Reading the Fine Print

Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser by susan bernofsky. new haven: yale university press. 392 pages. $35.

The cover of Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser

ROBERT WALSER WAS A SWISS WRITER of the early twentieth century who wanted very much to be a German writer. He walked and walked more than he wrote and wrote, covering thousands of miles in his lifetime, albeit within limited territory. In the beginning his garb was clownish—“a wretched bright yellow midsummer suit, light dancing shoes, an intentionally vulgar, insolent, foolish hat”—near the end a motley of patched rags, and at the very end a shabby but proper suit and overcoat, his death duds when he collapsed in 1956 in the snow near the mental asylum where he had resided for twenty-three years, years in which he wrote nothing.

Walser had more or less committed himself to institutional life after a series of self-described Chittis (shit fits) in restaurants and an incident in which he asked his latest landlords, two sisters, to marry him: when they demurred, he threatened them with a knife. The clinic’s psychiatrist noted on admission, “Patient has always been peculiar.”

In her new biography Clairvoyant of the Small, translator Susan Bernofsky admits that little is known about Walser’s final decades (certainly a great deal was going on outside the oblivion of Walserworld at this time), but when he was publishing he was known and admired. Kafka quite enjoyed his work, particularly the short sketches. He found hilarious, for example, a piece called “Mountain Halls,” about a beer garden and its entertainment of dancing women on a stage with a glacier backdrop: “Nature demands its rights everywhere. Wherever Nature is found there is meaning. . . . The girls are all too quick to attach themselves to gentlemen who pity them. Pity is unsuitable when it’s a matter of artistic enjoyment.”

Walser wrote thousands of stories and feuilletons, many of them published in papers and periodicals. No observation, however slight, was resisted. On his walks he would stare at a dog for a while or admire the moon and its accompanying world of “dark sweet enchantment” or write about a “dear white of a cloud floating in the blue sky like a fairy-tale ship.” Fish in a fountain were rendered so:

There were God knows what kind of noble, in many ways probably misunderstood, melancholy-patrician, gentle, exacting goldfish shimmering and wagging their fins back and forth in a jittery strange and peculiar way in grottoes with fountains, which seemed entirely as it should be. Alongside them, of course, there were also other, not particularly interesting fishes, ordinary, banal, occasionally contemptible, astonishingly undistinguished, pathetic.

Poor fishies, conferred with such Walserian immortality.

He also wrote about schoolboys, nails, umbrellas, soldiers (who appreciate “simple food and a cheerful unworried existence”), the theater (“a dream”), his many landlords, and the difficulties, even unseemliness, of hope and love. Reading these sketches, and there are so many of them, translated by so many different people, you find yourself in the mind of a man undertaking an endless stroll and mildly wondering if he is actually taking a stroll.

Walser also wrote several novels (one lost by the publisher, one mislaid or destroyed by Walser himself, one the anomalous The Robber, noteworthy for its method of composition), the best being Jakob von Gunten, about a school for servants—possibly a masterpiece, possibly a great influence on Kafka’s The Castle—and several plays based on fairy tales, one beginning with a queen asking a newly back-from-the-dead Snow White if she’s feeling sick. The eminent Walter Benjamin found this “profound.”

In a letter to his brother Karl, an illustrator and stage designer, Walser vowed to continue with his playwriting: “I want to dramatize again very powerfully and very much and very soon. The droppings that fall from the arse of my imagination belong to you, if droppings of this sort are to your liking. I’m telling you, my imagination has the runs, maybe even the clap!!” He was just being playful, though. He did not pursue playwriting.

Karl was only a year older but had found considerable success in Berlin. Robert joined him there in 1905. Both brothers could be loutish and cruelly mischievous, but apparently Karl possessed more charm and discretion and was more at ease in society. He introduced his brother to his “high-achieving friends,” to writers and publishers including Samuel Fischer. S. Fischer was Germany’s most prominent publishing house, and it somewhat courted Walser even though he was represented by another publisher, Bruno Cassirer, for whom Karl designed book covers. At the city’s frequent literary gatherings and parties, the younger Walser was known to be “a difficult guest who drank too much and sometimes got out of hand.” One evening at Fischer’s house he flew into a rage and smashed a number of Caruso records.

