Robert Walser Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Robert Walser’s reputation as a prose miniaturist long obscured his achievement as a novelist. He published three novels, Geschwister Tanner (1907; the Tanner siblings), Der Gehülfe (1908; the assistant), and Jakob von Gunten (1909; English translation, 1969). The latter is generally acknowledged to be the most impressive work. Der “Räuber”-Roman (1972; the “bandit” novel), a boldly personal, experimental work, was published posthumously. His most important dramatic works were published in the volume Komödie: Theatralisches (1919; comedy: theatrical writings). He also wrote poetry, the merit of which has been the subject of some controversy.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.”


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Avery, George. Inquiry and Testament: A Study of the Novels and Short Prose of Robert Walser. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968. This introduction to Walser is aimed at both the general reader and the student of German literature. Deals with the themes, the style, and the structure of the Swiss writer’s fiction in the context of European literary developments of the early twentieth century.

Cardinal, Agnes. The Figure of Paradox in the Work of Robert Walser. Stuttgart: H.-D. Heinz, 1982. Cardinal’s astute examination of Walser’s technique is informative and interesting. Includes a bibliography.

Gass, William H. “Robert Walser.” In Finding a Form. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Gass argues that Walser’s narrators frequently split their point of view between surface reality and a picture-postcard world; the result, Gass contends, is a complex prose style that reveals Walser to be a postmodernist long before the fashion.

Hamburger, Michael. “Explorers: Musil, Robert Walser, Kafka.” In A Proliferation of Prophets: Essays on German Writers from Nietzsche to Brecht. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 1983. Views “freedom and ambivalence” as hallmarks of Walser’s art, claiming that he combines the freedom of the essay and the poem with the art of prose fiction....

(The entire section is 404 words.)