(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Robert Walser’s early reputation as a miniaturist was misleading. His essays and stories actually form the nucleus of a larger work, which he once described as a “sliced-up or torn-apart novel of myself.” The main protagonist in this autobiographical “novel” is not so much Walser as his poetic self. This self adopts a wide variety of roles, such as that of the servant, the artist, and the child. Yet Walser never identifies for long with these fictional alter egos. His stance toward them is ironic, haughty, or nonchalant. Having adopted them with the flick of a pen, he can discard them just as swiftly. More crucial than their individual identities is their unmistakable voice, which remained remarkably constant throughout his career. By turns effusive and reticent, self-effacing and self-inflating, long-winded and laconic, solitary and convivial, this voice determines the cadences of his prose.

Throughout his career, Walser struggled to reconcile his modernist practice with his conservative ideals. His literary values were firmly rooted in Swiss literary tradition. Among Walser’s idols was the civic-minded nineteenth century novelist Gottfried Keller, who is renowned for his lyrical realism. Walser’s own prose, however, is closer to the self-conscious experimentation of modernists such as Virginia Woolf.

Fritz Kochers Aufsätze

While not a major achievement, his first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsätze (Fritz Kocher’s essays), is a characteristic product of the Zurich phase. Walser adopted the persona of a schoolboy writing compositions on hackneyed themes such as friendship and nature. These neo-Romantic effusions are tongue-in-cheek, but tiresome nevertheless. Walser’s stylistic dexterity only becomes apparent when he lets the schoolboy mask slip. Alternating with the purple prose of Fritz Kocher are stretches of sophisticated and self-conscious writing, which poke fun not only at the convention of schoolboy essays but also at language itself.

The tone becomes more urgent in the final piece in the collection “Der Wald” (the forest). Kocher intimates that he is driven into the forest by unspecified woes, but this oblique confession ends abruptly. Kocher claims that he must be careful not to divulge too much about himself. Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of Walser himself, the Walser who does not want readers to recognize the self lurking behind his numerous personas. This attitude is stated unequivocally in “Das Kind” (“The Child”): “Nobody has the right to treat me as if he knew me.”

It has been said of Kafka’s stories that they are alienated fairy tales. This is true also of Walser’s. His two Zurich fairy tales in free verse are indispensable for an understanding of his short prose. In Aschenbrödel (1901; Cinderella, 1985) and Schneewittchen (1901; Snowwhite, 1985), which Benjamin called “one of the most profound compositions in recent literature,” Walser’s heroines rebel against the script of the Brothers Grimm by refusing to allow themselves to be rescued. They owe their creativity to the sisters and stepmother who torment them. Without that hostility, they would be lost. Happiness and reciprocated love would destroy what they most prize in themselves. Thus, they chase away the Prince Charmings.

“A Strange City”

There are examples in the short prose both of this bleak vision and of a radiant counterpoint. In “Seltsame stadt” (“A Strange City”), for example, Walser conjures up a utopian society. The inhabitants of this singular city are dolls, relatives, perhaps, of the graceful puppets that Heinrich von Kleist describes in his essay “Über das Marionettentheater” (“The Marionette Theater”). They revere life and treasure the senses and can thus dispense with preachers and artists. Surfacing here is the conviction that in a truly civilized society the professional artist would be superfluous. The narrator dwells in a rather fetishistic manner on the shoes and trousers of the women. These obsessions recur in the short prose, most flagrantly, perhaps, in “Hose” (“Trousers”), which is less about women’s emancipation than about Walser’s trousers fetish.


The story “Oskar” is uncharacteristically forthright. Written in Biel but reflecting on the Zurich years, it describes the origins of Walser’s stylization of himself as a self-denying hermit. Oskar discovers within himself a need for solitude. He is not content to satisfy this need, and he feels compelled to make life harsher by denying himself such creature comforts as a warm room in winter. His shaping of this idiosyncratic persona is partly involuntary, partly willed. The rationale for his seemingly masochistic behavior is aesthetic. He expects the solitude to sharpen his appetite for life. As Oskar’s isolation intensifies, however, the narrator intimates the human cost of his wayward odyssey.

In Berlin, Walser retained the pose of the naïve provincial, but his prose became increasingly sophisticated. The theater stimulated his imagination, and he wrote frequently for the influential review Die Schaubühne. Although he was ostensibly commenting on the plays of Wedekind, Gerhart Hauptmann, and others, his real subject was the self-impersonation that he himself practiced in the medium of prose. Ideally, he wanted his fiction to enact an appealing version not only of himself but also of life itself. He was, however, fully...

(The entire section is 2270 words.)