A man is standing in the New England snow. He is paunchy and bald, of below-average height, wearing only unflattering white briefs. His eyes are closed. He is The Sleepwalker, a hyperrealistic statue devised by artist Tony Matelli and installed outdoors on the Wellesley College campus. He is part of, and an advertisement for, a Matelli exhibition at the college’s Davis Museum, and though the museum director, Lisa Fischman, has described him as “vulnerable and unaware against the snowy backdrop of the space around him . . . not naked . . . profoundly passive . . . inert, as sculpture,” he’s caused a considerable kerfuffle.
Many, perhaps even most uninitiated passers-by have at first assumed him to be a living person. A number of them have been disturbed by his presence and worse, alarmed. One student has circulated a petition citing him as “a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community.” Hundreds have signed it. I’m a straight, cisgendered white guy, so I have to squint just slightly to see through the eyes of the signatories, but I do respect their view. Still, I wonder why more people aren’t first worried about the sleepwalker himself. I am, but that’s probably because he reminds me of someone: Robert Walser.
Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland in 1878 and by the early part of the 20th century had achieved some fame as a writer in the Germanophone world. Kafka and Hesse, among others, were devotees. Walser’s work was noted for its rueful comedy (as a bookseller myself, I’ve always been particularly fond of his novel The Tanners, which opens with a “young, boyish man” entering a bookshop and declaring that he’s well-suited to the work because he’s “not so foolishly honest” as he might appear) and for extolling the virtues of the flâneur. Walser, like many of his characters, best contemplated the world on foot; the first of his books translated into English was a novella entitled The Walk, in which he says that in the absence of regular strolling, “I would be dead, and my profession, which I love passionately, would be destroyed.”
Despite his accomplishments, life proved too difficult for Walser. After episodes of intense anxiety, including possible hallucinations that began in 1929, he was institutionalized. He thrived in the sanatorium, exhibiting no symptoms and continuing to write for many years without publishing. He wrote in pencil, completing entire stories on scraps of paper no larger than a business card, using barely-legible letters only a millimeter tall. He lived this way until Christmas Day, 1956 when his body was found lying in the snow some distance from the institution. He had died of a heart attack on one of his typical lonely rambles.
Walser has had a revival in the past decade, with much of his work finally being brought into English, largely at the behest of New Directions. Their facsimile edition of Microscripts is just one example. Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee has championed him as an unsung genius of modernism, and he significantly influenced W.G. Sebald, himself no stranger to apparently aimless wandering. As much as the work, though, it’s Walser’s death that has made him an icon.
Post-mortem photos show him as he was found in a field, alone and on his back with one outstretched arm, in a tableau that looks like a pastoral version of one of Weegee’s gangland crime scenes. It’s a sad, solitary, somewhat cryptic setting — Walser’s face is turned away — that inspires pity for the plight of the writer and perhaps for the Writer. South African novelist Ivan Vladislavić uses the pictures to inspire a fragmented meditation on mortality and the blank page called “The Last Walk” in his collection The Loss Library: “What about the story the writer would have written on the day after he died?”
Does the man’s life say anything? Does his death? Coetzee concludes his appreciation of him by asking:
Was Walser a great writer? If one is reluctant to call him great, said Canetti, that is only because nothing could be more alien to him than greatness. In a late poem Walser wrote:
I would wish it on no one to be me.
Only I am capable of bearing myself.
To know so much, to have seen so much, and
To say nothing, just about nothing.
If Matelli’s sculpture were housed in a gallery, that poem might serve as a caption for it.
The Sleepwalker is still standing in the snow. He hasn’t finished his sentence.