Robert Walser (writer)

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Robert Otto Walser
Robert Walser.jpg
Robert Walser around 1900
Born(1878-04-15)15 April 1878
Biel/Bienne, Switzerland
Died25 December 1956(1956-12-25) (aged 78)
near Herisau, Switzerland
Nationality Swiss
Literary movement Modernism

Robert Walser (15 April 1878 25 December 1956) was a German-speaking Swiss writer.

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol (Italy), the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

The Swiss are the citizens of Switzerland or people of Swiss ancestry.


Walser is understood to be the missing link between Kleist and Kafka. [1] "Indeed", writes Susan Sontag, "at the time [of Walser's writing], it was more likely to be Kafka [who was understood by posterity] through the prism of Walser. Robert Musil, another admirer among Walser's contemporaries, when he first read Kafka pronounced [Kafka's work] as, 'a peculiar case of the Walser type.'" [2] Walser was admired early on by writers including Musil, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, [3] and was in fact better known during his lifetime than Kafka or Benjamin, for example, were known in their lifetimes. [4]

Heinrich von Kleist German poet, dramatist, novelist and short story writer

Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was a German poet, dramatist, novelist, short story writer and journalist. His best known works are the theatre plays Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, The Broken Jug, Amphitryon, Penthesilea and the novellas Michael Kohlhaas and The Marquise of O. Kleist committed suicide together with a close female friend who was terminally ill.

Susan Sontag American writer and filmmaker, professor, and activist

Susan Sontag was an American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist. She mostly wrote essays, but also published novels; she published her first major work, the essay "Notes on 'Camp'", in 1964. Her best-known works include On Photography, Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, The Way We Live Now, Illness as Metaphor, Regarding the Pain of Others, The Volcano Lover, and In America.

Robert Musil Austrian writer

Robert Musil was an Austrian philosophical writer. His unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities is generally considered to be one of the most important and influential modernist novels.

Nevertheless, Walser was never able to support himself based on the meager income he made from his writings, and he worked as a copyist, an inventor's assistant, a butler and in various other low-paying trades. Despite marginal early success in his literary career, the popularity of his work gradually diminished over the second and third decades of the 20th century, making it increasingly difficult for him to support himself through writing. He eventually suffered a nervous breakdown, and spent the remainder of his life in sanatoriums, taking frequent long walks. A revival of interest in his work arose when, in the late twentieth century and the early 2000s, his writings from the Pencil Zone, also known as Bleistiftgebiet or "the Microscripts", which had been written in a coded, microscopically tiny hand on scraps of paper collected while in a Waldau sanatorium, were finally deciphered, translated, and published. [5] [6] [7]

Life and work


Walser was born into a family with many children. His brother Karl Walser became a well-known stage designer and painter. Walser grew up in Biel, Switzerland, on the language border between the German- and French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, and grew up speaking both languages. He attended primary school and progymnasium, which he had to leave before the final exam when his family could no longer bear the cost. From his early years on, he was an enthusiastic theatre-goer; his favourite play was The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller. There is a watercolor painting that shows Walser as Karl Moor, the protagonist of that play.

Karl Walser Swiss painter

Karl Walser was a Swiss painter, stage designer, illustrator, muralist, and artist.

Scenic design creation of theatrical or film scenery

Scenic design is the creation of theatrical, as well as film or television scenery. Scenic designers come from a variety of artistic backgrounds, but in recent years, are mostly trained professionals, holding a B.F.A. or M.F.A. degrees in theater arts. Scenic designers design sets and scenery that aim to support the overall artistic goals of the production.

Painting Practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface

Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface. The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, sponges, and airbrushes, can be used. The final work is also called a painting.

From 1892 to 1895, Walser served an apprenticeship at the Bernische Kantonalbank in Biel. Afterwards he worked for a short time in Basel. Walser's mother, who was "emotionally disturbed", died in 1894 after being under medical care for a long period.[ citation needed ] In 1895, Walser went to Stuttgart where his brother Karl lived. He was an office worker at the Deutsche Verlagsanstalt and at the Cotta'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung; he also tried, without success, to become an actor. On foot, he returned to Switzerland where he registered in 1896 as a Zürich resident. In the following years, he often worked as a "Kommis", an office clerk, but irregularly and in many different places. As a result, he was one of the first Swiss writers to introduce into literature a description of the life of a salaried employee.

