Robert Walser photograph - Simon Willis on The Walk and Other Stories

Outrunning Darkness

Share this

Our favourite writers do not just open doors to other worlds; they open doors to other writers. A few years ago, the South African Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee opened an important door for me. I had read all his novels, from Dusklands to Diary of a Bad Year. But my favourite was Life and Times of Michael K, his story of an innocent, an outsider with a cleft lip – ‘curled like a snail’s foot’ – who escapes a civil war with his mother and, after her death, keeps himself alive by growing fruit and living in a burrow in the veld. What appealed most was the heroism of K’s retreat, the novel’s sense of passion in privation, of redemption in the form of a pumpkin seed.

When I’d run out of novels, I started on the essays, hoping I’d find among the books Coetzee admired books I would admire too. The essays were, to put it mildly, level-headed, so one of the titles leapt off the page: ‘The Genius of Robert Walser’. I had never even heard the name, but two sentences quoted in the piece persuaded me that perhaps between this Swiss writer and a South African, writing at opposite ends of the century, there was common ground: ‘How fortunate I am’, Walser wrote, ‘not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching! To be small and to stay small.’

I went out the following morning and found a volume of Walser’s short fiction. Scanning the contents page, I could see that these were tiny stories about everyday subjects, most no more than a couple of pages long – prose sketches rather than conventional narratives – with titles like ‘Trousers’, ‘The Job Application’ or ‘The Boat’. But in the middle there was one covering more than sixty pages called ‘The Walk’. It was the first story I read by Walser, and it introduced me to a writer of both tragic and exultant modesty.

But not, it should be said, simplicity. The story has a straightforward conceit but makes complicated progr

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

About the contributor

Simon Willis is an editor at The Economist’s magazine Intelligent Life. He thinks Hermann Hesse was right when he said that if Robert Walser ‘had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place’.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Distraction-free
reading mode