In the early decades of the twentieth century, critics praised the psychological complexity and stylistic finesse of Robert Walser’s stories and essays. The novelist Robert Musil even asserted that Franz Kafka’s first book, Betrachtung (1913; Meditation, 1940) was a “special case of the Walser type.” Walser’s fiction appeared both in avant-garde reviews and in newspaper feuilletons. By the 1920’s, however, his increasingly experimental prose had begun to alienate the editors and newspapers on whom he depended for a living. After he ceased writing in 1933, his work fell into oblivion.
Critics in Germany and Switzerland rediscovered Walser in the 1960’s. The edition of collected works by Jochen Greven, which began appearing in 1966, gathered together for the first time all the short fiction that had appeared in scattered newspapers and reviews. Readers could at last appreciate the range and versatility of his prose. Walser is now widely regarded as one of the most significant writers in twentieth century German literature. Although English translations by Christopher Middleton appeared as early as 1957, what brought Walser’s work to the attention of English-speaking readers was the publication in 1982 of the Selected Stories, with a foreword by Susan Sontag.
One of Walser’s greatest gifts as a writer was his ability, as Christian Morgenstern put it, to “see the world as a continuous wonder.” He made no attempt to separate perceptions that are “significant” from those that are “trivial.” While some readers find this rejection of conventional discriminations frustrating, others find its heterodoxy refreshing. In a brief but now classic essay of 1929, Walter Benjamin evoked the enigma of Walser’s seemingly artless art: “While we are used to seeing the mysteries of style emerge out of more or less fully developed and purposeful works of art, here we are faced with language running wild in a manner that is totally unintentional, or at least seems so, and yet that we find attractive and compelling. A letting go, moreover, that ranges through all forms from the graceful to the bitter.”