As a reader of Robert Walser for almost 30 years, I’m pleased to host this discussion of the latest addition to the Walser corpus in English: The Assistant. Strange to think that this delightful, century-old book is now finding English-language readers for the very first time. But strange indeed is the career—posthumous and otherwise—of this utterly unique prose genius.
Beginnings Robert Walser (1878-1956) was born in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Biel/Bienne is on the language border dividing German-speaking from French-speaking Switzerland, and Walser grew up speaking both languages. The late poet Michael Hamburger speculated that Walser’s Swiss origin helped produce a style so distinct from standard German; perhaps Walser’s French fluency contributed too.
At 14 he began a bank apprenticeship, but following his mother’s death two years later in 1894, his life turned toward art. Walser moved with his brother Karl to Stuttgart, where Karl, a painter, pursued his craft. Robert hoped initially for an acting career, but his ambitions settled on writing. Through connections made with the circle of writers around the magazine Die Insel, Walser’s first prose piece appeared in 1899. A set of poems appeared that same year.
A Style Emerges By 1901, Walser had completed his first book, Fritz Kocher’s Essays. A plotless novel in the form of essays from the pen of schoolboy, this book already exhibits the kind of playful digression and self-questioning we find in Walser’s mature style:
When autumn comes, the leaves fall from the trees to the ground. Actually, I should have said: When the leaves fall, it is autumn. I need to improve my style.
Yet in the later pieces, the same voice belongs not to someone clearly defined as a fictional character, but to one who might be mistaken for the writer himself, as illustrated in the opening lines of “Beneath a Linden” (1928):
The town was beautiful and empty. How concisely put! Can we call this literary writing?
In later years he describes all of his writings as a “variously sliced up or torn-apart book of myself,” and some pieces indeed sound, for all their hilarity, like direct reportage from his life (“The Toothache,” 1917):
I remember once I had a severe toothache. In order to numb the pain, I ran into the fields and roared there like King Lear. At home I chose to dash myself against the wall and, in my rage, smash a few precious chairs from the Biedermeier period, but this in no way caused the toothache to stop, rather the trouble worsened hour by hour. At night the horror scenes I staged woke the entire house, it was a scandal. The frequent imbibing of the finest cognac helped only a little. I dealt myself blows to the face like Sancho Panza when he noticed his donkey was lost.
This quality gives Walser’s works a certain comic lightness and element of surprise, but also opened him up to charges of sloppiness or lack of seriousness. Indeed, the same debates Walser inspired in his own day continue today, as noted in this report from a recent public reading of Walser’s work:
Walser’s striking shifts of tone were commented upon. An audience member asked if the hard-to-pin-down Walserian tone was “for show” or “nutty,” and decided it was for show.
In fact, Walser’s art appears so natural that one can easily imagine being fooled. Michael Hamburger saw through the guise as early as 1961 (“A Miniaturist in Prose,” from the Times Literary Supplement):
To an even greater degree than Kafka, Walser practiced and vindicated the freedom to improvise, at the clearly recognized risk of remaining as classless in literature as he chose to be in society. Improvisation, in Walser’s and Kafka’s sense, must be distinguished from the deliberate experiments of the self-conscious avant-garde. What is particularly striking about the most genuine innovators of the period, including Joyce also, is that their dedication to a highly personal art involved not a revolt against accepted canons, but the complete rejection of literature as an institution; not rebellion, but self-imposed exile.
In a late prose piece (“My Endeavors,” 1928-29), Walser himself recognized the risks of such an approach:
The question, “What you are doing isn’t art anymore, is it?” sometimes seemed to lay a hand gently on my shoulder…If I sometimes wrote at a venture, on impulse, it might look a bit comical to deadly earnest people, but I was conducting experiments in the field of language, in the hope it might contain an unknown vitality which would be a joy to awaken.
