In 1933, the posthumously acclaimed Swiss writer Robert Walser was living at the sanatorium he had entered four years earlier with severe depression, hallucinations, and writers’ block. Then in his early fifties, Walser had published several novels and many essays, stories, and poems—albeit, and much to his distress, without significant critical or financial success. At the sanatorium, in Waldau, near Berne, he recovered his equanimity and began to write again. Psychiatric staff, having initially diagnosed him with schizophrenia, eventually decided he was well enough to leave. But the quiet, self-contained patient steadfastly refused to re-enter society: attached to the simplicity and predictability of institutional routine, he was unwilling to resume life as a struggling artist. Meanwhile his siblings, who bore some financial responsibility for their brother’s care, conspired to have him transferred to a closed mental asylum in order that he could receive government welfare. So it was that a few days after one doctor declared him sane, Walser was labeled a “chronic schizophrenic” and informed he was being moved. Again, he expressed his desire to stay put, but this time there was no choice. He was forcibly taken from his bed to the Herisau asylum, where he remained until his death twenty-three years later.
The almost unbearably poignant image of Walser refusing to leave his sanatorium bed, meekly defending the circumscribed patch of existence upon which he had found a measure of peace, stands as a fitting emblem of his now much admired literary oeuvre, in which characters, typically versions of himself, float through the world without ever being quite part of it, describing what they see with a striking blend of humility and innocence. “My vocation, my mission,” Walser once asserted, “consists mainly in making every effort to keep my audience believing that I am truly simple. I give them the illusion that unspoiledness and naïveté still exist.” Yet the innocence we find in Walser is charged not with ignorance or naivety, but rather with a determined focus on the consolatory power of the little things: the sensory pleasure of a cigar, the exuberance of a busy train platform, the enchanting gleam of a lake’s surface. Occasional tinges of irony alert us to the complexity lurking between the lines, but it is the eerie absence of vanity or arrogance that distinguishes Walser’s people as their own sprite-like species. W.G. Sebald, who claims Walser as a literary soulmate, describes him as “a clairvoyant of the small,” while Walter Benjamin diagnosed Walser’s characters as exiles from the state of insanity itself. “They are figures who have left madness behind them,” Benjamin wrote, “and this is why they are marked with such a consistently heartrending, inhuman superficiality.”
Benjamin’s analysis was all the more acute given that he made this observation in 1929, the same year that Walser first entered the sanitarium. Critics today, of course, cannot help but read Walser’s work in light of his putative madness and strange, sad life—as J.M. Coetzee remarked, it all feeds into the “legend of Walser as a scandalously neglected genius.” Part of the Walser legend is his supposed virginity: he reputedly never had a lover of either sex, a biographical detail that heightens his image as a spiritual seer, a wandering hobo whose poetic soul disqualifies him from bourgeois society. Certainly, there is a eunuch-ish quality to his protagonists, who may experience romantic thoughts and half-heartedly pursue women, but who seem to hanker after love affairs with the wider world rather than individuals. In Walser’s novel The Robber, the narrator derives intense pleasure from fantasies of subordination to people of both sexes, but confides in a doctor: “I’ve never felt the urge to spend nights in the company of women.”
The Robber—first published in 1972, but written in the 1920s and regarded as a fine example of early modernism—was one of Walser’s famous “microscripts,” manuscripts composed in pencil in handwriting so tiny and indecipherable—the letters are just one to two millimeters high—that when the papers were discovered after his death, the script was assumed to be a secret code, a manifestation of schizophrenia. In fact, Walser had developed his “pencil method” to overcome his own inhibitions and neuroses regarding writing: by forcing the flow of his thoughts into a highly structured, shrunken physical form, he found he could achieve mastery over his creative process. For Werner Morlang, one of the scholars who spent years heroically deciphering the microscripts, the method was a means for Walser to escape “from both public and internalized instances of evaluation.” Exactly when he first wrote microscopically is not clear, but his translator Susan Bernofsky deduces that he experimented with the method in Berlin, where he lived from 1905 to 1913, and began drafting everything in this form “sometime during the nineteen-teens”—a period of dejection when he was back living in Switzerland as, in his own self-castigating words, “a ridiculed and unsuccessful author.”
