Lessons in Abstraction

The strange life of Europe’s most overlooked modernist

A young Robert Walser, c. 1900, whose inimitable voice presents serious challenges for translators (Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy)
A young Robert Walser, c. 1900, whose inimitable voice presents serious challenges for translators (Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy)

Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser by Susan Bernofsky; Yale University Press, 392 pp., $35

Clairvoyant of the Small, Susan Bernofsky’s long-awaited biography of the Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser, is erudite, painstakingly thorough, and sensitively written. Readers of Walser finally have a volume that connects the development of the writer’s work and its publishing history to the various episodes of his peripatetic adult life in the cities of Biel, Bern, Zurich, and Berlin and finally in the sanatoriums in Waldau and later Herisau, where Walser—revered by Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Walter Benjamin, W. G. Sebald, and many others—ceased writing altogether.

Bernofsky traces the development of Walser’s work chronologically, contextualizing his books, stories, novellas, short prose pieces, and feuilletons in the timeline of available biographical information. She cites from letters written by Walser and his friends and publishing associates as well as from passages in his work that reveal turning points in narrative form and linguistic innovation. One of the book’s greatest treats comes when Bernofsky delves into Walser’s late style, which employs language in a way that is “not just descriptive but constitutive in constructing a literary reality.” Writing about Walser’s secret and radically experimental novel The Robber, finished in 1925 but not published until the 1970s, she asserts, “So rich in digressions that detours seem to be its primary narrative mode, it is also thick with metaphors sprawling so out of control they seem to offer their own alternate realities.” Here is where Bernofsky, one of Walser’s most dedicated and accomplished translators, reveals her intimacy with the inner substance of his literary project. Her analyses of Walser’s linguistic devices—the abstract nouns he invented to humorous effect (e.g., the wonderful term corridoricity, meaning “behavior that takes place in corridors, such as abruptly slipping away while someone is talking to you”); the playful portmanteaux (e.g., “spazifizotteln, composed of spazieren [to walk] and zotteln [to dawdle] by way of spezifizieren [to specify]”); the delightful coinages that evoke indelible images (e.g., Töchterchenhaftigkeiten, or littledaughterlinesses)—offer excellent insight into not only the prodigious task of translating this at times nearly untranslatable writer but also the unique, oftentimes abstract beauty of Walser’s inimitable voice.

As Bernofsky examines the downward trajectory of a career and a life, the information available to her grows increasingly scant. For the last years of Walser’s life, she is forced to rely in large part on the writings of Carl Seelig, an independently wealthy critic and editor who began visiting Walser in Herisau in 1935 and, over the next 20 years, became his primary companion, patron, champion, and legal guardian and eventually his literary executor. We have Seelig to thank for numerous new editions and reprints of Walser’s work, as well as a steady spate of newspaper articles that revived the writer’s reputation and eventually helped secure his place in the German language canon.

The reception of Walser’s work was marked by a multitude of misunderstandings—first and foremost that the author was a naïve, unspoiled, uneducated bumpkin

Seelig was also responsible for, as Bernofsky phrases it, curating “a newly romanticized literary identity,” dubbing Walser a “virtuoso of poverty” living “uncompromisingly on the periphery of bourgeois existence.” In other words, while Seelig enabled the writer to experience, even if belatedly, the literary recognition that had eluded Walser for so long, he also created a manufactured, heavily mythologized version of the man while advancing his own literary reputation. Interestingly, Seelig nearly prevented the survival and eventual publication of the “pencil territory,” the microscripts Walser hid from Seelig and neglected to transcribe into legible form. Seelig believed these scripts to be written in indecipherable code; Walser’s sister Lisa didn’t believe they were writing at all. Upon Seelig’s death, the unpublished manuscripts were not, as stipulated in his will, burned but transcribed for the first time by Walser scholar Jochen Greven, at the time a doctoral student, who discovered that the minuscule lines scrawled on scraps of paper were composed in an ordinary German Sütterlin script that, while miniaturized, was otherwise, albeit with difficulty, legible.

What conclusions are we to draw from the life of a writer who, though he later came to disparage his own work, at one time knew that he was one of the most important literary figures of his age, who was unable to earn a consistent living or adapt to whatever was required to market himself? Walser epitomized this dilemma in the novella The Walk (1917), an allegory of the outside forces dictating the realities of the writing life: the “incontrovertible power” of academic authority, the conflation of “thunderously applauded” commercial success and literary significance, the vampiric attentions of a public for whom the writer’s work is never enough, the compromises necessary to maintain professional relationships with people in power whom one may well despise and who “rob unsparingly” where they “pretend to institute beneficence.” Walser, in the habit of walking long distances through the Swiss countryside, had already adopted the persona of a “better sort of tramp, a vagabond, a pickpocket or idler and vagrant” in some of his early works. Later, he came to realize that his public image was based on a misinterpretation of this literary gesture, which Bernofsky calls the “trope of the itinerant journeyman.” Indeed, the reception of Walser’s work was marked by a multitude of misunderstandings—first and foremost that the author was a naïve, unspoiled, uneducated “original” Swiss bumpkin and not a consummate trickster with a genius for camouflage.

Occasionally, Bernofsky seems to be offering Walser career advice: had he only written back to so-and-so, had he only swallowed his pride and entrusted a book to the publishers whose editors had insultingly turned down his earlier work, then perhaps he might have revived his career at a strategically vital point. These are reasonable enough considerations, and one feels a touch of anguish on Bernofsky’s part at Walser’s incorrigible self-sabotage. But this is also the kind of advice the writer scorned throughout his professional life. Walser’s early enrollment in butler school (much to the chagrin of his more charismatic brother Karl, who was rapidly making a name for himself as an artist in Berlin); his lifelong, elaborate, at times baroque displays of obsequiousness, which Sebald termed “anarchistic”; various episodes of masquerading as his own manservant; cascades of equivocating adverbs in his prose, producing the effect that the writer is repeatedly and somewhat ridiculously taking bow upon bow; a penchant for ironic self-effacement—all of these things mocked and parodized the power relationships defining society and particularly the literary establishment he was forced to navigate. His behavior, both voluntary and involuntary, constituted a radical rejection of the role-playing indispensable for maintaining the writerly mystique that sells books—a gesture, perhaps, that became necessary to maintain his dignity in a world that hurt him at his core.

It’s possible that, even before the inner voices began, Walser was no longer interested in struggling to make a living alongside his writing. Perhaps he had grown indifferent to career and reputation and had gone into hiding. As a man who had never been able to make a home for himself, who was quite possibly gay or queer and unable or unwilling to accept it, and who was, in any case, quite likely celibate, someone who relied on the motherly charity of his exhausted sister and a series of loyal female acquaintances, including widowed landladies who harbored secret daydreams of marriage—he may have found that life in a sanatorium, at some juncture, seemed preferable.

Listen to our interview with author Susan Bernofsky on Smarty Pants.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Andrea Scrima is the author of A Lesser Day. Her latest novel, Like Lips, Like Skins, will be published in a German edition this fall. She is editor-in-chief of StatORec and lives in Berlin. 


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up