How to disappear completely


Ben Lerner on Robert Walser‘s disappearing acts.

How can a writer refuse even the power of refusal, preserve his freedom while falling all over himself to give it away? Maybe the answer has to do with how Walser’s singular sentences themselves “step aside”: one of the most notable effects of his prose is how it seems to evaporate as you read. Walter Benjamin said of Walser’s “garlands of language” that “each sentence has the sole purpose of rendering the previous one forgotten.” This is not to say there aren’t depths of meaning and memorable passages, but Walser’s genius often involves a kind of disappearing act. W. G. Sebald has remarked that Walser’s writing “has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events and things of which it spoke…Everything written in these incomparable books has—as their author might himself have said—a tendency to vanish into thin air.” The content of Walser’s sentences can vanish, I think, because Walser is often less concerned with recording the finished thought than with capturing the movement of a mind in the act of thinking; it’s the motion that stays with you, not a stable set of meanings.