Walser’s time in Berlin, particularly the early years, was a professional highpoint, when he published widely and was able to support himself through his writing. He was twenty-seven when he arrived, and the city was an ideal environment for a young artist: thriving, creative, and a center for the avant-garde, for theater and cabaret. Walser became a prolific contributor to literary magazines and newspapers, and it is from this pool of work that a new collection from New York Review Books is drawn: Berlin Stories, translated with characteristic expertise and flair by Susan Bernofsky, brings together various of Walser’s impressionistic, whimsical and occasionally introspective pieces that take Berlin as their subject.
Divided into four sections—“The City Streets,” “The Theater,” “Berlin Life” and “Looking Back”—Berlin Stories is both an arrestingly vivid snapshot of a particular place and time, and a primer in the singular landscape of Walser’s mind. Many of the pieces are sweetly flaneuristic—in “Aschinger,” a paean to an early version of a fast-food restaurant that serves beer and sandwiches, Walser marvels: “You can remain standing here for hours on end, no one minds, and not one of all the people coming and going will give it a second thought. Anyone who takes pleasure in modesty will get on well here, he can live, no one’s stopping him.” In “Kutch,” a coffeehouse sofa is deemed the kind “upon which the habitual aesthete is wont to fling himself down to sip coffee and stare into space,” while in “Remembering the Tales of Hoffmann,” a visit to the opera triggers the sense of being “an astonished hayseed amid all that gleaming intoxication, the graceful, sense-beguiling tumultuousness and the blindingly elegant society gathered there.” Part of the fun of reading Walser is attempting to gauge the ratio of earnestness and wryness in such statements—it’s an almost impossible task, although his comment about making a conscious effort to convey naivety points to at least a dash of irony.
A more explicitly satirical tone emerges when Walser looks askance at certain sections of polite society. In “Food for Thought,” he rages at the philistinic hypocrisy of people who regard themselves as “cultivated” and “cultured.” “They just talk and talk and talk,” he despairs, “and for just this reason sink ever deeper into the midnight of unrefinedness, for only action is refined; talk is murky and dark, as unclean as hell itself.” His own self is not exempt from sarcastic depiction: in “What Became of Me,” he bemoans his own destiny as a “feuilletonist”: “Oh, if only I had never written a feuilleton…But Fate, which remains perpetually inscrutable, willed it thus, and would appear to have made of me a perfumed and mincing know-it-all and write-it-all.”
The first-person speaker in Berlin Stories is not always precisely synonymous with Walser himself—the particular genre to which most of the pieces belong is an unusual strain of creative nonfiction whereby reality is accurately captured, but given a Technicolor wash by Walser or his more ingenuous narrative proxy. We’re closest to Walser’s own complicated and piercing vision when he drops the guise of wide-eyed flaneur and enters darker territory, such as in the straightforward personal essay, “Frau Wilke,” which evokes clinical depression with terrible potency. (“My mind lay as if broken in fragments before my grieving heart.”)
Likely to strike an equally profound chord with contemporary readers—particularly those who are writers themselves—is Walser’s evident distaste for the amorality that speeds the path of a professional writer. Always determined not to “sell out,” yet passionately invested in achieving respect as an author (in The Robber, the narrator complains: “Local men of the world call me a simpleton because novels don’t tumble out of my pockets”), when it became difficult to publish his writing in post-World War I Germany, Walser simply retreated from literary society altogether. In the words of his friend and literary executor Carl Seelig, “he would rather die than grovel to them.” A passage in one of the later pieces in Berlin Stories, “Frau Scheer,” could echo through the ages as a cautionary tale for the media striver:
In those days I myself resembled a half-starved beast of prey casting about with wildly flaming eyes for a suitable opportunity to hunt down some quarry to improve its precarious position. Venture into that savage metropolis, dear reader, and you will see for yourself how abruptly glamour and good fortune alternate there with deprivation and worry, and how people undermine each other’s subsistence, as each does his best to cast down the other’s successes and tread upon them so as to make success his own.