Robert Walser — Modernism’s Mystery Man

By Bill Marx

Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Robert Walser’s 1908 novel won her a 2007 PEN Translation Fund Award. She’s followed that up by translating the Swiss writer’s first novel, “The Tanners.”

A recent World Books podcast explores two recent translations from the German of novels by the mysterious Swiss writer Robert Walser, an author whose fans included Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka. But while Walser was hot in the 1920s and 1930s, it took decades before his work was translated into English. New Directions is publishing translations of two of his early novels, both written at the turn of the century.

“The Assistant” appeared over a year ago; “The Tanners” will be available soon. Susan Bernofsky translated both books as well as a number of Walser’s short pieces. She is working on a book on Walser, who in the late 1920s entered an insane asylum, diagnosed with schizophrenia. The writer died in 1956.

Susan Bernofsky proudly holds up her recent Walser translations.

Bernofsky argues that it has taken 100 years for American readers to be able to appreciate Walser’s fiction, particularly his short pieces, which not only anticipate post-modernism but whose fragmented bravado suggest Walser may have been the first blogger. Our conversation ranged from the challenges of reading Walser to the reasons behind the neglect of his work and why she wanted to translated him in the first place. At the end of the podcast, I had Bernofsky an excerpt from Walser, an episode that centers on a the broken plate.


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