I’m here to be mad

Christopher Benfey

Best known for his short prose sketches, the idiosyncratic Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) liked to call himself a ‘craftsman novelist’, cobbling together ‘a long, plotless, realistic story’. He insisted that his varied sketches – prose poems, portraits of friends and strangers, detailed accounts of walks through the city or countryside, stray bits of literary or art criticism, oddball fantasies – were actually fragments of a single work, which ‘might be described as a variously sliced up or torn apart book of myself’. After a bumpy and peripatetic career, some of it spent in Berlin, some in Bern, among other places, Walser lived out the last three decades of his life, suffering from depression and schizophrenia, in a mental asylum in the Alpine village of Herisau. Every few months, his fellow Swiss writer Carl Seelig, who became his guardian and literary executor, arrived by train; the two men walked and had meandering conversations, Wanderungen in both terrain and language. Seelig’s memoir is specially welcome in offering a believable portrait of a literary figure who remains – despite the highest praise from W.G. Sebald and Susan Sontag, among other admirers – stubbornly elusive.

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