“He Soars So Incredibly High”: A Conversation about Robert Walser with Susan Bernofsky

July 26, 2021   •   By Veronica Esposito

THIS YEAR SEES the release of Susan Bernofsky’s long-awaited biography of Robert Walser, Clairvoyant of the Small, from Yale University Press. Long Walser’s primary English-language translator, and also a leading scholar of the great Swiss modernist, Bernofsky now becomes his first 21st-century biographer. This volume will come as a revelation to those who have come to adore Walser’s writing, which has undergone a revival in English in the last few decades; as there is no English-language biography that is widely available, we have had to glean our facts about Walser from the various essays that have appeared here and there in magazines like The New Yorker, journals like the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and the works of Walser devotees like the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas. In this book, Bernofsky debunks some myths — for instance, one of Walser’s most famous declarations, “I’m not here to write but to be mad,” which was said to be made during the last 20 years of his life when he retreated from society to subsist in various mental asylums, is likely apocryphal. Digging beneath the myth and misinformation that has grown up around this author, she reveals Walser as, in her words, “a literary professional, a master craftsman who encountered many obstacles on his path but remained unwaveringly devoted to his art.”


Clairvoyant of the Small is a meticulous and agile book that feels extremely thorough in its scholarship, yet holds all this erudition lightly. Bernofsky’s lively narrative style keeps things moving, alternating between Walser’s career, his relationships, the greater societal currents shaping his world, and his own many idiosyncratic behaviors. It also offers brilliant descriptions of Walser’s prose as he moves from his youthful, tentative beginnings through the maximalist and ironically naïve writing of his middle period to the baroque and endlessly digressive manner that characterizes his late writing. It’s very satisfying to read Bernofsky’s lengthy descriptions of his successive novels and collections of prose and poetry, and also her distillations of the critical reactions to each. Clairvoyant of the Small is an illuminating, engrossing read for anyone who has come to be mesmerized by Walser’s singular literary voice.


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VERONICA ESPOSITO: In addition to being Walser’s primary English translator, you are also one of his populizers — when you began translating him he was largely unknown in English, and your efforts have been crucial in bringing him into prominence. In the biography’s introduction, you describe your own journey in 1987 to the Robert Walser-Archiv in Zurich, Switzerland, as a recent college graduate, where you began the work of translating him. How did you know that this was a writer you wanted to dedicate so much of your creative life to?


SUSAN BERNOFSKY: I first “met” Robert Walser in Christopher Middleton’s pioneering translations of two of his books (Jakob von Gunten and Selected Stories) and was just mesmerized by his inventiveness, his literary derring-do — an impression that was only strengthened when my German-language skills got strong enough that I could read him in German. I never made a decision to make translating his prose a major part of my professional life, it’s just that I was drawn to one project after another, and the next thing I knew I’d translated seven volumes of his writing and worked on a new edition of an eighth.


The publication of your biography comes at an auspicious time for Robert Walser in English. All of his novels are currently in print in English translation, many volumes of his short prose are available, and even more obscure works like his poetry and verse dramas have their own English-language editions. These books sell well compared to other translated literature, and he’s highly regarded by experts and general readers. Was this incredible Walser resurgence on your mind as you wrote? What did you intend to accomplish as his first 21st-century biographer?


It gives me so much joy to know so many readers are now enjoying Walser’s work. He’s the sort of writer who makes you want to learn about who he was. I can’t tell you how many fans of his I’ve met in Switzerland who were (as I was) running around retracing his steps, going on walks he describes, visiting the locations where certain of his works were set, like the house in Wädenswil he describes in The Assistant. I myself was hungry for an updated biography (the previous one dates from 1966). For years I thought Walser scholar Bernhard Echte was going to write one — he’d been doing serious biographical research on Walser for decades. And when he decided not to, I thought: Well, someone in the Walser community has to do it …


As you describe in your biography, Walser was appreciated by some of the leading authors, critics, and publishers of his time, including Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Max Brod, and Kurt Wolff. In addition, he was able to develop a lifestyle where he could devote himself to his writing, and to publish prodigiously. Despite these successes, he never really caught on like some authors of his era, and after he went into an asylum he was almost entirely forgotten. Why do you think he was relatively unappreciated in his lifetime and fell into neglect?


