Robert Walser’s day jobs
And some news: I turned in my book draft!
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers—a loopier-than-usual issue, perhaps, because on Wednesday I turned in the first draft of my next book! And then I felt the most intense mental and physical exhaustion, something like if you ran a marathon and took the SATs on the same day, and went out for a very stiff martini afterward. But then I did a little reading for pleasure and here’s what I managed to eke out for today’s issue…
Robert Walser (1878–1956)
I love little books. You know the ones: closer to one hundred pages than two, with an appealingly slender profile on the shelf and just the slightest heft in your hands. I also love episodic books—one thing happens, then another, then another; I don’t really need it all to add up, or not explicitly. And, of course, I love books about the lives of writers and artists. So I was delighted last week to pick up Walks with Walser, a brief nonfiction account of one Swiss writer’s walks with another Swiss writer between 1936 and 1956, published in English in 2017.
The Swiss writer of the title is Robert Walser, who, the back-cover blurb informs us, “worked as a journalist, a bank clerk, a butler in a castle, and an inventor’s assistant and produced nine novels and more than a thousand stories.” The other Swiss writer is Carl Seelig, an admirer of Walser’s work who, in 1936, looked up the older writer and began accompanying him on daylong excursions through the Swiss countryside and beyond.
When the two writers first started walking together, Walser was living in a mental asylum, and he would continue to live there for the remaining 22 years of his life. The exact nature of his illness is difficult to pinpoint—according to his medical records, Walser “confessed hearing voices”—but, poignantly, it seems to have been precipitated by Walser’s failure to earn a living as a writer.
In fact, I hesitated to write about Walser here because the “lessons” one might draw from his biography are rather bleak. Failing to make money as an artist may send you to an asylum! And working a day job renders art-making almost impossible! At least that’s what Walser tells Seelig at one point, talking about his history of short-lived, crummy jobs:
. . . I was often unemployed, which is to say that as soon I had rustled together a bit of money, I handed in my notice so that I could write undisturbed. Anyone who wants to do something properly must give himself to it fully, in my experience. Writing, too, requires all of one’s strength. Yes, it downright bleeds one dry. Writing on the side, as an arabesque, so to speak, rarely yields anything lasting.
Walser’s most famous novel, however, points to another conclusion. Seelig tells us that, at one point, in Berlin, Walser trained for one month at a school for servants and later worked for a count who lived in a castle on a hill in Upper Silesia. There he “was made to clean the halls, polish silver spoons, beat carpets, and serve in a tailcoat as ‘Monsieur Robert.’” He only stayed for six months. (According to Walser, “in the long run my Swiss clumsiness made me ill suited for a servant.”) But his experience in the school for servants was turned into material for his 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten, now considered his finest work and a masterpiece of early-twentieth-century fiction. (Its admirers included Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin.) So perhaps we readers can be grateful that Walser had to hustle for all manner of menial jobs, even if the author himself would have wished otherwise?
ANOTHER ANGLE ON DAY JOBS
Also, at a different point in Seelig’s book, Walser sort of contradicts his above statement, or at least considers it from a different angle. On one of their long walks, Seelig tells Walser
how right he was to live . . . in poverty, simplicity, and freedom, and what a mistake it is when creative people make compromises in favor of their material livelihood. He nods briskly and answers seriously, after a long silence: “Yes, but seen from the outside it’s usually a journey from one defeat to another!”
A good note to end on! Looking forward to writing to you all again in two weeks, when I will try to think of something special for the three-year anniversary of this newsletter, provided I’ve recovered my mental faculties a bit by then.
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This is wonderful! Robert Walser reminds me of the poet Lorine Niedecker, who spent decades working as a hospital janitor in Wisconsin while writing some of the most important American poetry of the mid-century. She finally got to give up janitorial work at age 60. Her poetry is so beautiful and sui generis, and clearly all her intellectual and creative energy went into her art. We are the richer for it, but her life sounds extraordinarily hard.
Here is one poem:
Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what's got away in my life—
Was enough to carry me thru.
I am reminded of a statement by Melissa Febos who has written any number of books, all well-received, but who also works as a professor and insisted, in fact, that she was glad she didn't rely on her writing to be her primary means of making money because it reduced her desperation and made the work better as a result. It made me feel much better about finally taking a full-time job outside of the house after six years of a mix of freelancing and working regular jobs, but from home, which was much more stressful and left me feeling, as Febos described, vaguely desperate all the time.