Basel Place in Basel-Stadt, Switzerland

Basel is a city in northwestern Switzerland on the river Rhine. Basel is Switzerland's third-most-populous city with about 180,000 inhabitants.

Stuttgart Place in Baden-Württemberg, Germany

Stuttgart is the capital and largest city of the German state of Baden-Württemberg. Stuttgart is located on the Neckar river in a fertile valley known locally as the "Stuttgart Cauldron." It lies an hour from the Swabian Jura and the Black Forest. Its urban area has a population of 609,219, making it the sixth largest city in Germany. 2.7 million people live in the city's administrative region and another 5.3 million people in its metropolitan area, making it the fourth largest metropolitan area in Germany. The city and metropolitan area are consistently ranked among the top 20 European metropolitan areas by GDP; Mercer listed Stuttgart as 21st on its 2015 list of cities by quality of living, innovation agency 2thinknow ranked the city 24th globally out of 442 cities and the Globalization and World Cities Research Network ranked the city as a Beta-status world city in their 2014 survey.


In 1898, the influential critic Joseph Victor Widmann published a series of poems by Walser in the Bernese newspaper Der Bund . This came to the attention of Franz Blei, and he introduced Walser to the Art Nouveau people around the magazine Die Insel , including Frank Wedekind, Max Dauthendey and Otto Julius Bierbaum. Numerous short stories and poems by Walser appeared in Die Insel.

Bern Place in Switzerland

Bern or Berne is the de facto capital of Switzerland, referred to by the Swiss as their "federal city", in German Bundesstadt, French Ville Fédérale, and Italian Città Federale. With a population of 142,493, Bern is the fifth-most populous city in Switzerland. The Bern agglomeration, which includes 36 municipalities, had a population of 406,900 in 2014. The metropolitan area had a population of 660,000 in 2000. Bern is also the capital of the canton of Bern, the second-most populous of Switzerland's cantons.

<i>Der Bund</i> Swiss journal

Der Bund is a Swiss German-language daily newspaper published in Bern.

Franz Blei playwright

Franz Blei was an essayist, playwright and translator. He was also noted as a bibliophile, a critic, an editor in chief and publisher, and a fine wit in conversation. He was a friend and collaborator of Franz Kafka.

Until 1905, Walser lived mainly in Zürich, though he often changed lodgings and also lived for a time in Thun, Solothurn, Winterthur and Munich. In 1903, he fulfilled his military service obligation and, beginning that summer, was the "aide" of an engineer and inventor in Wädenswil near Zürich. This episode became the basis of his 1908 novel Der Gehülfe (The Assistant). In 1904, his first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsätze (Fritz Kocher's Essays), appeared in the Insel Verlag.

Was isch jetz für Zit? Scho drü? Alee, pressier, pressier. (Alemannic German)
"What time is it? Already three? Come on, hurry, hurry."

Der Teich, 1902.

At the end of 1905 he attended a course in order to become a servant at the castle of Dambrau in Upper Silesia. The theme of serving would characterize his work in the following years, especially in the novel Jakob von Gunten (1909). In 1905, he went to live in Berlin, where his brother Karl Walser, who was working as a theater painter, introduced him to other figures in literature, publishing, and the theater. Occasionally, Walser worked as secretary for the artists' corporation Berliner Secession.

In Berlin, Walser wrote the novels Geschwister Tanner, Der Gehülfe and Jakob von Gunten. They were issued by the publishing house of Bruno Cassirer, where Christian Morgenstern worked as editor. Apart from the novels, he wrote many short stories, sketching popular bars from the point of view of a poor "flaneur" in a very playful and subjective language. There was a very positive echo to his writings. Robert Musil and Kurt Tucholsky, among others, stated their admiration for Walser's prose, and authors like Hermann Hesse and Franz Kafka counted him among their favorite writers.

Walser published numerous short stories in newspapers and magazines, many for instance in the Schaubühne. They became his trademark. The larger part of his work is composed of short stories – literary sketches that elude a ready categorization. Selections of these short stories were published in the volumes Aufsätze (1913) and Geschichten (1914).


