The Robber by Robert Walser
Review by S. D. Stewart
With his slim novel The Robber, Robert Walser reached the pinnacle of his experiments in portraying a certain type of character in his fiction. To assign this type a single defining term, such as flâneur, dreamer, drifter, or perhaps lost soul, reduces the scale of Walser’s literary accomplishments. For this character, fine-tuned over the course of four novels (those extant of the author’s self-reported nine completed) and countless of his “little prose pieces,” is far too complex and ever-changing to fit within the narrow limits of a label.
Walser utilizes all of his prodigious writerly talents in telling the Robber’s tale, which he accomplishes more by writing around the story than through it. As translator Susan Bernofsky notes in her introduction, the book “is in some sense a story about the impossibility of its own telling.” It doesn’t help that the narrator has a penchant for straying off track, frequently commenting on the text itself, as he does here:
“These detours I’m making serve the end of filling time, for I really must pull off a book of considerable length, otherwise I’ll be even more deeply despised than I am now. Things can’t possibly go on like this. Local men of the world call me a simpleton because novels don’t tumble out of my pockets.”
In fact, The Robber, while written in 1925, was not published until 1972, well after Walser’s death. He had not even produced a clean copy of the manuscript for submission to a publisher. While he’d written prolifically during the 1920s, he’d found it increasingly difficult to get published. He’d also focused more on writing his short prose pieces, though at a time when the novel was still very much the measure of success by which a writer’s reputation was established (not that this has changed much even today). Soon after he wrote The Robber he would abandon publication altogether, though still continue with his writing, presumably for personal pleasure alone. Still, it’s hard not to think that Walser felt some bitterness over the trouble he encountered with publication, especially when The Robber includes passages such as this:
“Literary authors were serving here and there as mountaineering guides or crimping curls as hairdressers’ assistants, making the best they could of the necessity of expanding their spheres of employment.”
The basic premise of the book concerns the separation of the Robber from his beloved Edith. Though never explained in plain terms, it seems that at one point in the past Edith requested a sum of 100 francs from the Robber and he refused, after which she left him and took up with another man, referred to by both the narrator and the Robber only as “the mediocrity.” The tale of these two ill-fated lovers is told in serpentine prose, while also incorporating much of the Robber’s personal history (including other women in his life, namely Wanda and his landlady Fräulein Selma), by a shifty narrator who may or may not in fact be the Robber himself (they are both writers and, based on hints in the text, the Robber is presumably so named because he has “robbed” Edith of her story in order to write the book). Throughout the text, Edith is portrayed by both the narrator and the Robber in less-than-flattering terms as a shallow, vacuous woman concerned only with material things and preserving her own image. Late in the novel, when she is encouraged to kiss the Robber as he lies in the hospital, she does so, but followed by the complaint, “And he never bought me that fur, either. He’s the wickedest man on the whole planet.” The seeming contradiction between this negative portrayal of Edith and the Robber’s devotion to her drives the novel in bizarre directions and contributes to the complex characterization of the Robber.
The book is organized in a series of two- to three-page sections. Through quotes from the Robber and observations of the narrator, a portrait of this elusive individual emerges. He feels he is often misjudged: “I’m full of equanimity, which is often confused with apathy, lack of interest.” He considers that “one should never look wistful, hungry for life, in any way desirous” for “it makes a bad impression” and that “when people appear to lack something, others involuntarily deprive them further and have no wish to assist them.” However, later on, his own face is described by the narrator as displaying “a careworn quality such as one finds in the countenance of persons who long for inner peace, which they appear to lack, and for the attainment of which they secretly struggle at all day—and nighttime hours.” This dissatisfaction with his nature, the feeling one way about how one should be in contrast to the actual being of the opposite way, follows the Robber throughout the book. He senses a contradiction in himself, which likely contributes to what he perceives as misinterpretations of his character. At one point he seeks the advice of a medical doctor, confessing that he has wondered before if he is a girl because, in his words, “I’ve noticed an utter absence of aggressions and acquisitive greed smoldering, seething, or detonating within my person” while, at the same time, “I like to polish shoes and find household tasks amusing.” However, he concedes to the doctor his understanding that he is not actually a girl, but instead has a childish side, one which “wants desperately not to be slighted, but now and then it longs all the same for a little schoolmasterish treatment.” In fact, there are multiple references in the text to the Robber taking an enjoyment in being someone’s servant, to being subservient to another. The doctor, upon hearing all of this, instead of pronouncing a daunting diagnosis, advises the Robber, “Let yourself remain as you are, go on living the way you live. You seem to know yourself, and to have come to terms with yourself, exceedingly well.”
