Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser
(Yale University Press, 2021)
To talk about Robert Walser in a Walserian way, one needs to start with the small things, as it was those that truly gave his writing its essence. Susan Bernofsky, writer and literary translator, does just that. Bernofsky spent over three decades researching Walser’s life and writing. The biography born as a result of this expedition, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser (Yale University Press, 2021) is an affectionate, precise piece of writing that illustrates a man of complexities both personal and professional. It is an intimate portrait of an artist, soul-crushing in its realism, with all its valor and rigor. Reading Walser’s life, lived in between furnished rooms and towns, in between long walks, in between fame and complete isolation, the bearings of these events become more and more profound. Bernofsky has previously translated many works of Walser and she sees through the many hidden layers of his writing with well-informed clarity, scrutinizing his words with the mind of a translator and the heart of an admirer. Nothing of Walser’s methodical yet itinerant prose is lost on Bernofsky; on the contrary, it finds more meaning as the protagonist of another writer’s work.
Bernofsky doesn’t try to answer the unanswerable and successfully resists categorizing Walser and his work. She gracefully discusses the elements of his persona that are difficult to pinpoint, like his sexuality, inclination to servitude, and later years spent in mental institutions. These parts of the book offer no assumptions but factual evidence, such as his diary entries, medical records, and writings. Clairvoyant of the Small stays true to the Walserian spirit, paying delicate attention to details and telling the story of the writer in a fluent, rhythmic narration.
A Walser piece could be about a number of small things: a simple walk along the streets of Bern, or a lake. Walser is a tactful and poetic describer of such things; he appreciates them dearly. His most fruitful outlet being the feuilleton form—short literary pieces that appeared in newspapers—is insightful in his devotion to the small. His invented medium of the microscript, a technique of writing in almost indecipherably small letters on small pieces of paper, cards, scraps, and notes, is similarly striking. An early work of short prose titled “Lake Greifen” from 1898, depicted as Walser’s very first “walk story” by Bernofsky, has the narrator leave a big and famous lake behind and walk to appreciate the eponymous, smaller lake. He “glances at lovely flowers, and that’s all.” But that’s not all.
A lake is never a lake. To summon the Walserian spirit, one must see the magic of words in ever-evolving connection to each other formally and intuitively. Walser achieves the difficult act of writing that is simultaneously visual and visionary, using a compositional structure of intellectual wanderings of mind as sub-narratives and repetition. He playfully coins words and phrases to achieve emotion. Stories in Die Rose (1925) offer many examples of this Walserian technique of creating expressions anew. Within the narrative form, Walser’s work conjures multi-layered meanings from scratches of pen on paper, on the surface naïve and stylistically experimental, and on a profound level, compelling and satirical. Max Brod, best known for his friendship and posthumous publishing of Franz Kafka, believed Walser’s work to be three-layered, more complex than Dickens and Hamsun, with a genuine power beneath it all.
Walser uses many narrators and switches between the first person and third person ingeniously. He uses the diaristic “I” for most of his descriptive prose, walk stories, and his most famous novel Jakob von Gunten (1909). When he wrote his unpublished novel The Robber in 1925 with no intention of showing it to anybody, he used the third-person narrative only to allow a narrator to intervene in the first. As Bernofsky notes, “the book’s main character lends his role dignity by describing himself through the fictional eyes of his own invention—even as he himself is the author’s invention.” Most all his narrators carry both Walserian and Walser’s own characteristics, as he very often used biographical elements in his works. Hermann Hesse, one of Walser's contemporaries and admirers, wrote when reviewing Jakob von Gunten, that “Jakob is Kocher, is Tanner, is the assistant Marti, is Robert Walser;” connecting the writer to his published works’ protagonists. Hesse didn’t know, but over a decade later, Walser named his secret novel The Robber, a play on his name.
Walser’s writing feeds from his personal history. His first novel The Tanners (1907), features young siblings ostensibly based on his own, so visibly that it made his sister Lisa furious that he had exposed so much of their family. He did odd jobs all his life to support himself, mostly as a clerk in early life, copied papers for banks, and worked as a secretary for the Berliner Secession. The relationship between him and Karl, his older brother and a successful artist, comes up on multiple occasions; he followed him to Berlin as a 20-something, admired his artistic and social talents, and he was once his closest sibling. When he enrolled in the Manthei “institute” for butlers, a clever rebellion against the social structure he was mostly involved with, he turned it into Jakob von Gunten. When he moved back to Switzerland, as he moved from city to city and from one furnished room to the other, his landladies became his subjects. He suffered periods of not writing a word, sometimes willfully, sometimes tormented by guilt and self-doubt. Around 1911, after a period of such extreme creative block that he couldn’t even hold his pen, he started to write only in pencil; this allowed him to see his writing efforts as somehow less serious.
Walser was a walker: in his sleepless nights he hiked through the darkness from city to city; a walk of 18 miles from Bern to Thun came natural and easy to him. He saw walks as literary activity, starting with “Lake Greifen” and epitomized in his 1917 novella The Walk. The latter follows the narrator walking, running errands, meeting people on his way; all to get away from the writerly agony of facing the blank page. He leaves his “room of phantoms,” and takes a walk.
In his final years as an active writer, Walser’s work was indeed crowded by phantoms. His mental health started to decline in the mid-1920s. He was in financial strain, drank too much, and became increasingly erratic in his social behavior. He couldn’t sleep and heard voices. Finally, in 1929, he and his sister Lisa, who took care of him when he most needed throughout his life, checked him into the Waldau Asylum. This was the same place their older brother Ernst spent most his life institutionalized until his death in 1916. Waldau meant for Walser both a sense of relinquishing control and a refuge of sorts. Until his unwilling transfer to another asylum in Herisau, he continued writing and publishing there. Herisau, though, remained a place of forced confinement until the end of his life, even with the brief relief that came with his walks with Carl Seelig, who visited him often.
Robert Walser died on Christmas Day, 1956, during a solitary walk in Herisau. The last photographs taken of him show the writer laying in the snow, one hand on his chest, the other reaching out to the white nothingness. He is blanketed by the wintery silence, his only company his hat and the footsteps he left. The final words from his microscript entry “New Year’s Page,” also the final entry in the newest edition of Walser’s Microscripts (New Directions, 2012) translated by Bernofsky, reads: “Don’t the words almost smell a bit like wistfulness? When a year stops, another instantly commences, as if one were turning the page. The story keeps on going, and the beauty of a context is revealed.” The coming year didn’t commence for Walser, but the last sentence forever rings true.