One can only hope to really understand Robert Walser’s story The Walk if one is familiar with the author’s biography. Walser lived the last quarter-century of his life in a mental institution, largely by choice, and his dead boy was found on Christmas Day in a field in the Swiss town of Herisau where he had wandered and died of exposure. While questions persisted as to whether Walser was clinically depressed, or whether he suffered from other mental ailments, or simply chose to live in an asylum as a refuge from reality, we will never know. What we do is that he did choose to live that way, and he did die alone and isolated that December day in 1956. Among the stories he left behind was The Walk. Probably semi-autobiographical, Walser’s story depicts a writer stepping away from his desk, a blank sheet of paper signifying his inability to structure his thoughts or to come up with an idea of what to write – a phenomenon known as “writer’s block” and the source of many a therapeutic walk by struggling or emotionally distraught authors.
In any case, Walser’s protagonist sets off on his journey, and encounters a variety of individuals along the way, perhaps most importantly Tomzack, the emotionally disturbed man of enormous physical stature who the writer concludes “was neither dead nor alive, neither old nor young.” Tomzack symbolizes something to Walser, but precisely what is open to interpretation. It’s been suggested that this erratic giant of a man is the author’s alter-ego, the narrator declaring with respect to Tomzack that “for him there was nothing which had meaning, and he himself in turn meant something to nobody.” Walser’s self-esteem was probably deeply wounded by his failure to attain the level of admiration in life that he would in death and, to the extent the narrator is Walser, the disdain for crass commercialism (represented by his rejection of the bakery’s ostentatious display) and his reference to the ‘poison pen’ letter sent to an unidentified soul, possibly an editor or publisher -- “you do not keep your word, injure without a second thought the virtues and reputations of those who have to deal with you, you rob unsparingly where you pretend to institute beneficence” – all fit neatly into a larger portrait of a troubled creative mind.
Walser’s narrator enjoys the beauty of his surroundings, and even enjoys some of his human encounters, such as the young girl with superior voice. In this respect, the walk serves at least part of its therapeutic purpose. Many a creative thought has been spurred through such diversionary journeys to nowhere. Sometimes, stepping away from the desk is the best means of restoring one’s creative vitality, and walking, a particularly useful form of exercise that does, in fact, improve cognitive performance and slow the diminishment of memory, fits neatly into Walser’s own physiological framework. That the narrator has negative encounters on his journey, along with the positive ones, is merely testament to the obstacles that are confronted on a routine basis in the average life anyway. For Walser, though, those obstacles were particularly formidable and, ultimately, fatal.