In 1909 Cassirer published Jakob von Gunten, which was praised by Hermann Hesse in a review in the influential Berlin newspaper Der Tag. But later assessments were not so glowing and the book did not sell well. Cassirer released a “faux second printing” by simply creating a new title page on unsold copies, making the novel appear more popular than it actually was.

Discouraged, Walser returned to Switzerland, fearing he had run out of things to write about, having “grazed up all the motifs like a cow in its meadow.” He had made money with his writing—Cassirer had even put him on a monthly stipend as he waited for another novel—but it just . . . dissipated. He was penniless, depressed, and irritable, and became more and more engaged with drinking and extreme walking. The very thought of writing made his hand hurt. He began to “frightfully” loathe his pen. Pushing it around on the page elicited “a swoon, a cramp, a stupor.” He switched to pencils, which let him work “more dreamily, peacefully, cozily, contemplatively.” He called this his “pencil method.” As well as making him feel dreamy and cozy, perhaps even somnambulistic, the pencil altered his handwriting, which became smaller and smaller, the letters less than a millimeter high. The writing became an invention all its own, rendered all the more strange because it covered the paper it was written on—some mere scraps or the stuff of receipts, greeting cards, paperback book covers, strips of torn-off calendars—edge to edge, line pressed upon line, making the text all but indiscernible.

Robert Walser's Microscript 107, 1928.
Robert Walser's Microscript 107, 1928. From Robert Walser's Microscripts (© Suhrkamp Verlag Zurich and Frankfurt am Main, 1985/Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. and Christine Burgin, 2012)

The apotheosis of this pencil system was The Robber, written in 1925 but deciphered much later and published only in 1972. Walser used good paper, the standard octavo size, for this secret novel, found only after his death in the proverbial shoebox, but the handwriting was so miniscule that the entire novel was written on twenty-four pieces of paper.

J. M. Coetzee says that The Robber is “‘about’ no more than the adventure of its own writing,” with the Robber himself now and again having “a flutter of anxiety about the book he is writing before our eyes—about its progress, the triviality of its content, the vacuity of its hero.” Bernofsky is more positive if less explicit when she writes that “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.”

The Robber is an attractive title, suggesting daring, danger, even a rebellious romanticism, but Walser was none too subtly writing about himself. Robber(t) Robert. Robert Walser. (Of course he had always written about himself, the self that dreams, deflects, and obscures.) This insight into The Robber(t), which is unearthshatteringly accepted by many Walser scholars and devotees, is perhaps what has inspired in Bernofsky an unfortunate tic: she considers herself to be on a first-name basis with her subject. So it’s Robert Robert Robert. Bernofsky sounds like a protective aunt enchanted and a little bemused by an idiosyncratic child.

Bernofsky is deeply fond of Walser. (When he fell ill with influenza in the devastating pandemic of 1918, she writes, “Thankfully forty-year-old Robert soon recovered his health.”) She has been translating him for more than thirty years and confesses: “I quickly fell in love with his writing—the way each of his sentences takes you on a journey that so often lands you somewhere utterly unexpected. I loved his gentle wit, his sly humor, his endlessly self-effacing grandiloquence, his metaphors that shift our understanding of how the world is made.” She loves his syntactical and semantic complexity, his impulsive aleatory connections, his permeating irony, his verbal opulence, his neologistic compounds, his relativizing adverbs, his empowering way of rejecting power.

The thrills of translation must be considerable. It’s a game of hide-and-seek, of companionship and complicitous creation. The role of biographer is quite different. Presenting “the life”—the book contracts, the siblings, the places of employment and rented rooms, the drinking, the eating, the requests, the insults, the aberrations—is almost beside the point, and Clairvoyant of the Small (the title is a not particularly perspicacious coinage of W. G. Sebald’s) accumulates with details of no great import, such as a lengthy list of Walser’s known addresses.

