At certain points, Walser’s narrative style borders on the unearthly. The sweet, other-worldly tone of the prose suggests a near-complete departure from events occurring at the time of the work’s composition. In such cases, one is faced with a choice: either one takes the narrative as a simple, self contained piece—a romanticizing of the here-and-now—or one wonders what Walser may be trying to communicate underneath such prose. Remarkably, one can engage this technique, in dialectical tension with Kafka’s neurotic prose, as it gets articulated in the topic and trope of ‘walking.’
Given Kafka’s fear of travel, it should not be surprising that his short “The Sudden Walk” (c. 1912) would evince the same conflicts. But, as stated earlier, the stuckness evident in this piece also symbolizes the same stuckness that the individual faces in modern life:
When it looks as if you had made up your mind finally to stay at home for the evening, when you have put on your house jacket and sat down after supper with a light on the table to the piece of work or the game that usually precedes your going to bed, when the weather outside is unpleasant so that staying indoors seems natural, and when you have already been sitting quietly at the table for so long that your departure must occasion surprise to everyone, when besides, the stairs are in darkness and the front door locked, and in spite of all that you have started up in a sudden fit of restlessness, changed your jacket, abruptly dressed yourself for the street, explained that you must go out and with a few curt words of leave-taking actually gone out, banging the flat door more or less hastily according to the degree of displeasure you think you have left behind you, and when you find yourself once more in the street with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action, when you recognize with more than usual significance that your strength is greater than your need to accomplish effortlessly the swiftest of changes and to cope with it, when in this frame of mind you go striding down the long streets—then for that evening you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.
All this is still heightened if at such a late hour in the evening you look up a friend to see how he is getting on.
Kafka’s experience of walking is here presented in the image of near-total stuckness—the symptom of this is the narrator’s inability to even finish the sentence about walking until he has managed to detail all the concerns that might detain or derail him. In any case, it is a picture of walking saturated with the anxious concerns of bourgeois family life (e.g., the evening meal, the games, the weather, one’s restlessness and need to get away from one’s family). Kafka’s narrator is stuck in his sentence, stuck indoors, and stuck in modern life. When the narrator finally emerges, it is only to meet his friend (and see “how he is getting on”) who—for all we know—is equally as stuck.
Walser’s 1914 “A Little Ramble” could not be more different in style and tone:
I walked through the mountains today. The weather was damp, and the entire region was gray. But the road was soft and in places very clean. At first I had my coat on; soon, however, I pulled it off, folded it together, and laid it upon my arm. The walk on the wonderful road gave me more and ever more pleasure; first it went up and then descended again. The mountains were huge, they seemed to go around. The whole mountainous world appeared to me like an enormous theater. The road snuggled up splendidly to the mountainsides. Then I came down into a deep ravine, a river roared at my feet, a train rushed past me with magnificent white smoke. The road went through the ravine like a smooth white stream, and as I walked on, to me it was as if the narrow valley were bending and winding around itself. Gray clouds lay on the mountains as though that were their resting place. I met a young traveler with a rucksack on his back, who asked if I had seen two other young fellows. No, I said. Had I come here from very far? Yes, I said, and went farther on my way. Not a long time, and I saw and heard the two young wanderers pass by with music. A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white cliffs. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.
While Kafka’s narrative is burdened by interior problems and conflicts, Walser’s text brims with exteriority. The narrator “sees so much” and yet, in contrast to Kafka’s text, nothing happens—i.e., the narrative describes not agency (not even the neurotic agency of Kafka’s text) but rather receptivity. “A Little Ramble” is thus the textual equivalent of the photograph described earlier: an utterly passive undergoing.
There are, however, some hints as to what might be behind this apparent paean to the natural world. One might point first to the passage in which Walser notes that the mountainous world appeared to him as a dream. In Walser’s 1907 text “The Theater, A Dream,” Walser explains the German theater as providing a dreamlike escape for viewers: “Our theater is like a dream, and it has every reason to become even more like one. In Germany everything wants to be enveloped and enclosed, everything wants to have a roof . . . We’d rather step into a dear, dreamlike, strange building where we encounter our true breezes, our true nature.” While he goes on to note that this need for escape is not in itself problematic (only our shame over it is), it nonetheless raises the question as to what modern Germany is running away from. When Walser, in 1914, connects the mountain range with theater, he is implicitly suggesting that it is a dream. Could nature be an escape from social reality? This raises an interesting question about the final, epigrammic statement: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” What, in this story, counts as “normal” and what “out of the ordinary”? Is Walserian nature the normal setting in which we “see so much”? Or is it precisely the dream through which we escape from the “ordinary” of 1914 German history? Walser, characteristically leaves it open for interpretation. Yet, the indirect, fragmentary connection drawn between nature and theater suggests that the pleasant, receptive narrative is an escape from the realities of German politics and society. If it is a paean to nature, it is a hallucination in order to evade contact with modern life.