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Lee Parpart

Swiss-born Robert Walser enjoyed some success as a writer in the 1920s, but spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital, where he once told a visitor, “I’m not here to write; I’m here to be mad.”

The hereafter is a place like any other. Buildings, trees, grassy hills. Beyond that, a moor, knotted with wild heather, where red grouse and rabbits hide in the thickets and feed their young. In one corner of the grounds, it is always snowing.

Inside the heather blossoms, thrips sometimes launch themselves off the stamens like tiny astronauts cantilevering into space. In years when heavy rain discourages bees and other flying insects from pollinating the heather, the thrips carry the pollen from blossom to blossom.

Robert Walser died and went there, and that was that. No warning. No appeal. Just a fall into a snow bank and then a shimmering sensation, like being taken apart and put back together again, cell by cell. And then a gaggle of fans greeting him as he materialized into his new home.

The welcoming committee brought him to his room, at the far end of a low concrete building in the Brutalist style. They had set him up with a desk and an eternity’s worth of pencils. A sign over the desk read, in tiny, abbreviated letters, the Pncil Zne.

The first six pencils gleamed from inside a used marmalade jar. Their yellow bodies smooth and un-chewed. Their lead tips glistening next to a sharpener screwed to the wall.

He glanced at the set up, and turned to the greeters. Six pairs of eyes, too full of hope.

He cleared his throat.

“I’m not here to write; I’m here to be dead.”

The sense of disappointment was unmistakable. Some of the greeters began to cry. Everyone had been looking forward to stories by one of their kind: escapees from fables, asylum dwellers, all of the denizens of a marginal heaven.

Walser apologized, let out a conspicuous yawn, and saw them out.

He took a few eons off. He laid about, caught up on sleep, and walked the grounds. Twice, he visited the snowy zone and stood next to a replica of the snowbank where he had expired.

The hollow in the snow was the exact shape of the last angel he’d made when he fell to the ground near the sanitorium in Herisau. He remembered it now: Christmas Day, 1956. One arm splayed across his chest, the other flung out towards the asylum.

He looked down at the snow. His one-armed angel had been preserved like a museum exhibit. Or a fossil.

Was this what it was like to become posthumously famous? He couldn’t remember anything from his life that might explain the level of interest being taken in his work here in the ante-heaven. Yes, he’d had a good run during the ’20s, but the rest was indistinct and unremarkable, as far as he could recall.

Yet here in the afterlife, he seemed to be a cult figure.

Days after his first visit to the snow bank, a newspaper clipping appeared on a bulletin board outside his room. The police had shown a photograph of his corpse to the press, and several European papers had happily printed it. Robert Walser Dies on Snowbank Outside Asylum. They had written his name, without explanation, as though everyone knew who he was. Now, half a century later, there was something called the internet. From what he could tell, this meant that the photograph of his body would be available for anyone to view until the end of time. A copy of his snow angel in every household.

The next time he visited the snowbank, it was with the intention of collecting information for an official complaint. He gathered his hat and coat and walked for miles, away from the buildings, past the moors, into the snowy region. He walked so far that even the cool air couldn’t stop the little rivulets of sweat from rolling down the concavity of his chest.

He arrived at the site to find a group of visitors crowded around the snowbank. They all wore long wool coats similar to the one he’d taken off and draped over one arm during the walk over.

Everyone was looking down at a young man who was lying on his back in the snow. The youth was squirming in the frozen cavity, trying to fit his ample frame into the snow angel. Once he wedged his lower half into the shape, he crossed one arm over his chest and flung the other out towards the only building for miles. The asylum. Then he lifted his head and looked at the group.

“A little more to the left,” his friend volunteered.

“You should have your eyes closed,” another offered.

The man on the ground writhed a little more as he tried to work with this advice.

The realization dawned on Robert slowly, like cold seeping through a glove. This was a kind of workshop. These people, who had somehow gained admission to the same ante-heaven where he was a permanent resident, were taking turns pretending to be his corpse.

As he was pondering this, one of the spectators swung his head around and stared.

“It’s him!” the fan cried, with a gloved hand pointing at Robert. Everyone turned and stared.

Someone said Robert’s name, and the young man who had been lying in the snow jumped to his feet.