With this reaction from the doctor, a perceived “authority” in society, the Robber’s behavior appears to be justified. Much of the novel, in fact, can be interpreted as an elaborate justification for the existence of people like the Robber. In the final section, the narrator declares, “Let us see to it that ponderers, thinkers, feelers survive in our midst.” Surely the Robber fits in such a group. Yet the narrator, in this same section and elsewhere, strives to distance himself from the Robber, singling out certain, in his eyes, particularly egregious examples of the Robber’s inappropriate behavior and claiming that he would never do such things, at one point exclaiming “Down with you, Robber!” But like the Robber himself, the narrator also fails to remain consistent in his attitude, later proclaiming, “We think of him both as universal nonchalance and the conscience of all mankind.” Conceding the “illogical” nature of his conclusion, he ends the book by stating his belief that the Robber should “be found agreeable and that from now on he be recognized and greeted.”
It is this maddeningly elusive nature of both the Robber and the narrator that ultimately makes the book so interesting. The gentle criticism that the narrator continuously doles out before quickly counteracting with measured praise suggests reluctance on his part to fully condemn the Robber. It is a curious beacon composed of sympathy and judgment, slowly rotating, projecting its conflicted message both internally and externally. The question remains whether the two characters are the same person, and that this fact is the source of the continuous contradiction within them both. One hint comes when the narrator states that the two are writing the book together: “Today the Robber is ghostly pale from all his writing, for you can imagine how valiantly he’s been assisting me in the composing of this book.”
As previously noted, the Robber’s obsession with Edith is also characterized by this constant split between praise and condemnation. Though he continues to the very end in placing Edith on a pedestal, he also ruthlessly judges her, most notably in his public lecture near the end of the book, which is attended by “almost exclusively girls,” and at which both Edith and Wanda, as well as the “well-known benefactress” Frau von Hochberg, are present. Among other attacks on Edith’s character, he claims “she feels nothing,” that “there’s no earnestness in her,” and that “she knows how spineless she is.” Earlier he states, “I always considered her to be perhaps not quite sufficiently intelligent.” Ultimately, from his own words, it seems that the Robber’s infatuation with Edith is based chiefly on her physical appearance, while he all but despises the type of person he believes her to be. It’s an old and well-known story. How many romantic crushes throughout history have culminated in this outcome? One builds up a person in one’s mind based solely on appearance, only to find that person is not at all compatible with one’s own nature.
There are no easy conclusions, if any at all, to be drawn from The Robber. The closest Walser comes to hinting at a meaning to the book comes in this question that Frau von Hochberg asks herself toward the end, after having ushered Edith to the Robber’s bedside at the hospital:
“Is it our calling to understand each other, or are we not, rather, called upon to misjudge one another, to prevent there being a surfeit of happiness and to ensure that happiness continues to be valued, and that these circumstances result in novels, which could not possibly exist if we all knew each other for what we are?”
With their constantly shape-shifting characters, genial yet somewhat aloof and tinged with a dark loneliness, Robert Walser’s novels certainly could not have existed without these circumstances that Frau von Hochberg describes. And The Robber underlines this truth the boldest of all his novels.