Four Cities Walser’s writing life can be thought of as having four phases, each taking place in a different city. First were his early years as a writer, centering on Zurich (1896-1903), but involving at various times brief stays in Stuttgart, Berlin, Solothun, Munich, and Wurzberg. Next were seven years living in Berlin (1906-1913) with brother Karl, by this time a successful stage designer and illustrator. In Berlin, Walser wrote his major novels and had his first great success. After that, spurred by fallings out with his brother and his publisher, and the death of a benefactor, Walser returned to Biel/Bienne (1913-20), living quietly in a rooming house for foreign workers. Some of his acknowledged masterpieces, such as “The Walk” and “Frau Wilke,” were written at this time. In 1920, running low on resources, he moved to Berne (1920-28) at the behest of his sister Lisa, who found him a job at the Cantonal Archives.
He was soon fired from the archives for a “cheeky remark” to his superior, but to his delight he found a ready market for his prose. His years in Berne were tremendously productive and he published widely. Over time, however, his life in Berne fell into disorder—he lived at 14 different addresses over 7 years—and the depression he had first suffered in Berlin was now joined by nightmares, claustrophobia, and hallucinations. (His mother had suffered from mental illness, as did his brother Ernst. Another brother committed suicide).
Around 1924, he also found himself unable to write, due to what he described as a kind of cramp in his hand. By 1924, much of his composition was done in pencil, in a microscopic script he had first adopted in 1917 after experiencing what he described as a kind of cramp in his hand that prevented writing. In 1928, with his mental distress continuing, his sister Lisa recommended he commit himself to a sanitarium in Waldau for care. “At that point,” he later told his friend, Carl Seelig, “I made a few botched attempts on my life. I couldn’t even make a proper noose. Finally, it went so far that my sister Lisa brought me to the hospital at Waldau. Before the gate, I asked: èAre we doing the right thing?’ Her silence told me enough. What choice had I but to enter?” In 1933, he was forcibly removed to an institution in Herisau, when Waldau decided to focus only on patients requiring more critical care. At this point his writing reportedly stopped; when asked, he is supposed to have said: “I am here not to write, but to be mad.” And yet some of the staff members recalled seeing him scribbling notes after meals.
Walser in English Walser’s revival in German had already begun when, at age 78, he was felled by a heart attack during a hike on a snowy Christmas Day in 1956. But his introduction to English-speaking audiences didn’t occur until the year after his death, when poet Christopher Middleton translated a collection of four prose pieces in a volume called The Walk and Other Stories. In the 1960s and 1970s only a handful of other works appeared in English, but among them was perhaps Walser’s finest novel, Jakob von Gunten, also translated by Middleton.
Then, in the 1980s, a surprising thing happened. A volume called Selected Stories, featuring translations by Middleton and others, was published with an introduction by Susan Sontag, who became one of Walser’s strongest advocates. More prose and poetry appeared in the following years: 65 pieces by the end of the 1980s, 85 pieces in the decade of the 90s, and, so far in this decade, 82 more including two novels, The Robber and The Assistant. Translations of the final two surviving novels, The Tanners and Fritz Kocher’s Essays, are in progress, and an English-language biography by translator Susan Bernofsky has also been commissioned. In excess of 1,000 prose pieces are said to remain untranslated, so it appears that we can expect more from Robert Walser—once so lost to the world and to himself—for many years to come.
The Assistant One of the companion satisfactions of seeing The Assistant in English for the first time has been observing the quality of critical responses. As I suggested, Walser has often been misunderstood and underappreciated by critics, and so the number of reviews, and the depth and sympathy of engagement they show, suggests that 100 years on, Walser has found his true audience. As we begin our month-long event I call out a few examples below, including my own.
Enjoy this month’s discussions!
My Bondage, My Freedom Christine Smallwood, The Nation, August 23, 2007
Still Small Voice: The Fiction of Robert Walser Benjamin Kunkel, The New Yorker, August 6, 2007
The Assistant by Robert Walser Sam Jones, The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 8, Summer 2007
Home on the Strange Giles Harvey, The Village Voice, July 17, 2007
Robert Walser: The Assistant Waggish, September 28, 2007
Robert Walser: The Assistant John Self at Asylum, February 27, 2008
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