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
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