Charlie Fox at Cabinet Magazine:
On the afternoon of Christmas Day 1956, in a snow-covered field on the outskirts of the small Swiss town of Herisau, some children and their dog discovered the body of a dead man, hand clutched tight to his stilled heart. It was the writer Robert Walser, who had died that day, aged seventy-eight, while out walking far from the mental institution where he had dwelled for the previous two decades. A photograph taken by his friend Carl Seelig shows the body at rest, left arm thrown out as in the style of a sleeper midway through a restless night, while two shadowy figures at the margins look on. The sorrow of the scene is rather gently assuaged by the odd fact that Walser’s hat, perhaps moved by a breeze, lies at a modest distance from his body, as if it has leapt off his head to cartoonishly express surprise at its owner’s death. A few distant trees squeeze into the top of the frame like awkward mourners paying their respects. The snow, even on the ground but for a few shaggy lumps close to his boots, appears at first to be nothing more than a dazzling absence, as if the dead Walser were floating on a white winter sky.
In his essay on Walser, William H. Gass takes the perspective of one of those marginal witnesses and studies the photograph as a peculiar abstraction: “I like to think the field he fell in was as smoothly white as writing paper. There his figure … could pretend to be a word—not a statement, not a query, not an exclamation—but a word, unassertive and nearly illegible, squeezed into smallness by a cramped hand.”6 Another photograph of the scene by Seelig taken from a different angle reveals the fateful trail of footprints—the only other marks in the snow. Examine them with a Gass-like slant and they become an ellipsis on this near-blank page, trailing away from a last, unfinished thought.