Robert Walser's Microscript 116, 1928.
Robert Walser's Microscript 116, 1928. From Robert Walser's Microscripts (© Suhrkamp Verlag Zurich and Frankfurt am Main, 1985/Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. and Christine Burgin, 2012)

An unwaveringly committed fan, Bernofsky is often tempted to float above some of her subject’s more unsettling behavior. Walser was, by any account, socially hopeless and an awkward flirt. To one young woman he wrote that he would “like to be the handkerchief with which she blew her sweet little nose.” To another, a widow he was courting, he displaced his affections somewhat by asking her to send him a pair of her son’s outgrown trousers, saying he wanted “to love them and venerate them and gaze at them adoringly.”

“Whatever in God’s name did he mean?” exclaims Bernofsky.

An extreme, even wacky example, but the rhetorical questioning of the reader is another idiosyncratic device Bernofsky employs throughout Clairvoyant of the Small. “What if the novel wasn’t any good after all?” “Was he hiding?” “Was it too late to ask Fischer to take him on?” “What happened to him in the German capital?” “Was he now donning his erstwhile lightheartedness as a mask?” “Did they pick up a copy from a newsboy on their way to a nightcap?” “Did he even own an eraser?”

It’s true that there are many “gaps” in Walser’s life of inscrutable behavior, and Bernofsky plaintively writes on more than one occasion, “For reasons that have never become as clear as we might like . . . ” The period of his saucy enrollment in a servant’s school. His years of blowing through advances, loans, and other windfalls. The Berlin years when the Caruso incident and the permanent estrangement with his brother occurred. The asylum years most certainly, though Carl Seelig, advocate and guardian, would write of those times in Walks with Walser. Seelig would amass a considerable amount of material on Walser and planned to write a biography of his own (he had previously written one on Albert Einstein) but died in a streetcar accident in 1962. As literary executor, he had come into possession of some of the mysterious “microscripts” which he deemed “an indecipherable secret code . . . a calligraphically bewildering camouflage that he used to conceal his thoughts from the public.” In his will, Seelig stipulated that after his death all of Walser’s manuscripts were to be burned—this was Walser’s request. Bernofsky, as is her habit, writes, “What was he afraid these manuscripts might contain?” She wryly notes that “the unpublished manuscripts were not destroyed. The executor of Seelig’s will, Elio Fröhlich, was also [Kafka executor] Max Brod’s lawyer and as such already familiar with the genre of the immolation request.”

Seelig’s mistaken belief that the microscripts (more than five hundred of them would be found) were illegible, as well as his apparent ignorance of the existence of The Robber and his attempt to shape Walser’s image as a wandering loner whose sanity suffered for the sake of art, has marginalized him in the eyes of recent Walser scholars.

But Clairvoyant of the Small, in “correcting” this “misleading picture,” conjures its own suspect profile. Here, Walser is a literary professional, a “master craftsman” who “represents a rejection of and resistance to the pernicious commodification of contemporary life.”

Well. Perhaps. Not really. Reading his collected texts of words without stories, you’ll have every opportunity to decide for yourself. Walser has become a commodification factory. His sketches and novels are being continually repackaged, retranslated, reanalyzed. His letters have been collected, his aphorisms plumped up. Many of the microscripts (they are so cool) are still waiting to be enlarged and revealed even though the tininess of the pencil’s strokes and the less-than-optimum condition of the pencils themselves lead to endless opinions concerning the very words presented.

While in the asylum, Walser was informed that his brother Karl had died. He responded with a grunt. Later, when told that his sister Lisa was terminally ill and wished to see him one last time, he said that it just wasn’t something he himself could do: “Such is human fate. I too will die alone one day. I’m sorry about Lisa, of course. She was a wonderful sister to me. But her sense of family borders on the pathological, the immature.”

He did die alone one day, but there is something otherwise curious about the examined life of Robert Walser. This writer who professed to be quite singularly capable of bearing himself to “say nothing, just about nothing” had extraordinary literary contemporaries and considered himself quite their equal. Hesse, Rilke, Joyce, Musil, Kafka, Mann. With the exception of the one who gave literature the youthful longing of Siddhartha and the troubled transcendence of The Journey to the East, he outlived them all.

Joy Williams’s novel Harrow will be published by Knopf in September.