Susan Bernofsky is associate professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts and director of the literary translation program in Columbia’s MFA Writing Program. She has translated over twenty books. Bernofsky’s book Clairvoyant of the Small is the first English-language biography of Robert Walser, one of the great literary talents of the twentieth century. It was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.
Tiffany Troy: Can you introduce yourself? What would be helpful for a potential reader of Clairvoyant of the Small to know about you.
Susan Bernofsky: Well, it’s not a book about me. I want a potential reader to come to the book for Robert Walser because he’s just one of our great writers, who has still not been read by as many people as I think his greatness warrants. He’s the most inventive, imaginative, boundary-pushing, ahead-of-his-time genius, and I would just love for people to get curious about his work.. He’s been increasing in popularity, especially among generations of younger writers and readers and in artistic circles. He’s got many painterly fans. But Walser was writing in the very early moments of modernism, using language in a plastic way and thinking of language not as something that describes something else but as something that creates its own worlds through strangeness—and that makes his work challenging even now. He also talked about gender fluidity very early on, before that was done very much, and that’s another way he was ahead of his time.
As for me, I’m a translator who has been translating Walser for over 30 years and just really fell in love with his work as a young person and I still just adore it, so my love for him is all over that book.
TT: I definitely agree. In the past 30 years till now, what has changed in terms of your understanding of his work?
SB: My thinking about Walser as the figure who produced this work has changed a lot. As an older or middle-aged person, I’m much more aware of the personal vulnerabilities he exposed through his work. Whereas as a younger person, I was more inclined to think: oh how funny and playful he was, now I think: oh gosh, he just opened up his rib cage in front of us and is inviting us to smile at the contents. So now I see Walser as much more daring—in a psychological sense—than I used to as a young person, when I was just full of admiration for his technical mastery. Now I see him as very brave, as a writer and as a person.
TT: That’s definitely so great to have, the courage to be ahead of one’s time, and I definitely agree with you that, in terms of gender fluidity like how his work I guess was banned in Germany?
SB: Nothing of his was ever banned. I did note in the book that one two-page long text of his was censored, because he wrote about the queerness of a very famous public figure at the time. My guess is that there was a fear that the heirs of this person would come around with a lawsuit for defamation of character. “Oh no, the great Foreign Minister of Germany, wait, gay?” So that was in the 1980s, and those two pages were quietly taken out of a collection of his work. Now they’re being put back in, of course, since now we’re in the 21st century, where it goes without saying (or ought to) that people are whatever gender and sexual orientation they are.
TT: How do you approach writing Walser’s biography?
SB: It was really interesting to have to figure out how to put this book together because, as a first-time biographer, I was thinking: it’s a biography, so I will just do everything chronologically. I soon realized that that didn’t work at all. The book is basically chronologically structured, but I was new to biography writing and so didn’t really understand the extent to which you have to think in narrative arcs to tell the story of someone’s life.
I come from a fiction writing background, where everything is about narrative arcs. But at first, I didn’t approach the biography this way, and as a result had to throw away drafts of several chapters and start again from scratch. I had to learn how to preserve a sense of storytelling while presenting lots of factual information.
It was fun to go searching for all the information about Walser. It also felt like I was snooping in the life of this actually very private person. It’s an interesting game with showing and hiding because in his work, Walser self-exposes all the time. He also constantly creates narrative personas who seem like him but not quite him. It can be tricky to separate the personas from the historical Walser.
I was happy that there was some documentary evidence about episodes he fictionalized in his work, making it possible to compare the historical record with his own retellings. It was fun to see how Walser himself was mythologizing his own life.
TT: Walser is a big walker and you also had to walk to research Walser’s life. Did walking inform your writing process?
SB: Walking is my preferred form of exercise, and it also felt informative to take some long walks that Walser himself had taken. I found it inspiring to see what he saw—taking historical changes into account, of course.
In Walser’s first published story, “Lake Greifen,” the speaker walks from Zurich through the mountains and the countryside to this little lake (which is not that small, just small compared with Lake Zurich). Taking this walk, you experience suspense for these long periods when you’re uncertain if you’re heading the right way and you can’t see anything because you’re in the middle of a fir forest. I felt that the suspense inherent in the walking process fed his own discovery of narrative, his own personal way of telling stories. Walser’s first stories were walk stories. To me, walking and writing are interconnected.
TT: You compare the “flaneur” mode of walking—slowly soaking things—and compare it to Walserian mode of fast-paced walking. How is this reflected in Walser’s writing?
