So irregular, appealing and - if one may say - so pitiable a figure is the Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) that he comfortably resists summary description. Even his biographer, Robert Mächler, begins by warning himself, via a feisty sentence of his subject's: 'No one is entitled to behave towards me as if they knew me.'
It's not that writing about Walser can't be done, it can be done endlessly and beautifully, but it seems unlikely to achieve anything much, although he offers so much scope for true statement, insight and original expression. You write your piece, make your comparisons, press your claims, and at the end of it all you look up and see Walser, looking not much like your likeness of him, only slightly battered for having been the object of your attentions. It's like nailing the proverbial jelly to the wall. Susan Sontag talks about him slipping through the net of comparisons. It's perhaps not beside the point to recall that when a very young man, Walser wanted to be an actor, and while that ambition may have been squelched in the course of a typically humiliating encounter with an established actor who merely motioned towards the door, there remains something protean about him, even as a writer.
LRB 16 November 2006 | PDF Download