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

Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser

Susan Bernofsky. Yale Univ, $35 (392p) ISBN 978-0-300-22064-3

Translator Bernofsky (Foreign Words) teases out misperceptions about “unwaveringly devoted” Swiss author Robert Walser (1878–1956) in this masterful biography. “Not so long ago,” Bernofsky writes, Walser was “the greatest modernist author you’d never heard of,” though now his life is “full of gaps.” Arguably best known for his microscripts, works discovered after his death composed in minuscule writing, Walser was born to a middle-class family, but financial hardship after the family business collapsed meant that at age 14, he had to leave school. Walser moved to Zurich, then to Berlin with his brother, and finally back to Switzerland, where he began writing his signature short-form pieces. In 1921, Bernofsky writes, “mental illness became a complicating factor in his life,” and he entered an asylum where he stayed for the last 28 years of his life: he died alone, while taking one of his beloved walks. With skillful and lucid readings of Walser’s work, Bernofsky succeeds in creating a portrait of Walser as a “master craftsman”—his short-form essays “constructed elaborate edifices around the simplest topics,” while his 1921 novel, Theodor, showed “a layer of self-reflexive complexity” not seen in his earlier work. This balanced and meticulous account shines a bright light on a misunderstood and influential writer. (May)