Clairvoyant of the Small The Life of Robert Walser Susan Bernofsky

Publication date:
25 May 2021
Yale University Press
384 pages: 235 x 156mm
14 b-w + 4 color illus.

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. A connoisseur of power differentials, his pronounced interest in everything inconspicuous and modest—social outcasts and artists as well as the impoverished, marginalized, and forgotten—prompted W. G. Sebald to dub him “a clairvoyant of the small.” His revolutionary use of short prose forms had an enormous influence on Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Robert Musil, and many others.

He was long believed an outsider by conviction, but Susan Bernofsky presents a more nuanced view in this immaculately researched and beautifully written biography. Setting Walser in the context of early twentieth century European history, she provides illuminating analysis of his extraordinary life and work, bearing witness to his “extreme artistic delight.”

Susan Bernofsky is associate professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts and director of the literary translation program at Columbia’s MFA Writing Program. She has translated over twenty books.