The Tanners was Robert Walser’s first novel. Like much of his fiction, the novel is thinly veiled autobiography, so a summary of the author’s life is useful in evaluating the work. Born the seventh of eight children in Biel, Switzerland, Walser wandered through much of his life from job to job before he discovered he could make a living from writing. He worked as a banker, a butler in a castle (he writes about a young man training to perform such a job in 1908’s Der Gehülfe), and a copyist in an office, an occupation that he revisited from time to time during his writing life. Walser’s father was a bookbinder and ran a small toy shop. An inept businessman, Walser’s father seldom managed to succeed at any of his businesses, and the family lived on his meager earnings. Walser’s mother, the daughter of a blacksmith, had a progressively serious mental illness, and she died when Walser was sixteen. Many interpreters of his work attribute Walser’s obsession with women to the loss of his mother. Simon, Walser’s main character in The Tanners, blames the lack of tenderness from his mother as one of the reasons that he does not feel more tenderly toward his siblings (except for Emil, who is confined to a mental hospital).
When he was eighteen, Walser moved to Zurich, where he moved from one menial clerical job to another and where he first started writing. He published some poems in various newspapers during his years in Zurich. When he tired of life in the city, Walser would take long walks through the Swiss countryside. During these years, Walser also visited Munich, where he met members of the literary circle involved in publishing the magazine Der Insel (the island). He published some of his prose and miniature plays in verse in this magazine. In 1904, he published his first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsätze (Fritz Kocher’s essays), which his brother Karl illustrated. In 1905, Walser moved to Berlin, where he lived for the next eight years. In Berlin, he wrote and published three novels in as many years: The Tanners (1907), Der Gehülfe (the assistant), and Jakob von Gunten (1909; English translation, 1969). Discouraged by the indifferent reception of his writing by the literary world and the larger reading public, Walser moved back to his native town of Biel in 1913, and for the next eight years he wrote and published sporadically, producing long prose pieces and four of his plays in miniature, published as Komödie (1919). He lived for a time with his sister Lisa and eventually moved to a sparsely furnished room in the Hotel zum blauen Kreuz.
In 1921, Walser moved to Bern, Switzerland, where he worked for a short time as an archivist. He soon left that job, but he remained in Bern until 1929. During these years, he worked on a novel, Theodor, that has been lost. In Bern, Walser wrote prolifically, producing the “microscripts”copies of his stories, poems, and novels that he wrote in a miniature pencil scriptfor which he would later become famous. After living alone with few friends and almost no means, and after a few attempts to commit suicide, Walser voluntarily committed himselfat the urging of his sisterto a psychiatric clinic in Waldau, Switzerland. He remained there until 1933, when he moved to the asylum in Herisau, Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life. He never wrote another word, although he continued his beloved walks through the countryside surrounding the asylum, and he died in 1956 on one of these walks.
The largely autobiographical The Tanners might be better translated as “The Tanner Siblings.” The protagonist, Simona rootless, articulate, and quite bold young manwanders from one situation to another, cleverly insinuating himself into relationships with perfect strangers who feel both repulsed and attracted to his lackadaisical, cavalier, yet intellectually engaging character. Simon resembles Walser himself, who moved about from menial task to menial task in a quest to understand the nature of freedom in a culture in which individuals found themselves bound by social convention. Moreover, Simon’s relationships with his siblingsKlaus, Kaspar, Hedwig, and Emilresemble Walser’s relationships with his own siblings. Early in the novel, Simon shares rooms in a country house with Kaspar, a landscape artist (based on Walser’s brother Karl, a well-known artist and illustrator). The owner of the house is often away, and his wife, Klara Agappaia, falls in love with Kaspar. Eventually, Simon moves into one of the rooms in his sister Hedwig’s apartment, much as Walser moved into one of the rooms of his sister Lisa’s apartment in Biel.
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