Text: J.J. Marsh; Images courtesy New Directions
Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small. – Susan Sonntag
An influence on Kafka, admired by Hesse and Zweig, compared to Rousseau and Dostoevsky, and encountered by Wedekind and Lenin, Swiss author Robert Walser remains relatively unknown outside the country or literary cognoscenti. Yet those reading his work for the first time are in for a rare and precious reward.
The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else. – The New Yorker
His legacy of poems, prose sketches, playlets and novels—The Tanners (1906), The Assistant (1908), Jakob von Gunten (1909) and The Robber (1927)—now translated into English, have gained a new wave of admirers, entranced by his profound observations, dexterity with language and wandering mind.
“How fortunate I am, not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching! To be small and to stay small.” – excerpt from Jakob von Gunten
Walser grew up in Biel, lived in Zürich for a time and spent over a decade in Germany. After some success as a writer, he found the intelligentsia not to his liking, or him to theirs, and returned to settle in Bern. Only then did he decide to write with all the quirk and idiosyncrasy of Swiss German, allowing his environment and people to shape and colour his language.
“I am, to put it frankly, a Chinese; that is to say, a person who deems everything small and modest to be beautiful and pleasing, and to whom all that is big and exacting is fearsome and horrid.” – extract from The Job Application.
Born to a family plagued by mental health issues, Walser himself spent much of his adult life in institutions. Even when his health apparently recovered, he chose to stay in the sanatorium. Some observers see this as a practical decision, as he was unable to support himself through writing. When he moved from Waldau to Herisau, he was asked why he no longer wrote. His apocryphal quote: “I am not here to write, I am here to be mad.”
Yet write he did. At some point in his thirties, cramps in his hands had made writing painful. He interpreted this as a psychosomatic rejection of the pen and turned instead to the pencil. This changed his output from wry and witty tales to wanderings through the landscape of the mind. His ‘Bleistiftgebiet’ or pencil system made his handwriting smaller, minuscule letters measuring no more than a millimetre in height. On his death, he left 24 pages of this ‘microscript’, which after painstaking deciphering and translation, became his final novel, The Robber.
As his curiosity meandered through ideas and flights of fancy, his body rambled across the slopes and valleys of the canton of Appenzell. In his 1917 novella The Walk, he takes us with him. There are echoes of Twain in his encounters yet also an invitation to just be, simply walk and think.
“It is as though you could hear Thought itself softly whispering, softly stirring. It’s like the scurrying of little white mice.” – extract from A Schoolboy’s Diary.
Robert Walser was found dead in the Herisau snow on 25 December 1956. He was 78 years old. A voice writ small which deserves a wider hearing.
Walser’s writing is available in English thanks to translators such as Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky.
Images courtesy of New Directions ndbooks.com
More information about the man and his work can be found at The Robert Walser Foundation in Bern.