Thanks for the Underpants

Frieda Mermet was a working-class (laundress) divorcée who was friends with Robert Walser’s sister Lisa, a teacher. He wrote her the letters excerpted below between the fall of 1914 and the spring of 1916. He had just returned to Switzerland from Berlin, where he basically spent ten years drinking and partying his way from literary hopeful to persona non grata. “Robert,” W.G. Sebald writes, “retained his virginal innocence all his life. . . . For him, evidently, coming to an arrangement with a woman was an impossibility.” Given that Berlin was swarming with runaway milkmaids who would do it for a hot meal, maybe that’s a good thing.

When two people write to each other, it’s as if they were touching one another gently and cautiously

Frieda Mermet was a working-class (laundress) divorcée who was friends with Robert Walser’s sister Lisa, a teacher. He wrote her the letters excerpted below between the fall of 1914 and the spring of 1916. He had just returned to Switzerland from Berlin, where he basically spent ten years drinking and partying his way from literary hopeful to persona non grata. “Robert,” W.G. Sebald writes, “retained his virginal innocence all his life. . . . For him, evidently, coming to an arrangement with a woman was an impossibility.” Given that Berlin was swarming with runaway milkmaids who would do it for a hot meal, maybe that’s a good thing. As Walser remarked in a letter to Mrs. Mermet in December 1918, “Love is something beautiful and weird and surely life’s most worthwhile experience.” Louis Mermet sold these letters to the Carl Seelig Foundation for a lot of money.

—Nell Zink


Dear Mrs. Mermet,

. . . I think I would be nice if we could play tiddlywinks again, so that I might see your dear form again, and your dear face. Until then I remain, with the greatest respect and warm kisses greetings,

Robert Walser


Dear Mrs. Mermet,

. . . I, too, enjoy thinking back on our game of tiddlywinks. Sometime I’d like to play you for kisses. One kiss per point. Do we have a deal? . . .


Dear Mrs. Mermet,

I am obliged to thank you for your last kind letter, in which you described your room and its contents. Today I would like to ask how you are feeling and express my hopes that you and Louis are well. When you were here in Biel you had to work quite a bit, n’est-ce pas, and didn’t have much fun. At least we managed to take a nice walk, and then there was the view from the attic porthole of my new lodgings, when I had to the opportunity to lift and hold you for a short while. I would have liked to keep you that way for an hour, pressed so close to me. You were a welcome burden. Dare I hope that I will be given another opportunity? We didn’t have much time to talk, but one is sometimes slow to talk and especially hesitant with the nicest things one wants to say . . .


Dear Mrs. Mermet,

it is always a pleasure to ask how you and your dear boy are doing, and an even greater pleasure is to think that the two of you, whom I greatly value, are feeling well. You recalled the charming moment, dear Mrs. Mermet, when you looked out the tiny window as I held you up and admired your attractive back, a sight I would not have exchanged for the finest view in the world. I was happy that at least a moment’s lifting proved workable. Perhaps at our next opportunity something even more fine, charming, and beautiful can be arranged. What do you think?


Dear Mrs. Mermet,

May I, dear Mrs. Mermet, ask if you would have the kindness to do me a favor? I would like so very much to have a used pair of Louis’s little-boy underpants, that I might love, honor, and contemplate them. Perhaps you have a pair the young man has outgrown and could send them to me, which would give me great pleasure . . .


Dear Mrs. Mermet,

Yesterday Fanny [Walser’s sister] was here in Biel and we walked up to Leubringen and went to the same restaurant. There our hostess informed me that the lady I had been there with recently seemed to have forgotten her notebook, and handed it to me. I was very surprised to find inside it my letter to you, which I now return with the warmest regards. You and your crazy antics. How carelessly you treat the letters people write! She gave me quite a searching look, as though she found me extremely interesting. Don’t worry, it’s not that bad . . .


Dear Mrs. Mermet,

. . . Heartfelt thanks, dear Mrs. Mermet, for the affectionate letter and the enclosed underpants of your dear son Louis, which I enjoy very much, because they look so boyish, so childlike, with their two short little legs. They almost remind me of women’s underpants, which I should very much like to see on a certain dear person who has a cute little nose and is slender as a young and pretty fir tree. Many thanks also, dear Mrs. Mermet, for the socks, which my sister reports you very capably helped her darn. I can always use socks. . . .


Dear Mrs. Mermet,

. . . You wrote me, dear Mrs. Mermet, such charming words about your small, dear, darling little nose, which I would like to compare to a charming, sweet little bird. I’m fond of it, the dear little thing, and would happily let myself be transformed into the handkerchief with which you blow it. When one spends so much time alone sitting and thinking of people one is fond of, one has all sorts of clever and non-clever ideas. What’s Louis up to, the dear boy? Since I enjoy thinking of you, Mrs. Mermet, I can’t help thinking of one who has his origins in you and is the essence of your essential being.


I often think of you, and I had a dream about Louis. I was carrying him on my shoulders, as a horse would his beloved rider. I’d like to get down on all fours and allow him to ride on me and apply the spurs with his dear little legs. He would have a little riding crop in his hand and give me affectionate strokes of the whip. . . . There are men who become ill from impatience and a lack of self-discipline. I love repetition, and that’s healthy. Generally speaking I am long past the feverishness of youth. I’m happy enough when nothing goes wrong. Am I right? What do you think? How’s the weather in Bellelay? The parks here already have flowers. One feels spring coming in the air. I take a lot of pleasure in our correspondence. When two people write to each other, it’s as if they were touching one another gently and cautiously. Adieu, dear Mrs. Mermet . . .

These letters appear in the original German in: Robert Walser. Werke, Berner Ausgabe: Briefe 1897-1920, Band 1. Ed. Lucas Marco Gisi, Reto Sorg, Peter Stocker, Peter Utz. Suhrkamp, 2018.

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