Robert turned and began hurrying away.

His fans hurried after him. They pulled pencils and notebooks out of their jackets and called to him for advice on tone, characterization, and plot. He picked up his pace until he was running, his suit jacket flapping behind him and his crumpled tie swung over his shoulder. He imagined their hands and teeth on him, tearing at his flesh. True, it was no longer flesh, per se, but he had not tested the limits of his new corporeality to find out whether and how it could be undermined, or what pain felt like in this place, and he had no intention of finding out now.

He ran as fast as an old man in the afterlife can go, until the voices began to fade and the sky began to darken. The snow gave way to a misty rain as he neared the final expanse of heather just beyond the building where he lived. When he finally looked behind him, no one was there, and he was able to lope the rest of the way home. He arrived sweaty, furious, and determined to take action, but unsure how.

In the weeks after the incident, his moods were erratic. He paced his ten-foot-square room and scanned the footwear outside his transom window for signs of his harassers. When a crocus bloomed just beyond the glass, he cranked open the window and breathed in its scent. He laughed and he cried in quick succession, without knowing why.

He had no idea who to complain to, or what would come of any such process. Finally he reached out to one of the members of the welcoming committee. She had always seemed kinder and less cloying than the others, and had long ago given up on getting him to read her short stories. With her help, he secured an address for the committee in charge of literary reputations and monuments. Because he had vowed not to write in the ante-heaven, it took several visits to their office to get an appointment. Eventually he appeared before the committee in person, on a date given to him by the secretary.

He arrived in a simple wool suit, like the one he’d worn nearly every day of his life. On his way up a massive stone staircase to the stately building that housed the committee’s headquarters, he was intercepted by a middle-aged man in a three-piece suit. The man seemed to be vibrating with emotion as he thrust a book and a pen at Robert’s midsection.

“Excuse me, Mr. Walser? May I have your autograph?”

The writer paused and looked at the man sadly before mumbling an apology and moving on. Once inside the building’s grand front entrance, he walked down a long hall full of the echoes of his own leather-soled shoes, and passing through a set of tall copper doors. High above him, in an alcove at the top of the enormous hall, eight men and one woman perched on plush chairs. The committee members were so far away that everyone needed to shout to be heard.

To one side of the group stood a statue of a woman in Grecian-style robes. In one hand, she held a set of scales. In the other, she brandished a small sword, about the size of a letter opener. Her lips were pursed and her eyes were full of bored contempt, as though she had just been told a terrible joke. Her shoulders were raised in a shrug.

“Dear sirs, and madam,” the writer shouted, nodding to the woman, who nodded back. She wore a large aubergine hat, of the kind you might see at a horse race. “I am here to request that you remove the exhibit on the snowbank near the asylum, on the grounds that—”

He was interrupted by the sharp smack of a gavel hitting its wood block twice. Robert looked for the sound and saw that it came from an old man in a centre seat. He was the only one wearing long robes and a grey wig. He banged the gavel again before speaking.

“Are you referring to the memorial that was erected on December 26, 1956, in honour of the Swiss-born writer, Robert Walser?”

“Yes,” the writer began, then added, “That’s me. I am Robert Walser, and I—”

Thwack. Down came the gavel.

“An exhibit is found in a museum,” the chairman said. “This is a memorial, and a very respectful and carefully planned memorial at that.”

“Very well,” Robert said. “I would like to petition the committee to have the … memorial removed. Permanently.”

All nine committee members stared at him blankly. After a long silence, Robert began to speak.

“The memorial is attracting vandals, and is calling attention to my presence here in the afterlife.” He paused, and added, “I would like to enjoy being dead in peace.”

They interviewed him for an hour. They needed reasons. Didn’t he like the memorial? Had they got some detail wrong? Was the arc of his left arm a few degrees off? They had commissioned the piece for no reason other than to honour him and expand his fame. Two artists had worked fastidiously to recreate the snow angel in all its detail. It had taken months to capture the faint tinge of mauve from the setting sun and the precise weight, moisture level and surface crust of the snow, as they were on the day he died. Moreover, the snow angel was a popular destination for readers of his stories and novels. Would he really wish to deny them the opportunity to visit his final resting spot? Wouldn’t this, in a sense, be an attack on all of literature, or at the very least, a violation of the implied contract between an author and his or her readers? Was an author not indebted to his readers for his very existence? They spent some time on this last idea, chasing the logic of their own argument into all the little corners where they felt it needed further light.

