Walser, Robert 1878-1956
Swiss novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet.
Walser is considered one of the most important Swiss authors to have written in German. His novels and short stories portray people such as clerks and servants, who are in socially subordinate positions. Walser's work praises the simplicity of these figures and advocates a rejection of intellectual analysis in favor of a more spontaneous way of life. Franz Kafka was known to have admired Walser's stories, and a great deal of critical attention has been devoted to similarities between the works of the two writers. However, while Walser's use of the fantastic is certainly similar to that of Kafka's, critics have found Walser's playfulness and gentle irony to be quite different from Kafka's dark intensity.
Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland, the seventh of eight children. He was largely self-educated, having left school at fourteen to become an apprentice bank clerk. While still an adolescent, he held odd jobs in numerous cities, but his literary career began in 1898 when several of his poems were published in the Bern newspaper Der Bund. Shortly thereafter he began writing his first short prose pieces, many of which featured clerks as underdog characters. It is these short works that are believed by some critics to have been an influence on the early works of Kafka, who was familiar with Walser's stories due to their publication in German newspapers and literary journals. Walser's first collection of stories, Fritz Kochers Aufsatze, appeared in 1904 with illustrations by Walser's brother Karl, who was to become one of the outstanding stage designers and book illustrators of his era. From 1905 to 1913 Walser lived with Karl in Berlin, publishing three highly autobiographical novels and numerous stories and holding a series of menial jobs; he typically held a position only long enough to finance another period of writing. Perhaps the most important experience of these years was a period spent in a trade school for servants in preparation for a career as a butler, an episode that provided the basis for his novel Jakob von Gunten. Walser returned to Switzerland in 1913. During his years in Switzerland, he was quite impoverished and lived for many years in an unheated attic garret. When not writing, Walser spent his time wandering through the Swiss countryside. A tireless walker, he covered many miles everyday, and his descriptions of these walks became a recurrent motif in his stories and poems. Throughout his life Walser wrote prolifically—over a thousand prose pieces and poems by some estimates—and published in numerous newspapers and magazines. Walser's work was generally neglected by the reading public, however, although it was appreciated by such writers as Robert Musil and Christian Morgenstern. Walser was quite sensitive to criticism and once destroyed two novels after receiving a negative assessment of his work; it is also believed that two other novels were either lost or destroyed. After he attempted suicide in the late 1920s, he was persuaded to enter a psychiatric clinic, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He continued to write until his transfer to a sanatorium in Herisau in 1933, where he claimed he had no right to set himself apart from his fellow patients by continuing to pursue a literary career, saying, "I am not here to write, but to be mad." According to his friend and editor Carl Seelig, he remained energetic and articulate throughout his last years, taking long walks and engaging in informed and outspoken conversation. Walser died on a solitary walk on Christmas day, 1956.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The most discussed element of Walser's work is his prose style and what it suggests about his vision of life. His style is characterized by an avowed intent "to dance with words," an effect he achieved through musical patterns of sound and rhythm and unusual syntactical constructions. Characterized by fanciful descriptions and pervasive irony, Walser's novels and stories are often described as high-spirited parodies and are praised for their "unliterary," spontaneous quality. The minimalist structures of Walser's fictions grow naturally from their prose style: his stories are typically brief and impressionistic, concerned with a single incident or emotion and heavily dependent upon conveying physical reality rather than intellectual concepts. Walser's emphasis on description of tangible objects and the absolute subjectivity of his narrative mirrors his belief that, while there may indeed be meaning and cohesion to life, it is beyond the understanding of any one person. The individual must, of necessity, view life as nothing but a series of contiguous moments. For this reason, Walser portrayed the temporary nature of all conclusions and particularly rejected the right of any individual to form judgments of others. Behind this position, critics observe a contempt for the pretensions and judgement of society and conclude that it was Walser's ambition, as demonstrated in his fiction, to keep a self-conscious, non-committal distance from everyday reality and cultivate an acceptance of all things. Accordingly, the narrators of Walser's stories develop toward depersonalization, renouncing self and ambition to submit to the indifference of life. As a consequence, his works are dominated by introspection and descriptions of seemingly insignificant aspects of the world around him. Notable in this regard is "The Walk," one of Walser's best-known stories and one of the large number of his works concerned with observations made during his journeys through the countryside. In this story the narrator's depictions of his surroundings are interspersed with his impressions of people he meets and with several encounters that are more hallucinatory then real. Critics view this not as an actual walk through the physical world, but a journey thorough memory and imagination, and consider it a perfect encapsulation of Walser's vision of the episodic nature of life. Given his philosophical position, it is not unusual that Walser's stories are largely autobiographical.
