J. M. Coetzee on Robert Walser

In a 2000 article for the New York Review of Books, J. M. Coetzee reviews Robert Walser’s The Robber (translated by Susan Bernofsky) and Jakob von Gunten (translated by Christopher Middleton)
Robert Walser
Robert Walser
On Christmas Day, 1956, the police of the town of Herisau in eastern Switzerland were called out: children had stumbled upon the body of a man, frozen to death, in a snowy field. Arriving at the scene, the police took photographs and had the body removed.

The dead man was easily identified: Robert Walser, aged seventy-eight, missing from a local mental hospital. In his earlier years Walser had won something of a reputation, in Switzerland and even in Germany, as a writer. Some of his books were still in print; there had even been a biography of him published. During a quarter of a century in mental institutions, however, his own writing had dried up. Long country walks—like the one on which he had died—had been his main recreation.

The police photographs showed an old man in overcoat and boots lying sprawled in the snow, his eyes open, his jaw slack. These photographs have been widely (and shamelessly) reproduced in the critical literature on Walser that has burgeoned since the 1960s. Walser’s so-called madness, his lonely death, and the posthumously discovered cache of his secret writings were the pillars on which a legend of Walser as a scandalously neglected genius was erected. Even the sudden interest in Walser became part of the scandal. “I ask myself,” wrote the novelist Elias Canetti in 1973, “whether, among those who build their leisurely, secure, dead regular academic life on that of a writer who had lived in misery and despair, there is one who is ashamed of himself.”

Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, trans. Christopher Middleton
Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, trans. Christopher Middleton

Robert Walser was born in 1878 in the canton of Bern, the seventh of eight children. His father, trained as a bookbinder, ran a store selling stationery and notions. At the age of fourteen Robert was taken out of school and apprenticed to a bank, where he performed his clerical functions in exemplary fashion. But, possessed by dreams of becoming an actor, he ran off to Stuttgart. His one and only audition proved a humiliating failure: he was dismissed as wooden and expressionless. Abandoning the stage, Walser decided to become—“God willing”—a poet. Drifting from job to job, he wrote poems, prose sketches, and little verse plays (“dramolets”), not without success. Soon he had been taken up by Insel Verlag, publisher of Rilke and Hofmannsthal, who put out his first book.

In 1905, intent on advancing his career, he followed his elder brother, a successful book illustrator and stage designer, to Berlin. There he enrolled in a training school for servants and worked briefly as a butler in a country house (he wore livery and answered to the name “Monsieur Robert”). Before long, however, he found he could support himself on the proceeds of his writing. He contributed to prestigious literary magazines, was accepted in serious artistic circles. But he was never at ease in the role of metropolitan intellectual; after a few drinks he tended to become rude and aggressively provincial. Gradually he retreated from society to a solitary, frugal life in bedsitters. In these surroundings he wrote four novels, of which three have survived: The Tanner Children (1906), The Factotum (1908), and Jakob von Gunten (1909). All draw for their material on his own life experience; but in the case of Jakob von Gunten—the best known of these early novels, and deservedly so—that experience is wondrously transmuted. [Read More]

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