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Home | 2016 | September

Walking with Walser

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-09-04 17:00.

Yesterday evening, after beer o'clock and an additional gap of thirty years, I re-read Martin Walser's (1927-) essay Heimatkunde [1] (1968). How much I had missed in that first reading! I mustn't have been paying attention all those years ago – but then, most of my life has been spent not paying attention.

Since the penalty for inattention is having to concentrate harder, and the best way to understand a text is to translate it, it seemed to me to be the fitting penance to have to render at least a part of the essay in English. Now that Walser has my full attention let's see whether I can do justice to his writing. This is a translation of part four, which describes a walk from Wasserburg am Bodensee to Langenargen, two towns on the south-eastern shore of the Lake of Constance. [2]

The only thing you need to know before you start is that the walk is described through the eyes of a ten year-old (the date of the walk is 1937 and Walser was born in 1927). The grammar and syntax, too, is that of a youngster.

Martin Walser on the shore of the Lake of Constance, ©Frank Röth, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Martin Walser among the reeds on the shore of the Lake of Constance. Image ©Frank Röth, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

I presume that my growing interest in going for walks arises from the realisation that I am not going to be leaving this place so quickly. For me everything hangs from these walks. I set off without delay. Let's say across the marsh towards Langenargen. I am full of expectation. I can feel it in my legs. I am in pursuit of something. In summer and in winter. Unfortunately I only know vaguely what I am pursuing. And I walk around for a long time, letting myself with uncontrollable zeal register data like a weather station: the continually changing colours and distance of Säntis [3] , sometimes it appears to be made of almost colourless silk at the far side of a seemingly endless water surface, sometimes it is just a violet smudge a stone's throw away across a vertical wall of water. And where has the Schesaplana [4] got to, again? What are the Three Sisters [5] planning today? Why are the meadows suddenly so black? That heavy blanket of cloud under which you are walking stretches now all the way to the Grisons. There it stops and beyond it the sky is glowing, a bright Cinerama rectangle, a gold background for black-violet mountains. Now air pressure, air dryness, skin sensations, gurgling marsh at every step; sunken footsteps, which fill up immediately with black; a single cowslip; and an apparition: a girl, in a marsh-coloured, that is, a brown-gold-yellow-black-coloured folk costume trimmed with rabbit-fur, a little bit of boot showing, then the disruption of the walk, we walk towards each other, past each other, begin breathing again much later; the air descending from the Rhine valley, you can lean against it but it is not enough to fly, although the sound is similar; a switched-off organ in hectic flight; and all that together, colours, outlines, distance, air pressure… the thousand data are delivered to you as one moment – whether you want it or not – by that Good Friday 19…, let's say thirty-seven, the single Protestant had protested that the village band should exchange their blue uniforms for the uniforms of the Naval SA [6] (always these Protestants!); the Geography teacher wanted to interest us in the ice age; this Föhn [7] would have ended the ice age; and the birch needed c. 14,000 years to get from here to south Sweden; the Föhn usually comes from the Rhine valley; now it interests me: a three-way rift-valley on the edge of the Alps, within it the ice, which scraped the hollow out that is now the Obersee [8] , rose to a thousand metres high, pushed several tongues across the land and left us behind the herds of hills that are so orderly that at Whitsun you can see again the glacial tongues in the giant waves of white blossom. The lowlands have been wet ever since. Every little stream is busy. It is Whitsun. The Celts have been long under the earth. They were taught a new style of burial by the people from the north. Few Celts survived that demonstration. Even the ceramic patterns of those Celts had become confused and were supposed to have been sorted out by the migrants from the north. That's history. [9] A northern people makes immense exertions in war and migration in order to spread a new style of burial. It is Whitsun. These people from the north have come to be called Alemanni or Germans. Christian Celts are popular. Why did they come here from Ireland? In Constance they were called Scots. An entire colony of such spiritual Gastarbeiter [10] settled for a long time. Puzzling. Perhaps the Alemanni had not buried all the Celts in the new style. Perhaps there were still a few types that seemed familiar to the Irish. A Celtic underground under Christian-Germanic rulers. It doesn't matter. We became Christians. On Good Friday 1937 I passed by the costumed girl underneath a dark grey cloud blanket that reached into the next country, over heavy and gurgling ground that filled every footprint with black water; the costumed girl had all the colours of the marsh. Her hair, another marsh colour. The rabbit-fur trimming another marsh colour. At Whitsun, when the drumlins of the ice age are flowering, when the general humming encourages speaking, I did not meet again the costumed girl. Now, for that reason I will go walking. Between ice age, Good Friday and Whitsun. On these heavy, attractive paths. Apparently I am interested. In Heimatkunde.