During his life Walser's works were generally scorned as trivial, despite praise by such prominent figures as Hermann Hesse, Musil, and Morgenstern. The little serious attention he did receive was often due to his influence on Kafka. Today, critical interest in Walser's writing is growing rapidly, and he is considered one of Switzerland's major authors, fulfilling the prediction of Max Brod that "the future will see Walser as a true literary representative of our age."
Fritz Kochers Aufsatze 1904
Der Spaziergang (short story) 1917
Die Rose 1925
Grosse Kleine Welt 1937
The Walk, and Other Stories 1957
Selected Stories 1982
Other Major Works
Geschwister Tanner (novel) 1907
Der Gehulfe (novel) 1908
Gedichte (poetry) 1909
Jakob von Guten: Ein Tagebuch (novel) 1909
Aufsatze (essays) 1913
Unbekannte Gedichte (poetry) 1958
Das Gesamtwerk. 12 vols. (novels, short stories, poetry, dramas, and essays) 1966-78
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SOURCE: "A Poet Beyond the Pale: Some Notes on the Shorter Works of Robert Walser," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, June, 1963, pp. 181-90.
[Avery is a professor of German who has written several works on German literature, including Inquiry and Testament: A Study of the Novels and Short Prose of Robert Walser. In the following excerpt, he discusses Walser's experimentation with a wide variety of forms, which the critic views as a disavowal of literary convention and an attempt to both redefine literature and define the role of an artist isolated from both his society and the traditions of art.]
Distrustful, perhaps fearful of fame, jealously insistent on his prerogative of freedom of movement and freedom of spirit, Walser was outwardly disinterested—and artistically too uncompromising—to attempt to secure his own literary fortunes. Throughout his career he refused to align himself with a school or literary movement. If we approach his works with the traditional criteria of literary criticism in mind, we will be disappointed with the meager results of our efforts. The regrettable consequence of Walser's stubbornness (and the reliance of most criticism on traditional criteria) has been to exclude Walser from even the parenthetical recognition granted other practitioners of short prose, such as Peter Altenberg and Alfred Polgar. This is so despite respectable, if infrequent,...
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SOURCE: "Not Here to Write but to Be Mad," in The New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1982, pp. 14, 46.
[In the review below, short story writer and critic DeFeo favorably assesses Walser's Selected Stories and analyzes Walser's use of characters. The critic also compares and contrasts Walser's writing style with that of Franz Kafka.]
Robert Walser was a passionate walker, a writer of considerable wit, talent and originality, and for much of his later life an institutionalized madman who could be surprisingly lucid. Born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, Walser left school at the age of 14 and wandered from city to city, job to job. Although he produced a number of novels (four of which have survived), a book of poems, a few short dramas and over a thousand sketches and tales, and was recognized by such impressive contemporaries as Kafka, Brod, Hesse and Musil, his work went pretty much unnoticed during his lifetime. Even today it is primarily known to German literary scholars and to English readers lucky enough to have discovered it through the efforts of the poet and translator Christopher Middleton.
Walser died in 1956, after spending some 27 years of his long, strange existence in mental institutions. His body was found by some children in the snow-covered hills near the asylum at Herisau where he had resided since 1933 and from which he was accustomed to taking his long,...
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SOURCE: "Eloquently Attending," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4155, November 19, 1982, p. 1268.