In 1913, Walser returned to Switzerland. He lived for a short time with his sister Lisa in the mental home in Bellelay, where she worked as a teacher. There, he got to know Lisa Mermet, a washer-woman with whom he developed a close friendship. After a short stay with his father in Biel, he went to live in a mansard in the Biel hotel Blaues Kreuz. In 1914, his father died.

In Biel, Walser wrote a number of shorter stories that appeared in newspapers and magazines in Germany and Switzerland and selections of which were published in Der Spaziergang (1917), Prosastücke (1917), Poetenleben (1918), Seeland (1919) and Die Rose (1925). Walser, who had always been an enthusiastic wanderer, began to take extended walks, often by night. In his stories from that period, texts written from the point of view of a wanderer walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods alternate with playful essays on writers and artists.

During World War I, Walser repeatedly had to go into military service. At the end of 1916, his brother Ernst died after a time of mental illness in the Waldau mental home. In 1919, Walser's brother Hermann, geography professor in Bern, committed suicide. Walser himself became isolated in that time, when there was almost no communication with Germany because of the war. Even though he worked hard, he could barely support himself as a freelance writer. At the beginning of 1921, he moved to Bern in order to work at the public record office. He often changed lodgings and lived a very solitary life.

During his time in Bern, Walser's style became more radical. In a more and more condensed form, he wrote "micrograms" ("Mikrogramme"), called thus because of his minuscule pencil hand that is very difficult to decipher. He wrote poems, prose, dramolettes and novels, including The Robber (Der Räuber). In these texts, his playful, subjective style moved toward a higher abstraction. Many texts of that time work on multiple levels – they can be read as naive-playful feuilletons or as highly complex montages full of allusions. Walser absorbed influences from serious literature as well as from formula fiction and retold, for example, the plot of a pulp novel in a way that the original (the title of which he never revealed) was unrecognizable. Much of his work was written during these very productive years in Bern.


In the beginning of 1929, Walser, who had suffered from anxieties and hallucinations for quite some time, went to the Bernese mental home Waldau, after a mental breakdown, at his sister Fani's urging. In his medical records it says: "The patient confessed hearing voices." Therefore, this can hardly be called a voluntary commitment. He was eventually diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia. [8] While in the mental home, his state of mind quickly returned to normal, and he went on writing and publishing. More and more, he used the way of writing he called the "pencil method": he wrote poems and prose in a diminutive Sütterlin hand, the letters of which measured about a millimeter of height by the end of that very productive phase. Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte were the first ones who attempted to decipher these writings. In the 1990s, they published a six-volume edition, Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet ('From the Pencil Zone'). Only when Walser was, against his will, moved to the sanatorium of Herisau in his home canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, did he quit writing, later telling Carl Seelig, "I am not here to write, but to be mad." Another reason might have been that with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, his works could no longer be published in any case.

In 1936, his admirer Carl Seelig began to visit him. He later wrote a book, Wanderungen mit Robert Walser, about their talks. Seelig tried to revive interest in Walser's work by re-issuing some of his writings. After the death of Walser's brother Karl in 1943 and of his sister Lisa in 1944, Seelig became Walser's legal guardian. Though free of outward signs of mental illness for a long time, Walser was crotchety and repeatedly refused to leave the sanatorium.

In 1955, Walser's Der Spaziergang (The Walk) was translated into English by Christopher Middleton; it was the first English translation of his writing and the only one that would appear during his lifetime. Upon learning of Middleton's translation, Walser, who had fallen out of the public eye, responded by musing "Well, look at that." [9]

Walser loved long, lonely walks. On 25 December 1956 he was found, dead of a heart attack, in a field of snow near the asylum. The photographs of the dead walker in the snow are almost eerily reminiscent of a similar image of a dead man in the snow in Walser's first novel, Geschwister Tanner.

Writings and reception

Today, Walser's texts, completely re-edited since the 1970s, are regarded as among the most important writings of literary modernism. In his writing, he made use of elements of Swiss German in a charming and original manner, while very personal observations are interwoven with texts about texts; that is, with contemplations and variations of other literary works, in which Walser often mixes pulp fiction with high literature.

