The prominent German publisher Siegfried Unseld called Robert Walser (VAHL-sur) “the greatest unknown author in the German language in [the twentieth] century.” This prolific, dedicated, but very independent writer of short prose, novels, playlets, and poems gained considerable recognition early in his career, most notably from Franz Kafka and Christian Morgenstern, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Hermann Hesse. As time went on, however, his unconventional works failed to appeal to a broader audience. Virtually forgotten for several decades, he was rediscovered in the 1960’s and is viewed not only as a leading Swiss author of the twentieth century but also as one of the first modernist writers of self-conscious fiction.
Robert Otto Walser was the second-youngest of eight children. His father, Adolf Walser, was a congenial man who tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at a number of business ventures. His mother, Elisa Marti Walser, and two of his brothers suffered from mental instability. Robert was closest to his sister Lisa, a schoolteacher, and his successful brother Karl, who illustrated several of his books. At the age of fourteen, Walser left school and learned the banking trade. For some time he toyed with the idea of becoming an actor but eventually turned to literature instead.
In 1896 Walser moved to Zurich, where he remained until 1905, constantly changing residences and clerical jobs, which was to become a pattern in his life. It was there that his first works, six poems, were published in the Swiss newspaper Der Bund, which in turn led to an invitation to publish additional poems, prose pieces, and playlets in the new literary journal Die Insel in Munich. Walser’s breakthrough came in 1904, when the publishing house Insel in Leipzig published his first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsätze (Fritz Kocher’s essays), supposedly the compositions of a gifted young schoolboy. This early work contains many of the themes, motifs, and narrative techniques that became Walser’s trademark. Although the slim volume with its amusing drawings by his brother Karl received high critical praise, it sold so poorly that the publisher reneged on his commitment to a second book of poems and dramas. This was the first of a number of similar occasions where one of Walser’s works was received with initial enthusiasm but then failed to sell, which invariably led to the publishers’ dropping Walser from their lists. In the spring of 1905, still convinced that his first book could be a commercial success, Walser joined his brother Karl in cosmopolitan Berlin to embark on a career as a freelance writer. Soon after, however, he enrolled in a school for domestic servants, an experience he later fictionalized in his novel Jakob von Gunten, and worked in a castle in Upper Silesia as a footman. For most of his life he was obsessed with the role of the servant.
It was during his Berlin years, 1905 to 1913, that Walser produced most of his novels in quick succession, notably Geschwister Tanner (the Tanner siblings), Der Gehülfe (the assistant), and Jakob von Gunten. These largely autobiographical novels had scant plots and shifting viewpoints, and all feature closely related central characters in lowly positions who engage in contradictory self-analysis. They are vaguely based on Walser’s Zurich years and on his experiences as the secretary of a Swiss inventor and as a student in the school for servants in Berlin. Although Walser had vowed that he would sooner join the army than become “a supplier to magazines,” he continued to produce large numbers of short texts, many of which found their way into periodicals and newspapers throughout German-speaking Europe. During the later Berlin years, however, when his novels did not elicit the desired critical response and he found it more and more difficult to place his shorter prose pieces, his productivity began to suffer, and he grew increasingly despondent.
In 1913, disappointed, nearly destitute, and convinced that...
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