[In the following review of Selected Stories, Parry praises Christopher Middleton's translations from the original German into English, realizing that "these translations are not and cannot be Walser, but they do provide a remarkable echo. "]
The short pieces which form the bulk of Robert Walser's work first appeared in journals (if he was lucky). They were disliked by a considerable number of indignant readers and admired by a few, including Franz Kafka. People who "knew about literature" objected not only to the apparent triviality of his writing but also to the absurdity of his themes. As for narrative continuity, he had obviously never heard of it. His work seemed too childish for serious consideration. Only the clear-sighted realized that here was that rare phenomenon, a man who looks at life for himself. It never occurred to Walser to accept meanings handed down as protection against fear.
Christopher Middleton has been working for nearly thirty years to communicate his enthusiasm for this writer. He found, to our profit, that the process of translating is a sure way to deeper understanding. He has published a fine English version of Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten (University of Texas Press, 1969) and now, with Tom Whalen and other collaborators, he offers a...
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SOURCE: "Unrelenting Style," translated by J. McC, in Robert Walser Rediscovered: Stories, Fairy-Tale Plays, and Critical Responses, edited by Mark Harmon, University Press of New England, 1985, pp. 153-68.
[Here, in an essay originally published in German in 1983, German novelist and dramatist Martin Walser examines the tone and irony in many of Robert Walser's works. He also describes the author's influences.]
Shall we enroll our author forever among the ranks of the so-called controversials? We know that is no longer necessary. Those who understand have compared him with Shakespeare, Mozart, Schubert. That he is a classic is admitted today even by those who do not much care for him. Especially by them, perhaps. So they can be rid of him. Apparently there is no need to fear that anyone will actually read him. From the man who did the very fine translation of Jakob von Gunten into English, I learned in 1973 that in the previous year sixteen copies had been sold in the United States of America. Ten years ago I would have said zealously: And how many hundreds of thousands of Hesse! But I don't say that any more. Years of associating with Robert Walser's books have developed in me a sensation that might be captured like this: There are books that spread like brush fire, and books that sink gradually into us; they never cease sinking into us, and we never cease wondering that books can have such an...
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SOURCE: "A Writer's Cache: Robert Walser's Prose Microscripts," in Robert Walser Rediscovered: Stories, Fairy-Tale Plays, and Critical Responses, edited by Mark Harmon, University Press of New England, 1985, pp. 153-68.
[In the essay below, Avery attempts to explain why Walser wrote in microscript and discusses how the prose microscripts provide an understanding of Walser himself.]
Early in 1913 Walser left Berlin, the unchallenged capital of German literature, persuaded that he had failed as a novelist. The decision to leave Berlin was probably as fateful for Walser's literary fortunes as it was necessary and inevitable for his equanimity and self-esteem. Ironically enough, the subsequent narrowing of Walser's reputation is most evident from the beginning of the twenties on, coinciding with the artistically successful attempt to broaden the scope of his writing after moving to Bern in 1921. Only Die Rose, a collection of "difficult" prose, appeared in the twenties—in Germany. Walser's last novel, The Robber, was consigned to the authorial limbo of the microscripts, the much-corrected versions of prose, verse, and dialogs composed by Walser in a minuscule script in the years 1924-31 from which he made clean copies of work submitted for publication.
Walser's reasons for composing in microscript can only be surmised. Hypersensitivity to criticism, complaints from readers...
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SOURCE: "Robert Walser," in An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987, pp. 41-5.
[In the following essay, American critic Birkerts asserts that Walser's work should not be intertwined with that of Franz Kafka, describing Walser's tone as "buoyant, sportive, and manic" and labelling Walser as "one of the most remarkable and fully realized stylists in modern literature. "]
The Swiss writer Robert Walser meets all of our requirements for ranking as one of literature's darling unfortunates. He was solitary, impoverished, he scribbled in miserable rooms, and he spent the last third of his life in an insane asylum. That his quick, febrile prose was admired by Musil, Benjamin, and Kafka and at the same time escaped wide notice is an added cachet. But even so, with all his credentials in order, the canonization might not take place. The problem is that Walser's name has somehow become tangled up with Kafka's; his singularity has been obscured because of a few superficial similarities. A careful reading of Walser's Selected Stories (1982) will testify to the difference between them: Walser's buoyant, sportive, manic voice curls itself like an ivy vine around the somber constructions of K.