Walser, who never belonged to a literary school or group, perhaps with the exception of the circle around the magazine Die Insel in his youth, was a notable and often published writer before World War I and into the 1920s. After the second half of the latter decade, he was rapidly forgotten, in spite of Carl Seelig's editions, which appeared almost exclusively in Switzerland but received little attention.

Walser was only rediscovered in the 1970s, even though famous German writers such as Christian Morgenstern, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Thomas Bernhard and Hermann Hesse were among his great admirers. Since then, almost all his writings have become accessible through an extensive republication of his entire body of work. He has exerted a considerable influence on various contemporary German writers, including Ror Wolf, Peter Handke, W. G. Sebald, and Max Goldt. In 2004, Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas published a novel entitled Doctor Pasavento about Walser, his stay on Herisau and the wish to disappear. In 2007, Serbian writer Vojislav V. Jovanović published a book of prose named Story for Robert Walser inspired by the life and work of Robert Walser. In 2012, A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser [10] , a series of artistic responses to Walser's work was published, including work by Moyra Davey, Thomas Schütte, Tacita Dean and Mark Wallinger.

Robert Walser Center

The Robert Walser Center, which was officially established in Bern, Switzerland, in 2009, is dedicated to Robert Walser and the first patron of Walser’s work and legacy, Carl Seelig. Its purpose is to promulgate Walser’s life and work as well as to facilitate scholarly research. The Center is open to both experts and the general public and includes an extensive archive, a research library, temporary exhibition space, and two rooms with several workstations are also available. The Center furthermore develops and organizes exhibitions, events, conferences, workshops, publications, and special editions. The translation of Robert Walser’s works, which the Center both encourages and supports, also represents a key focus. In order to fully meet its objectives and responsibilities as a center of excellence, it often collaborates on certain projects with local, national, and international partners as well as universities, schools, theaters, museums, archives, translators, editors, and publishers.



English translations


Movie and musical adaptations

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The Robert Walser Center, which was officially established in Bern, Switzerland, in 2009, is dedicated to Robert Walser and the first patron of Walser’s work and legacy, Carl Seelig. Its purpose is to promulgate Walser’s life and work as well as to facilitate scholarly research. The Center is open to both experts and the general public and includes an extensive archive, a research library, temporary exhibition space, and two rooms with several workstations are also available. The Center furthermore develops and organizes exhibitions, events, conferences, workshops, publications, and special editions. The translation of Robert Walser’s works, which the Center both encourages and supports, also represents a key focus. In order to fully meet its objectives and responsibilities as a center of excellence, it often collaborates on certain projects with local, national, and international partners as well as universities, schools, theaters, museums, archives, translators, editors, and publishers.


  1. Sontag, Susan. "introduction to "The Walk"".
  2. Susan Sontag, "Walser's Voice". From Selected Stories of Robert Walser, 2002. New York: NYRB Classics ISBN   978-0940322981
  3. Scrima, Andrea. "The Walk by Robert Walser". The Rumpus. Retrieved 2 March 2014.
  4. Sebald, W. G. (2014). "Le Promeneur Solitaire: On Robert Walser" from A Place in the Country. New Directions. ISBN   978-1400067718.
  5. Galchen, Rivka (May 2010). "From the Pencil Zone: Robert Walser's Masterworklets". Harper's Magazine.
  6. Kunkel, Benjamin (6 August 2007). "Still Small Voice: The Fiction of Robert Walser". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2 March 2014.
  7. Lerner, Ben (3 September 2013). "Robert Walser's Disappearing Acts". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2 March 2014.
  8. Partl, S.; Pfuhlmann, B.; Jabs, B.; Stöber, G. (2011-01-01). "["My disease is one of the mind and difficult to define": Robert Walser (1879–1956) and his mental illness]". Der Nervenarzt. 82 (1): 67–78. doi:10.1007/s00115-009-2914-y. ISSN   1433-0407. PMID   21274695.
  9. Robert Walser; Bernofsky, Susan (2012). The Walk. New York: New Directions. p. 89. ISBN   978-0-8112-1992-1.
  10. Walser, Robert (2012). A little ramble : in the spirit of Robert Walser : inspired by a series of exhibitions at the Donald Young Gallery with Peter Fischli [and others]. Fischli, Peter., Middleton, Christopher. New York: New Directions. ISBN   9780811220996. OCLC   804144951.


Further reading