  1. ^ There is no simple translation of Heimatkunde. It is a subject taught in junior school that encompasses the history, geography, flora and fauna of the locality.
  2. ^ Walser was born and spent his childhood in Wasserburg am Bodensee. Langenargen is about five kilometres away [map]. At the time of writing he remains, even in great old age, a passionate walker, preferably in the company of his dog.
  3. ^ Säntis is a prominently visible mountain (alt. 2,500 m) in north-east Switzerland.
  4. ^ Schesaplana [Scesaplana] is a mountain in the eastern Alps (alt. 2,900 m)
  5. ^ The Three Sisters are a chain of three peaks that forms the border between Feldkirch in Austria and Liechtenstein (alt. 2,000 m).
  6. ^ The SA, the Sturmabteilung were the street fighters ('brown shirts') who initially helped the Nazis to power. Once power had been attained they lost most of their importance and became a kind of territorial army. They had a naval section, who wore navy-blue uniforms. Walser's point here is that there were Nazi sympathisers everywhere. Even the most innocent occupation such as the village band had to be brought within the scope of National Socialist culture.
  7. ^ The Föhn is a wind that is felt on the northern side of the alps when the wind blows from the south. It is associated with intense rainfall on the southern side and a warm, very dry and often stormy wind on the northern side. The cloud formation described by Walser is typical of Föhn conditions. Sensitive souls in these regions consider the catalogue of ailments attributed to the wind to be a kind of near-death experience. Walser is quite accurate about the role of the Föhn in melting snow. Anyone who has lived in the mountains will have experienced a week of blazing sun that has made hardly any difference to the snow cover, whereas one or two days of Föhn can sweep it all away.
  8. ^ Confusingly, the Obersee 'Upper Lake' is the name for the large southern expanse of the Lake of Constance, i.e. the 'bottom end' of the lake from a simple person's map perspective. The clever locals, however, have noticed that the Rhine enters at the bottom right and exits at the top left, which means that in this sense, the bottom really is the top. Clear?
  9. ^ That's history, that is, the history that was taught in schools during the time of National Socialism. Hence the satirical remarks about the Germanic hordes from the north, the German race so beloved of the Nazi theoreticians, teaching the Celts whom they overran new ways of being buried. The allusion to the influx of Irish monks escaping the marauding Vikings (a.k.a NS Nordic heroes) around the 8th century and settling in the monasteries of continental Europe, bringing with them the knowledge and manuscripts that allowed culture to survive the Dark Ages – well, for the Nazi worldview, that is a bit of blot on the cultural landscape.
  10. ^ The word Gastarbeiter 'guest worker', which designated the temporary import of labour by German industry from the poorer countries of Europe and particularly the ability to rapidly deport surplus labour back to poverty, has fallen out of favour since the EU established itself in Europe. Under that regime the monks of Ireland could be considered to be 'spiritual guest workers'. In the Dark Ages and before, Scotland contained 'Picts' and Ireland contained 'Scots'.

If you can read German, why put up with my rubbish?