Walser is one of the most remarkable and fully realized stylists in modern literature. He has the rarest of gifts, the ability to get spirit onto...
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SOURCE: A foreword to "Masquerade " and Other Stories, translated by Susan Bernofsky, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, pp. ix-xix.
[Gass is an American fiction writer and critic. Widely praised for the virtuosity of his prose style, he is among the most conspicuous modern proponents of the view that literature's sole meaning lies in the aesthetic forms an author creates with language. In the following foreword to "Masquerade" and Other Stories, Gass gives an overview of Walser's life and attempts to describe the philosophy behind Walser's thinking and his writing, commenting that Walser was a "columnist before the time of columns. "]
They found Robert Walser's body in the middle of a snowy field. It was Christmas Day, so the timing of his death was perhaps excessively symbolic. I like to think the field he fell in was as smoothly white as writing paper. There his figure, hand held to its failed heart, 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. It would be a word, if it were a word (such doubtful hesitations were characteristic of Walser), which would bring to an end a life of observant idling, city strolling, mountain hikes, and woodland walks, a life lived on the edges of lakes, on the margins of meadows, on the verges of things, a life in slow but constant...
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SOURCE: "Nervous Laughter," in The New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1990, pp. 26-7.
[Below, American scholar and translator Hafrey finds fault with Susan Bernofsky's translation of Walser's pieces collected in "Masquerade" and Other Stories.]
In recent years, the Swiss-German writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) has acquired the reputation of a neglected master of 20th-century German literature. The author of many volumes of fiction, poetry, journalistic essays and "dramolettes," Walser drew the attention of contemporaries like Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse and Robert Musil. Susan Bernofsky, who has selected and translated the pieces by Walser collected in "Masquerade" and Other Stories, notes that he was "a writer whose singular, virtuoso, absolutely essential otherness cost him the favor of the reading public of his day." That is a judgment with which the author himself would probably have agreed.
Difference was a touchstone for Walser, but difference of a particular kind. The seventh in a family of eight children, he wrote off and on throughout his life about children or childlike adults, and developed a narrative persona consistent with those figures. In his first published novel, The Tanner Clan (1907), the narrator exposes the root motive for this tendency when he extols the sweetness of "what is small, what is just beginning." Much later in his career, in the short...
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SOURCE: "Writing Like a Man that Just Came in from a Walk," in The New York Times, August 18, 1990, p. 18.
[In the review below, American editor and author Mitgang studies Walser's writing style in "Masquerade" and Other Stories, commenting that "Walser writes like a man who has just returned from a walk, quickly settling down his impressions at a writing table, still wearing his hat. "]
There are certain observations in these feuilletons by Robert Walser that resemble passages in the novels of Franz Kafka, who expressed his debt to the simplicity and surrealism of the Swiss author's writings. In Kafka's journal in 1917, he compared Walser's "blurring employment of abstract metaphors" to that of Dickens.
In a foreword to "Masquerade" and Other Stories, William H. Gass writes that Walser's essays resemble the work of Donald Barthelme because they are almost collagelike in their juxtapositions. This newly translated collection draws upon his writing in Zurich, Berlin, Bern and elsewhere between 1899 and 1933. Reading the pieces, the artistry of a contemporary Swiss observer, Paul Klee, comes to mind. Walser's persona and vague human sketches and Klee's whimsical and fantastic images seem kin.
Self-consciousness and uncertainty run through many of the essays, which are redeemed by the author's modesty and metaphors. Some are short-short stories, but most are...
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SOURCE: "Robert Walser on the Battle of Sempach: A History Lesson," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 79-86.
[Below, Evans relates how Walser uses antitheses, irony, and paradoxes in "The Battle of Sempach" to convey his interpretation of events and to encourage the reader to think how history is recounted and treated.]
