Fritz Kochers Aufsätze, 1904
Kleine Dichtungen, 1914
Der Spaziergang, 1917 (The Walk, and Other Stories, 1957)
Kleine Prosa, 1917
Die Rose, 1925
Selected Stories, 1982 (foreword by Susan Sontag)
Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet: Mikrogramme aus den Jahren 1924–1925, 1985
Masquerade, and Other Stories, 1990
Geschwister Tanner, 1907
Der Gehülfe, 1908
Jakob von Gunten, 1909 (English translation, 1969)
Der “Räuber”-Roman, 1972 (The Robber, 2000)
Aschenbrödel, pr. 1901 (fairy-tale play; Cinderella, 1985)
Schneewittchen, pr. 1901 (fairy-tale play; Snowwhite, 1985)
Die Knaben, pr. 1902 (sketch)
Komödie: Theatralisches, pb. 1919
Unbekannte Gedichte, 1958
Eine Ohrfeige und Sonstiges, 1925 (A Slap in the Face Et Cetera, 1985)
Das Gesamtwerk, 1966–1975 (13 volumes)
Robert Walser Rediscovered: Stories, Fairy-Tale Plays and Critical Responses, 1985
The prominent German publisher Siegfried Unseld called Robert Walser (VAHL-sur) “the greatest unknown author in the German language in [the twentieth] century.” This prolific, dedicated, but very independent writer of short prose, novels, playlets, and poems gained considerable recognition early in his career, most notably from Franz Kafka and Christian Morgenstern, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Hermann Hesse. As time went on, however, his unconventional works failed to appeal to a broader audience. Virtually forgotten for several decades, he was rediscovered in the 1960’s and is viewed not only as a leading Swiss author of the twentieth century but also as one of the first modernist writers of self-conscious fiction.
Robert Otto Walser was the second-youngest of eight children. His father, Adolf Walser, was a congenial man who tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at a number of business ventures. His mother, Elisa Marti Walser, and two of his brothers suffered from mental instability. Robert was closest to his sister Lisa, a schoolteacher, and his successful brother Karl, who illustrated several of his books. At the age of fourteen, Walser left school and learned the banking trade. For some time he toyed with the idea of becoming an actor but eventually turned to literature instead.
In 1896 Walser moved to Zurich, where he remained until 1905, constantly changing residences and clerical jobs, which was to become a pattern in his life. It was there that his first works, six poems, were published in the Swiss newspaper Der Bund, which in turn led to an invitation to publish additional poems, prose pieces, and playlets in the new literary journal Die Insel in Munich. Walser’s breakthrough came in 1904, when the publishing house Insel in Leipzig published his first book, Fritz Kochers Aufsätze (Fritz Kocher’s essays), supposedly the compositions of a gifted young schoolboy. This early work contains many of the themes, motifs, and narrative techniques that became Walser’s trademark. Although the slim volume with its amusing drawings by his brother Karl received high critical praise, it sold so poorly that the publisher reneged on his commitment to a second book of poems and dramas. This was the first of a number of similar occasions where one of Walser’s works was received with initial enthusiasm but then failed to sell, which invariably led to the publishers’ dropping Walser from their lists. In the spring of 1905, still convinced that his first book could be a commercial success, Walser joined his brother Karl in cosmopolitan Berlin to embark on a career as a freelance writer. Soon after, however, he enrolled in a school for domestic servants, an experience he later fictionalized in his novel Jakob von Gunten, and worked in a castle in Upper Silesia as a footman. For most of his life he was obsessed with the role of the servant.
It was during his Berlin years, 1905 to 1913, that Walser produced most of his novels in quick succession, notably Geschwister Tanner (the Tanner siblings), Der Gehülfe (the assistant), and Jakob von Gunten. These largely autobiographical novels had scant plots and shifting viewpoints, and all feature closely related central characters in lowly positions who engage in contradictory self-analysis. They are vaguely based on Walser’s Zurich years and on his experiences as the secretary of a Swiss inventor and as a student in the school for servants in Berlin. Although Walser had vowed that he would sooner join the army than become “a supplier to magazines,” he continued to produce large numbers of short texts, many of which found their way into periodicals and newspapers throughout German-speaking Europe. During the later Berlin years, however, when his novels did not elicit the desired critical response and he found it more and more difficult to place his shorter prose pieces, his productivity began to suffer, and he grew increasingly despondent.
In 1913, disappointed, nearly destitute, and convinced that he had failed as a novelist, Walser returned to his native Biel, where he spent the next seven years (1913-1921). For much of the time he lived quietly in a spare attic room in the Hotel Blaues Kreuz (a temperance hostel) on what he described as “the periphery of bourgeois existence,” always in financial straits and always struggling to find a publisher for his works. Several volumes of more traditional, almost neo-Romantic short prose appeared during the Biel period, much of it inspired during long walks in the environs of Biel: Kleine Prosa (short prose), for which he received a prize, Prosastücke (prose pieces), Poetenleben (poets’ lives), and Seeland(lakeland). It was in Biel that Walser devised a new and rather peculiar method of writing, his “pencil system.” He filled many large sheets of paper with increasingly small, seemingly illegible texts that were long thought to be written in a form of private shorthand. These “microgrammes” turned out to be first drafts of prose pieces, playlets, and poems, many of which he wrote in Bern from 1924 to 1931. The novel Der “Räuber”-Roman (the “robber” novel), a witty novel about an artist in search of material, is now regarded as the most enduring narrative work in what have become known as Walser’s microscripts.
In 1921 Walser moved to Bern, where, once again, he changed residences more than a dozen times. He was extremely productive but found few outlets for his works. Several manuscripts were rejected by publishers, and the last work that Walser was able to publish himself, Die Rose (the rose), a collection of demanding short texts, was poorly received. As the pieces he sent out to journals became more radical, they were rejected with increasing frequency. By the late 1920’s Walser was living the life of a recluse. At times he drank heavily and suffered from severe bouts of anxiety. When he began hallucinating and hearing voices, he was committed to the mental hospital Waldau near Bern and diagnosed a schizophrenic, a diagnosis that is no longer believed to have been accurate. In Waldau, Walser continued to write sporadically, but after his involuntary transfer to a public institution in Herisau in 1933 he ceased writing altogether.
Until he died of a heart attack on Christmas Day in 1956 at the age of seventy-eight, he performed simple manual work and took long solitary walks in the hills of eastern Switzerland. From 1936 until his death he was visited several times a year by the Swiss critic and journalist Carl Seelig, who ultimately became Walser’s legal guardian and literary executor. Seelig recorded their conversations and published them in 1957 as Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (walks with Robert Walser), now regarded as a significant contribution to Walser scholarship. Walser, like several other unorthodox German-Swiss writers of his generation, gained wider public recognition after his death than he had in life. Many of his works were published posthumously. The rediscovery of Walser began, very slowly, in the late 1950’s, thanks to the efforts of Seelig. Interest in this author grew dramatically in the late 1970’s, around the centenary of his birth, when a new edition of his collected works and several translations reached a broader, more diversified audience. Critical interest in Walser reached new heights in 1985 when the first volumes of his microscripts appeared.