Review: J. S. Marcus on Robert Walser

Robert Walser, subject of the new biography, Clairvoyant of the Small, by translator Susan Bernofsky

Robert Walser was known in his lifetime, if he was known at all, for short, uncanny, discursive prose pieces that beguiled an influential circle of Central European writers and readers, leaving a mark on the likes of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin and later earning the attention, affection, and concern of W. G. Sebald and Elias Canetti, among others. An itinerant Swiss provincial who spent some crucial years in pre-World War I Berlin, Walser had a career marked by deprivation, desperation, a few middling successes, long—even transnational—walks, and stints in furnished rooms in Germany and Switzerland. He spent the final third of his life as something like a medicalized boarder in Swiss mental asylums, finally dropping dead in the snow during a Christmas walk at the age of seventy-eight, near the end of the Suez Crisis—a belle-époque bohemian in post-World War II limbo.

After his death, it emerged that he had composed hundreds of so-called “microscripts”—pencil manuscripts written in notations so tiny that they need deciphering—and the new century has brought him a heretofore unimaginable afterlife as an eccentric genius and longsuffering literary pioneer, with a starry American following (Ben Lerner and Eileen Myles are on the record as Walser fans) and a steady stream of translations. Now, in Clairvoyant of the Small, the first Walser biography published in English, Susan Bernofsky, his frequent American translator, has filled in many of the gaps in his disorderly life. She has tracked down dozens of his temporary addresses, found connections between his legions of landladies and the predicaments of his narrators, and made her case for Walser as an unacknowledged giant of modernism, citing experimental, pun-laden pieces from the final phase of his career.

The current Walser cult may rely as much on images as words. The nearly illegible microscripts are like works of outsider art, and Walser’s 1956 winter death was documented by an arresting black and white photograph showing him face up, with snow packed into the treads of his shoes and his hat lying just beyond his corpse, perched on its brim. Walser’s writing is oddly affable, hinting at despair without actually sounding despairing, but there is nothing Walserian about that photo, which is deep in Beckett territory.

Walser had a slightly older, much more successful brother, artist and set designer Karl Walser, who was a precocious luminary in late-Imperial Germany, collaborating with the likes of director Max Reinhardt, while also contributing illustrations to his brother’s occasional books. As Bernofsky recounts, Robert initially wanted to be an actor, but “while Karl’s theatrical star rose ever higher, Robert’s fizzled before achieving any altitude at all.” Theatrical instincts stayed with Robert, and many of his short pieces now read like monologues. His best novel, Jakob von Gunten, is about a somewhat high-born young man who sends himself to butler school. It may nominally take the form of a journal, but the entries rise and fall like dialogue, and Jakob’s disrupting presence at the school itself has a circusy pageantry.

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The Walsers came from a family of what could be called upwardly mobile toy dealers, from the Swiss watchmaking center of Biel, near Bern, but his childhood saw the collapse of his father’s business, followed by his mother’s mental collapse and early death; he had to leave school at fourteen. The family’s woeful instability, and ever-so-slight pretentiousness, seemed to color the whole of Robert’s life. The cheerful tone in his writing notwithstanding, he was drawn, instinctively and obsessively, to the subject of failure. Walser’s narrators—who, Bernofsky shows, are typically Walser stand-ins—are blithely doomed, describing the scenery “all the way down the scale” as Jakob, the would-be butler, puts it, “to utter worthlessness.” It turns out that this ever-smaller sense of self was inspiring a kind of eloquence even when Walser still just a literary-minded teenage clerk: Bernofsky presents a letter he wrote to the editor of a Swiss Socialist weekly in which he pleaded to be taken on as “a copyist or something of the sort,” because “my expectations are modest.”
I am 19 years old, have completed a commercial apprenticeship and been active in various trades, as you will be so good as to confirm in the attached letters of reference. At present I am working here in an insurance firm, but I don’t like it, I feel a powerful urge to leave. Please understand, this work simply does not interest me, it leaves me cold; I have no idea what I am working for, but I do have a fairly clear notion that I am of little, terribly little use here. It seems to me that if I came to work for you, even in the most trifling capacity, I should nonetheless know that these labors had a value and merit.Affable and self-abnegating, that letter writer already sounds just like Robert Walser (and, through Walser, a bit like Kafka).

Walser wrote Jakob von Gunten when he was scarcely thirty, out of his own real enrollment at a Berlin servants’ academy, though he lets the novel’s tentative reality spin out into the unreal, or just highly unlikely. Less than a decade later, back in the nervous neutrality of World War I Switzerland, Walser completed “The Walk,” a novella in which the real and the unreal, along with the act of writing and the pastime of walking, fuse, its author-narrator finally conflating the whimsical with the culpable. Bernofsky describes it as a linchpin in his oeuvre and his “single best-known piece of writing.” But she saves her highest approval for the works produced a decade later, most of which he never managed to publish, including a number of baroque fantasies and a full-length novel, The Robber, compressed into twenty-eight sheets of paper. Bernofsky exalts these works’ experimental lunge from the flickering precision of his previous style into “jittery distractedness” and “maximalist prose of exaggerated expression”; they end up a world away from the intricate marvels that amused and intrigued Kafka and Benjamin.

By 1929, after apparently proposing marriage to, and then attacking, his last set of landladies, Walser began living in the first of his asylums. Though he continued to publish, and even write, for a time, he had entered into what Bernofsky calls “his apprenticeship in the art of not writing.”

“Clairvoyant of the Small”—the phrase comes from Sebald—is a humane feat, reconstituting the ritualized days and drawn-out years of the near-outcast who has been at the very center of the biographer’s working life. In saving Walser’s artistic peak for his last productive years, Bernofsky has a more redemptive story to tell than one of steady, mere decline; but I have my doubts. In remaking Walser’s potential failures as certifiable successes, she casts an anti-Walserian spell. Certainly, her analysis of the scrambled wordplay and “subversive metaphorical reality” of Walser’s late writing stops her book in its tracks. I am not convinced by the greatness of those works, or even the greatness of Walser himself, whose power and pathos as a writer is entirely in the service of a vision that belies greatness. And I wonder if Walser may one day slip back into what he was before—an elusive, even minor writer, who was a major muse.

J. S. Marcus is a writer based in Berlin.  His books include The Captain’s Fire, a novel.

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