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."