When they were satisfied that they had proven their point, the woman in the hat raised a gloved finger to make one final argument. Given that an author owes a debt to his readers, had he not compounded that debt and risked insulting the committee and his readers by refusing to take up the prestigious position that had been offered to him in this place?

As he listened, Robert sank into a depressed silence. It was all too much. He considered turning and leaving, but he sensed the big sweeping tentacles of justice swinging back and forth from on high, and he couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t be locked up for impertinence. Moreover, he wanted to make his case. So he stayed, and tried again to explain, without giving offence.

The very notion of a memorial, he told them, was ill-suited to the body of work he had left behind when he died. It ran counter to his sympathies, which were all in the direction of smallness.

“I worked hard to cultivate my own insignificance,” he said, “and I was mostly successful in that endeavour while I was alive. Yes, I published novels and short stories, but my most natural form was the feuillette, a small, deliberately meandering vignette with no clear beginning or end, and little in the way of development. How could someone whose preferred form was the feuillette be anything but blissfully, enduringly inconsequential?”

He couldn’t be sure they were listening, but he pressed on. “Regarding the offer of a writer-in-residence position, I never asked for the position, and until I arrived here, I didn’t know it existed. I am not here to write, or to teach. I am here to be dead.”

In the end, the committee members waved him off to a bleak little room at the back to the building. There he met a woman who introduced herself as the group’s executive assistant. With just enough evident compassion to make the process tolerable, she guided him through the steps required to lodge a formal petition to have the exhibit removed. She helped him write out his statement and fill in the rest of the form, since he was now firmly on strike and opposed to writing even his own name. The petition, written in the assistant’s large, looping cursive, was entered into the record.

Many months went by, then years, then a decade or two. It was hard to tell how time worked in this place. Robert waited anxiously at first. Later he became angry. Finally he learned to meditate, and watched the last of his hope float away during a tantric session on forgiveness. He considered the possibility that the whole meeting had been a charade, and that his petition had disappeared into the maw of bureaucracy.

A century or two later, the snow angel remained in place. Thanks to the fastidiousness of a new assistant to the committee on literary reputations and monuments, he did receive one update during that long stretch of waiting. It was a hand-written note, this time in small, neat print, informing him that his case was still under review, and that he could expect to hear back before the end of time.

Every decade or so, while this was going on, a group of ratty angels approached him for writing advice. The young woman who had helped Robert connect with the committee tried to talk them out of it, but they persisted.

They cloaked their requests in offers to help create a writing community that might allow for free-wheeling exchanges of drafts and feedback. These visitors were mainly the ghosts of people who had wanted to write, who had done a little writing here and there, but who had been distracted by having to make a living. Quite a few of them had died while waiting for agents or publishers to get back to them about their manuscripts. They had come to this place, and even though they were unmistakably dead, they were still as full of the urge to write, to have written, and to be published and read, as they had been while they were alive.

These would-be acolytes sat at his feet, but he refused to be their Socrates. They wanted to beg and cajole him to take up his position — his responsibilities — in the afterlife. Why wouldn’t he teach them what he knew? How could he justify coming to this place and refusing to help them express themselves in sparer, funnier, and more beautiful prose?

He proffered no opening, and a few of them were just self-aware enough to eventually become ashamed of their own desires. So they gave up, and although they continued to visit him, they mostly just drank tea with him, played cards, and left his room, hiding their disappointment.

They say he did write, eventually—in a barely legible secret code, in tiny letters on the walls of his room, next to some paw prints left by a mouse. Some say he left behind a couple of tiny novels, written in a tiny hand, using letters no bigger than the thrips that dwell inside the heather just beyond his room.

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1 Comment

Joseph Sciuto
Joseph Sciuto
Aug 14, 2023

What a wonderful piece of writing by Ms. Parpart. Beautifully structured, reminiscing of Hemingway, and asking that all important question: What is a writer's responsibility to his fans and admires?

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