Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

Clairvoyant of the Small by Susan Bernofsky

By Michael Schaub

Cover of Clairvoyant of the Small; an abstract representation of a flock of birds

Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser by Susan Bernofsky (Yale)

“We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary,” Robert Walser once wrote. “We already see so much.” 

There was nothing ordinary about Walser, of course. The Swiss writer known for his novel Jakob von Gunten and his brilliant short stories did indeed see a great deal, but in a way most others never did; he wrote with a style that’s as distinctive as it is hard to define. Susan Bernofsky, who has translated several of Walser’s works into English, somehow manages to paint a vivid portrait of an author who was difficult to know, but easy to admire.

Bernofsky acknowledges that most readers are likely to be familiar with a few parts of Walser’s life: “that he trained as a bank clerk and butler when young and later spent decades in a psychiatric clinic, dying while out for a solitary walk in the snow.” There’s much more to Walser’s life than that, of course, and Bernofsky chronicles his 78 years completely, exploring how the writer’s life affected his fiction.

And she writes about his fiction with a gimlet eye; her analysis is elegant, perceptive, and at times surprising. She pays particular attention to his use of irony: “Walserian irony is a different Weltanschauung altogether. Juxtaposing modesty with stunning verbal opulence, Walser’s words ascend from the terrain they purport to map, taking flight and sketching such mesmerizing arabesques that a sentence’s ostensible ‘meaning’ becomes the least important thing about it.”

Bernofsky addresses Walser’s struggles with mental illness sensitively, never reverting to the cliche of the tortured artist. She has a keen understanding of human psychology, and her biography and analysis are better for it.

“In the sweet light of love I realized, or believe I realized, that perhaps the inward self is the only self which really exists,” Walser wrote. Bernofsky understands this, and Clairvoyant of the Small is a surprising, brilliant look at a man who never stopped looking inward.

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