Like Max Frisch's Wilhelm Tell: A School Text, Walser's "Battle of Sempach" is a critical contribution to Swiss self-awareness and to the historiography of his country. Six centuries ago, on 9 July 1386, near the small town of Sempach, the Swiss Confederate infantry won a decisive victory over the Hapsburg cavalry that had been drawn up in great numbers and reinforced by allied contingents. According to tradition, this victory, marking the decline of Hapsburg hegemony in Switzerland, was owed to the self-sacrifice of one Arnold von Winkelried who, in the thick of the battle, thrust himself into the solid wall of enemy lances and thus opened a gap for those who followed him. The battle left a deep and lasting impression, not only on contemporary witnesses but also on generations to come. To this day, Winkelried exemplifies ideal soldiering as well as ideal citizenship, and his place of honor in the pantheon of Helvetian history has remained essentially uncontested. To tarnish the aura of a legend is risky business, as the following anecdote...
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SOURCE: "The Walk' as a Species of Walk Literature," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol 12, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 87-94.
[Here, American writer and educator Lopate ponders the act of walking as a literary theme and as a source of inspiration and muse and indicates its importance to Walser as a basis for meditations, observations and of freedom—which the language in "The Walk" demonstrates. Lopate also attempts to discern if the naivete and tone in "The Walk" is intentional or the result of mental illness.]
A curious literary phenomenon, the walk story. In roughly the same era, the surrealists Louis Aragon (The Night Walker), Philippe Soupault (Last Nights of Paris) and André Breton (Nadja), the Irishman James Joyce, the American Henry Miller, and the Swiss writer Robert Walser were all composing epics of perambulation. What was it about the times that led authors to pick the walk, that most transient, most seemingly formless of activities, as their subject matter? Was the walk's very shapelessness an inviting challenge to the fragmentary, lyrical, stream-ofconsciousness aesthetic of early modernism? Or was this outpouring a twilight celebration of the flaneur (whose profile Walter Benjamin was busy working out on a theoretical plane), in the last decades before urban public space would become privatized, and lose much of its theatrical/agoric resonance?...
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SOURCE: "Ignorance, Analogy, Motion: Robert Walser's 'Boat Trip'," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 122-27.
[In the following essay, Whalen examines the functions of ignorance, analogy, and motion in "Boat Trip, " concluding that Walser "relies often on the principle of analogy to reveal the truths of the world. "]
We have observed the scene before: sunlight on a river, trees touching shoulders along the banks, perhaps a cloudless sky, bluer than blue, and beneath it a boat bearing a group of people. How many people Robert Walser never tells us. There is a woman who calls water her "sweetheart," someone who finds it "odd that water is wet and not dry," a storyteller to whom everyone listens attentively, the narrator who wishes he could be "as fascinating a storyteller" as the other, and a "thoughtful girl" who "compare[s] travelling over the water to the imperceptible gliding and progress of growth." Five, then, at least; add others if you wish; the prose here is not autocratic. No one is described. The water, yes, and the banks, the trees, fish—a comparison here and another there. Water is like. Trees are like. Traveling over water is like. Ignorance can be compared to. But no one is described—no hats, smiles, umbrellas, ties, particularities of sex or age. Morning or afternoon, it doesn't matter. It's a boat trip. We ourselves have been on this water, if only...
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Whalen, Tom. "A Robert Walser Bibliography." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 128-32.
Bibliography of primary works of Walser as well as secondary works in German and English. Whalen includes Walser's uncollected stories and poems, and films created from his stories.
Keutel, Walter. "In Pursuit of Invisible Tracks: Photographs of a Dead Author." New German Critique, No. 50 (Spring-Summer 1990): 157-72.
Attempts to demonstrate that photographs of Walser during different periods of his life, along with his unusual personality, helped to make Walser a legend.
Biguenet, John. "Walking Wounded: The Moral Vision of Robert Walser." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 62-5.
Discusses the honesty and morality of Walser and the impact on his works.
Cardinal, Agnes. The Figure of Paradox in the Work of Robert Walser. Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1982, 115 p.
Examines the paradoxes and ambiguities in Walser's life and his writings.
Evans, Tamara S. "'A Paul Klee in Prose': Design, Space, and Time in the Work of Robert Walser." German Quarterly 57, No. 1 (Winter 1984): 27-41.
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