Robert Walser (1878–1956) is considered one of the most mysterious writers of his time. Born in Biel, Switzerland, he left school at the age of fourteen to serve an apprenticeship at a local bank. Walser’s early poems were first published in 1898, and his success allowed him access to Munich’s literary circles.
Although Walser achieved some success with his first three novels—Geschwister Tanner (The Tanners) (1907), Der Gehülfe (The Assistant) (1908) and Jakob von Gunten (1909)—he was unable to establish himself in the literary life of Berlin, where he had lived since 1905. In 1913, feeling he had utterly failed, Walser returned to his native city of Biel. He rented an attic room in the servants’ quarters of the Hotel Blaues Kreuz, where he lived in extreme poverty and wrote a number of short prose pieces. Prosastücke (Prose Pieces) (1916/17), Poetenleben (A Poet’s Life) (1917/18) and Seeland (Lake District) (1920) were all published by Swiss publishing houses. Der Spaziergang (The Walk) (1917) is widely considered to be Walser’s most important work from this period of his life. The novel Tobold, which was also written in Biel, remained unpublished, and the manuscripts for both Tobold and a subsequent novel, Theodor, have disappeared. In 1921, Walser moved to Bern, where he frequently changed lodgings. He continued to publish his work in the “feuilleton”sections of newspapers; however, except for the collection Die Rose (The Rose) (1925), Walser failed to publish another book. Various texts, including the novel Der Räuber (The Robber), were contained in the so-called “microscripts”, i.e., a large number of loose papers covered to “the edges” with a minuscule, almost illegible pencil script, which at first was considered to be some kind of secret code.
After a mental breakdown in 1929, Walser first entered the asylum in Waldau, Bern, and then the Herisau sanitarium (Appenzell) in 1933, where he ceased to write and spent the last twenty-three years of his life in almost complete anonymity.
Walser died on a solitary walk in the snow on Christmas Day, 1956. Although Walser was greatly admired by such writers as Hermann Hesse, Kurt Tucholsky, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, he remained unappreciated by a wider audience. Today, however, he is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
For further information about the work and life of Robert Walser, please see (in German):
Lucas Marco Gisi (Hg.): Robert Walser Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung. Stuttgart: Metzler 2015.
Bernhard Echte (Hg.): Robert Walser. Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 2008.
Robert Mächler: Das Leben Robert Walsers. Eine dokumetarische Biographie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1966/2003 (st; 3486).