Ich vermute, mein zunehmendes Interesse an Spaziergängen hängt zusammen mit der Erfahrung, daß ich von hier nicht mehr so rasch wegkomme. Es kommt mir bei diesen Spaziergängen auf alles an. Ich gehe immer rasch los. Sagen wir in ein Ried, auf Langenargen zu. Ich erwarte etwas. Das spürt man in den Beinen. Ich bin hinter etwas her. Im Sommer und im Winter. Leider weiß ich nur ganz ungefähr, hinter was ich her bin. Und laufe doch schon länger herum und gestatte, daß in mir von einem Eifer, für den ich nichts kann, Daten registriert werden wie in einer Weltwetterstation: die andauernd wechselnden Farben und Entfernungen des Säntis, mal ist er aus fast farbloser Seide und jenseits einer schier endlosen Wasserfläche, mal in Wurfweite ein violetter Patzen auf einer grünen Wassersteilwand. Und wo schiebt sich jetzt die Scesaplana schon wieder hin? Was haben die Drei Schwestern heute vor? Warum werden die Weiden plötzlich so schwarz? Das schwere Wolkenbrett, unter dem du gehst, reicht jetzt bis Graubünden. Dort bricht es ab. Dort glüht der Himmel, ein gleißendes Cineramarechteck, Goldgrund für schwarzviolettes Gebirge. Jetzt natürlich noch Luftdruck, Lufttrockenheit, Hautgefühl, glucksendes Moor bei jedem Schritt; Fußstapfen, die sich sofort schwarz füllen; eine einzige Schlüsselblume; und eine Erscheinung, ein Mädchen wohl, in riedfarbenem, also braungoldgelbschwarzem Kostüm mit Hasenpelzbesatz, bitte noch etwas Stiefel, dann die Störung der Geh-Arten, man geht ja aufeinander zu, aneinander vorbei, atmet erst viel später wieder; aus dem Rheintal die fallende Luft, man kann sich hineinlehnen, zum Fliegen reicht’s nicht, aber das Geräusch ist ähnlich; eine ausgeschaltete Orgel in rasendem Flug: und das alles zusammen, Farben, Umris-senheit, Entfernungen, Luftdruck..., alle tausend Daten als ein Moment, liefern dir, ohne daß du was dafür kannst, den Karfreitag 19.., sagen wir siebenunddreißig, der einzige Evangelische hatte dagegen protestiert, daß die Dorfmusik ihre blauen Uniformen vertauschen sollte gegen die Uniformen der Marine-SA (immer diese Evangelischen!); der Erdkundelehrer wollte uns für die Eiszeit interessieren; dieser Föhn hätte die Eiszeit beendet; und zirka 14000 Jahre brauchte die Birke von hier nach Südschweden; aus dem Rheintal kommt also das meiste; jetzt interessiert es mich: ein dreifacher Grabenbruch am Alpenrand, dahinein dann das Eis, das schabt die Kuhle aus für den Obersee und türmt sich 1000 Meter hoch, schiebt sich in mehreren Zungen ins Land und läßt uns dann die Hügelherden so schön geordnet zurück, daß du an Pfingsten die Gletscherzungen in einem Riesenfächer aus weißen Blüten wiedersiehst. Die Niederungen sind seit damals noch naß. Die kleinsten Bäche haben zu tun. Es ist Pfingsten. Die Kelten längst unterm Boden. Ihnen wurde von den Nordischen eine neue Begräbnisart beigebracht. Deren Demonstration haben die wenigsten Kelten überlebt. Auch die bei hiesigen Kelten in Verwirrung geratenen Keramikmuster seien von den nordischen Zuwanderern wieder in Ordnung gebracht worden. Das ist Geschichte. Ein nordisches Volk gibt sich ungeheure Kriegs- und Wandermühe, um eine neue Begräbnisart zu verbreiten. Es ist Pfingsten. Die aus dem Norden heißen längst Alemannen oder Deutsche. Christliche Kelten sind hoch im Kurs. Warum kommen die aus Irland bis hierher? In Konstanz werden sie Schotten genannt. Eine ganze Kolonie solch geistlicher Gastarbeiter igelt sich dort für lange ein. Komisch. Vielleicht hatten die Alemannen doch nicht alle Kelten nach neuer Art begraben. Vielleicht waren da noch Muster, die den Iren bekannt vorkamen. Ein keltischer Untergrund unter christlichgermanischer Herrschaft. Egal. Wir sind christlich geworden. Ich bin am Karfreitag 1937 an dem Kostüm vorbeigegangen unter einem dunkelgrauen, bis ins Ausland reichenden Wolkenbrett, auf schwerem und glucksendem Boden, der jeden Fußstapfen mit schwarzem Wasser füllte; das Kostüm ließ von allen Farben des Rieds keine einzige aus. Ihre Haare, eine Riedfarbe mehr. Der Hasenpelzbesatz, eine weitere Riedfarbe. An Pfingsten, als die Eiszeitdrumlins blühten, als das allgemeine Gesumme zum Sprechen angeregt hätte, bin ich dem Kostüm nicht mehr begegnet. Jetzt gehe ich dafür spazieren. Zwischen Eiszeit, Karfreitag und Pfingsten. Auf diesen schweren, anziehenden Wegen. Offenbar bin ich interessiert. An Heimatkunde.

Martin Walser, Heimatkunde: Aufsätze und Reden, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1968, p 42-45