The great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser lived eccentrically on the fringes of society, shocking his Berlin friends by enrolling in butler school and later developing an urban-nomad lifestyle in the Swiss capital, Bern, before checking himself into a psychiatric clinic. Setting Walser in the context of early twentieth century European history, Susan Bernofsky provides illuminating analysis of his extraordinary life and work.
Bernofsky brings alive the brilliant Berlin world in which Karl – with Robert in his wake – moved ... Bernofsky makes us feel, too, Robert’s unease at much of this, especially the high-octane social life ... Bernofsky gives us a persuasive analysis of [Der Räuber] with its modernist shifting synthesis of narrator and central character ... [An] authoritative, moving biography.
To talk about Robert Walser in a Walserian way, one needs to start with the small things, as it was those that truly gave his writing its essence. Susan Bernofsky, writer and literary translator, does just that ... an affectionate, precise piece of writing that illustrates a man of complexities both personal and professional. It is an intimate portrait of an artist, soul-crushing in its realism, with all its valor and rigor. Reading Walser’s life, lived in between furnished rooms and towns, in between long walks, in between fame and complete isolation, the bearings of these events become more and more profound. Bernofsky has previously translated many works of Walser and she sees through the many hidden layers of his writing with well-informed clarity, scrutinizing his words with the mind of a translator and the heart of an admirer. Nothing of Walser’s methodical yet itinerant prose is lost on Bernofsky; on the contrary, it finds more meaning as the protagonist of another writer’s work ... Bernofsky doesn’t try to answer the unanswerable and successfully resists categorizing Walser and his work. She gracefully discusses the elements of his persona that are difficult to pinpoint, like his sexuality, inclination to servitude, and later years spent in mental institutions. These parts of the book offer no assumptions but factual evidence ... stays true to the Walserian spirit, paying delicate attention to details and telling the story of the writer in a fluent, rhythmic narration.
Well, here it is, I’m happy to say, an accurate, independent, and well-researched English life of the pauper, walker, novelist, and most heterogeneous of authors...a life made by Bernofsky from Alps as much as archives—no sparing of shoe-leather here—and still without the prolixity that spoils so many biographies these days ... styles are important, and Bernofsky writes about them perceptively and with compassion. Truly, Walser is a handwriter who dreamed of succeeding as an original author but was often forced to return to copy work and clerking ... a book that seems to deepen and find itself as it goes along, her impressive last forty pages, The Quiet Years: 1929–1956, show her at her most resolutely delicate and forbearing ... we get a book that is (by design) not a scintillating or hard-edged character study. That is not so much the 'who' as the 'how' or mainly the 'how not' of Robert Walser—the movement of this eccentric Brownian particle through zones of poverty, independence, mannerliness, provocation, and a sort of manic positivity.