In the book, I describe a number of factors that, taken together, led to Walser’s lack of commercial success as a literary author. (He was, on the other hand — at least during certain phases of his life — quite successful as a “working writer” producing short pieces for newspaper feuilleton sections.) In a nutshell, his work was aesthetically ahead of his time, and he didn’t manage to connect to the audiences who would have appreciated it. The publisher of his first three novels in Berlin, Bruno Cassirer, was more 19th-century-oriented and wasn’t equipped to suitably market Walser’s breakout novel Jakob von Gunten, which should have made him famous as a writer instead of flopping. Various other pieces of bad luck (and bad choices) followed. And so he never had the career he dreamed of, though he was respected by famous colleagues.


Although Walser’s lifestyle was conducive to a massive literary output, it seemed to be very unhealthy for him. In the biography, you document his extreme isolation, social maladjustment, and the development of severe mental health issues, which ultimately forced him into an asylum, ending his career. These aspects of the biography challenged me and made me reassess my own feelings about Walser. I’m curious to know where you come down — should (or can) we separate Walser the writer from Walser the man, and what impact if any does your knowledge about his life have on your feelings about his literature?


Since “enjoys flawless mental health” has never been one of my criteria for evaluating writers, I never had any difficulty reconciling my passionate love of Walser’s work with the revelation that for portions of his life he was quite ill. He certainly struggled to come to terms with his own illness, and writes about this at various points in his late work. There have been phases of Walser reception that fetishized his mental health struggles in different ways. Some early scholarship tried to use his illness to “explain” the wilder high-modernist features of his work, prompting a backlash, with other scholars insisting he wasn’t ill at all, just misunderstood as an artist. To me, it’s clear that he had health struggles, and that he was a great artist, and clearly his experience of struggle informed his art, and I don’t see any contradiction here.


As Walser became more and more successful, people were clamoring for him to write another novel. The pressure seemed to have gotten to him, as he either destroyed or hid multiple novel-length projects during the height of his creative powers. What do you think of him as a novelist as compared to a miniaturist? Which pieces of writing do you see as his most significant literary legacy?


In my opinion, his greatest early novel is unquestionably Jakob von Gunten and his greatest longer late work is the unpublished novel The Robber. The pressure others put on him — and that he continued to put on himself — to write additional novels did stymie his creativity, I feel. But only when he was trying to force himself to work in that form, which had become so fraught for him after his early experiences of writing novels that really were good but were nonetheless commercially unsuccessful. As an author of short prose, though, he soars so incredibly high, especially in his work of the late 1920s, where he really does stake out new aesthetic ground — and this is where I see his greatest contribution.


I was interested to see you document some very clear LGBT themes in Walser’s life and work. As a transperson who has very deep familiarity with the LGBT community from years of peer support, counseling school, and life experience, my radar was pinging. I wondered if his writing and isolation may have been in part a way of coping with an LGBT identity at a time when there was very little opportunity to do so. (Although I will note that Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin served homosexual and trans clients from 1919 until it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933.) I’m curious to know if Walser scholars have considered the possibility of Walser being LGBT and how you yourself view this question.


Walser writes so openly and repeatedly about sexual fluidity and ambiguous gender identity in his late work especially — as well as about homoeroticism — that I do see him as having some sort of LGBTQ+ identity, though what sort exactly is something he himself may have been unsure of, at least based on his surviving writings on this subject, most of which remained unpublished during his lifetime. I think it’s pretty standard now in Walser scholarship to view his relationship to sexual and gender identity as multifaceted.


To conclude, let’s consider the present and the future. Where do you think Walser’s influence is currently most keenly felt? And what does the future hold for Robert Walser?


These days, I’m seeing the fiercest love for him among visual artists and younger writers, so who knows where this new generation of fans will take him!


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