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, Walser was fascinated by everything inconspicuous and modest—social outcasts and artists as well as the impoverished, marginalized, and forgotten—prompting 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.
Walser was long believed an outsider by conviction, but in this immaculately researched and beautifully written biography Susan Bernofsky presents a more nuanced view. Setting Walser in the context of early twentieth century European history, she provides an illuminating analysis of his extraordinary life and work, bearing witness to his “extreme artistic delight.”
A 2012-2013 Leon Levy Center for Biography Fellow, Susan Bernofsky is the translator of seven works of fiction by the great Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, as well as Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. She is currently at work on a new translation of Thomas Mann’s monumental novel The Magic Mountain. She is the author of Foreign Words: Translator-Authors in the Age of Goethe and the recipient of numerous awards, including the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize and the Hermann Hesse Translation Prize. Her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel The End of Days (2014)won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, the Ungar Award for Literary Translation, and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Her translation of Yoko Tawada’s novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2016) won the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. She directs the program in literary translation in the MFA Writing Program at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
Thad Ziolkowski is the Associate Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography. He is the author of the memoir On a Wave, which was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award in 2003, and Wichita, a novel. In July of 2021, his book on surfing and addiction, The Drop, will be published by HarperCollins. His essays and reviews have appeared inThe New York Times, Slate, Bookforum, Artforum, Travel & Leisure and Interview Magazine. He has a PhD in English Literature from Yale University and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.