A Gentle and Angry Instrument: Robert Walser’s Short Fiction

Born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, the writer Robert Walser lived until the age of seventy-eight, and through his work, letters, and personal associations came into contact with some of the major literary figures of his age, but the story of his life remains fragmentary, peppered with lacunae. Living in near-poverty and dressed in natty but threadbare suits, he cultivated few personal attachments and owned almost nothing. He courted several women and corresponded with others but never married. Like the rest of his siblings, he produced no children. In the last three decades of his life, confined to an asylum, he didn’t publish a word, if he even wrote at all. Yet despite this lack—what could be called an anti-legacy—Walser left behind a large body of work that uniquely fused the Romantics’ exultation in nature and search for the sublime with the early Modernists’ sense of play and intertextuality. But while the author was innovative in his work, Walser himself was an ethereal figure, divorced from time: an apolitical person in a period of great political upheaval; a barely educated wanderer who’s garnered the posthumous reputation of a hermit genius; a literary mystic miscast as blindly mad, when he in fact was all too aware of his own complicated demons. Walser, who wrote in German, moved constantly, spending time in Berlin and Munich, and in dozens of different boarding houses and hotels throughout his native Switzerland. In one year, he moved twelve times. Suspicious of neighbors who sometimes thought him more crazy than eccentric, he was a restless soul who, in the Swiss tradition, enjoyed long walks, feeling that contact with the environment was healthy.

Walking was also a method of travel: in 1920, he journeyed more than seventy miles on foot from Biel to Zurich to give a reading with a literary group. After a rehearsal with Walser, the organization forced him to allow Hans Trog, a magazine editor, to read while the author watched from the crowd. The event represented one of many disappointments Walser would suffer at the hands of fellow writers, and it likely contributed to his eventual withdrawal from literary circles.

Because of his family’s worsening finances, Walser left school at fourteen. He briefly attempted to be an actor but gave up after a disastrous audition. Later, he found work in a brewery and as a butler in a chateau. His fallback profession was that of clerk or copyist, and he occupied such roles in a number of banks and offices. He published his first poems and prose in the last years of the nineteenth century. He spent 1905 to 1913 in Berlin, during which time he was enormously productive, publishing three novels, The Tanners, The Assistant, and Jakob von Guten, as well as collections of poetry and short prose. Many of his short pieces appeared in German-language newspapers and magazines. His work earned him the admiration and, occasionally, the professional assistance of Robert Musil, Christian Morgenstern, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Max Brod, and Walter Benjamin.

In 1913, his publishing fortunes waning and frustrated with Berlin’s stuffy intellectual scene (meeting Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Walser asked the Austrian writer, “Can’t you forget for a bit that you’re famous?”), Walser returned, defeated, to Switzerland, whose provincial environs he preferred. Then the troubles began. His father died in 1914. (His mother, whose depression and lack of affection were formative influences, had died in 1894.) That, of course, is also the year in which the cataclysm of World War I engulfed Europe, and Walser spent several weeks a year for the duration of the war in military service. In 1916, his brother Ernst, who had been in Waldau Mental Hospital since 1898, died; his brother Hermann took his own life three years later. Walser entered a period of financial hardship and perpetual wandering, interrupted by stays in various rooming houses and a hospitalization for sciatica in 1924. (Later that year, he walked from Berne to Geneva, a distance of ninety miles.) Publishers rejected his novel Theodor; no copies of the manuscript remain, nor of another novel, a sort of sequel to The Tanners, that Walser destroyed. He wrote prolifically: feuilletons, fables, reconstituted myths, fairy tales, short stories, poems, dramolettes (brief plays), and other manner of literary sketches. But he found less and less of an audience for his work—popular tastes had changed in the post-war period, and Walser’s writing, despite his melancholy, had become too fanciful and playful. He began to drink excessively and attempted suicide.

After claiming that he heard voices and suffering a nervous breakdown in 1929, Walser voluntarily checked himself in to the Waldau sanatorium in Berne, the same facility that had housed his brother, Ernst. A diagnosis of schizophrenia followed, though the finding has since been heavily debated. In the early years of his hospitalization, he still wrote frequently and published some short prose. In 1933, he was transferred, legally but against his wishes, to a facility in Herisau, where he remained until his death in 1956. Allowed to take long walks, he always returned to the facility, where he also performed menial chores.

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