The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

April 15, 2017

April 15, 1878

Robert Walser (April 15, 1878 to December 25, 1956), the Swiss writer, has a claim on our attention for the books he wrote before he was institutionalized, in 1933. His first novel, though not his first book, Geschwister Tanner (1906) was written in his brother's apartment. During a six weeks absence on his brother's part, Robert is said to have written the book while living on sprats. Sprats is a kind of herring, and the source of our information, the translator, Christopher Middleton, surmises that his brother's cat shared this diet. Middleton's translation of Walser's novel Jakob von Gunten, published in 1969, is our citation.
Many assumptions about Robert Walser are challenged in an essay by Jacob Silverman. We quote below some of these points, to put Walser in a contemporary context:

...[M]y essay about Robert Walser, focus[es] on the Swiss author’s microscripts—peculiar short stories written in a minuscule script on business cards, receipts, torn-off novel covers, and other forms of scrap paper. Before entering the Herisau asylum in 1933, for a putative diagnosis of schizophrenia, Walser had written and published widely, including in many of Central Europe’s German-language newspapers. But by the time he died in 1956, he was, like many writers of his type, nearly friendless and forgotten, and he likely hadn’t written anything in years. He was, in many respects, alone and insubstantial.

On December 25, 1956, a group of children in Herisau found Walser’s body in the snow, his right hand on his chest, his left arm outstretched, a black hat lying nearby. Seventy-eight years old, he had died while on one of his customary long walks. The police came and took photographs, one of which has since become something of an iconic image of the solitary, perambulating writer....
[There is a] side of Walser that displayed an exuberant, childlike innocence...[This despite] his ... life story, marked by recurrent insecurities, poverty, an inability to find satisfying companionship of the amorous or intellectual kind, and a quiet death that meant that he, too, like the rest of his siblings, would die childless. .... However low Walser’s reputation may have dipped (some Europeans say he never went out of fashion, that his resurgence is overemphasized to burnish a legend), he is no more ... overshadowed by this [sad] photograph than he is by the glib caricature of having been a mad genius—when he was, of course, far more complex and far less mad. The wealth of new translations of Walser works, as well as the frequent appearance of new critical pieces, has only cemented his status as an important representative of early twentieth-century European literature. His tangled microscripts, published in German but most not yet translated into English, ensure that his posthumous life will be a long one....

There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of this assessment, published in 2010.

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