. There are some black-eyed, depressive monologues (see ‘Kleist in Thun’), but almost everything by Walser alludes to scary intensities of panic and isolation. The trick is in the tone, mixing hot-air balloon giddiness with an underlying lonesome chill: ‘I could imagine that I was lying in bed, everlastingly in bed! Perhaps that would be the best thing.’ His sentences stammer (no, wait, maybe ‘fidget’ would be best), dash off into lunatic outlandishness or collapse at the last moment to reveal their author is half awake. Rub your eyes over this disarming flash from Walser’s finest novel, Jakob von Gunten (1909), where the narrator’s self consciousness unravels into sweet whimsy: ‘That is all very senseless but this senselessness has a pretty mouth and it smiles.’
If he allowed more obvious darkness to creep into his work, Walser might only be found in the shadows of other freakish European writers such as Kafka or E.T.A. Hoffmann. He has Hoffmann’s feel for mania, especially children’s mania, and magic toyshop gothic, which he skitters between embracing and mocking like a schoolboy. Occasionally he revives a fable, stitching new anxieties into its well-worn message. Like Kafka, he’s fearful and cheers for animals and the vulnerable, those creatures ‘so abandoned by all the world’, on instinct. But when he’s hounded by existential terrors he responds with a more anarchic spirit, trying to aerate their menace with a never-ending flurry of wisecracks, light-headed nonsense and friendly questions.
Perhaps the school of whimsy is not especially reputable, but all its antics faithfully attempt to bring us the texture of situations where reality has warped and can no longer be conveyed by commonsensical methods. (Think of Flann O’Brien or Donald Barthelme, too.) This prose, which seems to bask in its own mannered wackiness, can shatter your heart like a bauble, sneaking towards startling expressions of sorrow or dislocation. Speaking through the doped marionette in his brother Karl’s painting The Dream (1903), Walser writes: ‘I was neither a man who had longed for a woman, nor a person who had ever felt himself to be a human among humans.’ His contemporary descendants are numerous, from the American prose-poet Russell Edson with his deadpan bizarrerie to the British author Claire-Louise Bennett, whose debut short-story collection Pond (2015) evinces a similar attunement to the disquiet lurking within domestic ephemera and routine. But what any gang of Walser-like writers would have in common is, paradoxically, this air of loneliness; they would all be following the song in their own heads.
Everything Walser wrote seems to have emerged from the same shape-shifting reverie and sends you loping after the lone figure at its heart. He was the most courageous kind of eccentric, daydreaming at some doomed remove from the world yet able to conjure it up in his work, where it attains a warm and puzzling glow. ‘In front of this picture’, he wrote at the beginning of an article about Vincent van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne (1888–89), ‘one has all kinds of thoughts.’ Walser’s thoughts couldn’t belong to anyone else. He once called them his ‘little white mice’.