Walser On Walser — Simon Wortham

In 1925, just as things were beginning to decline, Robert wrote a short text about himself. It begins by informing the reader that they’re going to hear the writer, Walser, speaking; but the addressee is in fact himself, Walser, the writer. As though opening a letter addressed to himself, Robert considers the text before him; but considers it as though he’d opened a letter from one of those people concerned about his more recent accomplishments and, therefore, his future prospects in the writerly profession (for example, his own family). Is he asleep in me, the writer? Do they wish to wake him up? But I was asleep as a writer when I took the job that led to The Assistant, and The Tanners grew out of a long period of waiting, of a life lived unconsciously, as it were.  Robert is suggesting that to write one must first of all not write, or at any rate first of all not be a writer. You can imagine why, at this point in his career—born of a desperate hope that writing will flow from its absence, from its opposite. At any rate, says Robert (seemingly not persuaded by this idea), many are of the opinion that there’s too much scribbling about nowadays, and I agree with them. I am in no way concerned, therefore, that I find myself asleep—indeed, it’s wholly agreeable to me. But nonetheless the books I wrote testify that living is sleeping, insofar as Walser the writer is concerned. Writing stems from that very same connection that seems to exclude it, it comes from something of which it is not a part. Hence Walser the writer can address himself as if another; and, as a writer, he can answer the complaint that he no longer writes by performing this same paradox. Writing happening as the renunciation of itself or—no, less dramatically—the mistaking of itself as writing. Writing asleep, as though dreaming a writing that couldn’t possibly be taking place. As if the true writer, the sleeping writer, does anything but write.

But—could you even drink your coffee when you wake up in the morning, could you even dare to draw breath, thinking these things as a writer? I have survived the terrible, the caustic desire to be published. I have survived that. But can I survive these excuses, however warranted they may be, even if they strike at the essential predicament of writing itself? How can I survive the truth about writing when it becomes an alibi? You can appreciate why Walser the writer is spoken about in the third person as if he were somewhere, as well as someone, else. Permanently somewhere else. It’s what writing does to you, whether or not you write. That’s immaterial.

Each day, Walser takes a little walk and he helps the waitress lay the table and involves himself in all manner of things so as to experience life as this defining excuse. A writer’s life, which properly speaking should be called anything but. No wonder he yearns for sleep. Sprawled out, indolent, exhausted, having done nothing, asking ten years’ patience from the letter-writers, wishing his literary peers greater success. Split apart by an indifference to his plight shared by everyone except himself. 

To go unnoticed, from now on, is as awful as it is inevitable. If I am ever to write again, I must retreat further from writing. From the profession of writing, in all its senses. I therefore refuse to notice those noticers who no longer notice me, or who never noticed me. But for god’s sake stop confronting me with my early books. You overestimate them.  And take the living Walser for what he is. That last sentence is almost unbearably complicated for me to read. 

Simon Wortham is the author of a trilogy of books published by Ma Bibliotheque: The small (2020), Early Mass (2021) and Berlin W (2022), as well as of many academic books in the fields of modern European literature and philosophy, for instance on insomnia, pain, phobia, resistance, and hope. Twitter: @simonwortham