SB: This notion of speed is important in Walser’s work because, walking fast, you see things differently than when you are walking slowly. The blurred perception in moving quickly through space is closely connected with the way Walser constructs sentences. It’s what makes his sentences explosive: traveling far in terms of images, topics and grammar within a single sentence. I think of that as a product of speed: he was someone who probably wrote pretty fast too without letting too much cognition happen.
Walser stands in contrast to Walter Benjamin or Franz Hessel, both great flaneur writers in German, who wrote walk pieces. Benjamin is somebody who thinks for half an hour about each word. That is not Walser.
I looked at his revisions of “The Walk,” which is particularly interesting because he published the before and after. He revised every sentence of the story, but he didn’t change things around. He tightened up individual sentences but he didn’t reorder paragraphs.
TT: In mapping his trajectory as a writer in Clairvoyant of the Small, how do you go about incorporating translations of his work, including his poetry?
SB: I found it weirdly harder to do translations for the biography than when I’m just translating his work because it’s so out of context, whereas I translate in context.
I found myself kicking and screaming a bit about the translations in the book. I wanted to quote in German, but I also wanted the reader to be able to read the quotes and I was writing a book in English. Then my wonderful editor Jennifer Banks pointed out that I was quoting too much, so I cut way back on the quotes. I shortened the ones I had, and removed a whole bunch of them.
It would have been great to have a book just made entirely of Walser quotes; I could have removed all my writing from it and just said, here’s the story. Except that Walser makes things up too much.
TT: What do you mean by in context and out of context in terms of translation?
SB: If you’re translating a story, a paragraph gets narrative drive from what’s come before it and gives narrative drive to what comes after it. The same holds for lines of poetry: if you quote lines from the middle of a poem they aren’t what they are in the poem.
When I quote Walser in the biography it’s usually because I want the reader to see something specific he said, pointing the reader to a document. Even though poetry per se is not about the reporting of facts.
TT: I was struck by how you approached telling the story of Walser’s involuntary removal from the Bellelay. You wrote specifically of how Walser’s sister could no longer help Walser due to his increasingly erratic behavior. That approach felt generous to me because it maintains the integrity of Robert Walser as a historical person with his own desires but also puts it in context of people who he clearly loves and the people who love him. How do you approach balancing the motivations of the various turns in his life?
SB: Writing about the darkest moments of Walser, who I revere, was hard because I don’t fully feel I have the right to talk about what happened to him. This brilliant incredible writer suffered a breakdown, as many people do.
Besides the difficult subject matter, there’s the lack of information. Walser’s breakdown was embarrassing to the people close to him, so there are only a few factoids and a great deal of ambiguity about what happened after the breakdown. But it was also really difficult because I was trying to tell the book from what I assume his point of view would have been, all the while making clear that this is my projection of his point of view, since I’m not him and don’t know him.
I had to shift at that point to writing about Walser from the outside, because we don’t have anything that Walser himself wrote about his breakdown. We have only what other people say about it, mostly in the medical records where Walser’s condition was described. The level of distance from the subject suddenly increases vastly.
Writing this chapter, I try to show my love for Walser. The doctors don’t love him; he’s a patient. I’m trying to write about the hardest part of his life, and the only source of information comes through medical professionals who don’t have any sort of emotional relationship or personal investment in his life.
Writing this chapter, I wondered if there are readers for whom this dramatic breakdown and institutionalization will be the most exciting part of the book. Those who take an exaggerated, unkind interest in Walser’s psychiatric history drive me a little nuts. So he was a wacky writer who wrote teensy-weensy handwriting and was institutionalized—is that what we need to know about Walser? And I think: you know nothing about him if that’s all you know about him.
For me, the story of Walser’s breakdown and commitment is heartbreakingly sad. And maddening. He was drinking way too much, which certainly wasn’t helpful, possibly in an attempt to self-medicate. He was suffering hallucinations, which we know because he talked about this and it shows up in many different points in his medical record written by different hands. In one letter, Walser talks about moving around so much from room to room in Bern because there were “too many ghosts.” He wrote this not yet understanding that the voices he was hearing were coming from inside his own head. It must have been very terrifying to him to experience the sense of being haunted, literally hearing ghosts talking to him.
I found it really painful to think about what all of this must have felt like to him and tried to find a way to write about it that was fair to him and had empathy behind it, to try to write about his experience from a place of love. What happened to him is a part of his life that readers of his biograpy need to know, but I wrote it in the hope that readers won’t sensationalize this episode and make it the centerpiece of their thinking and feeling about Robert Walser, the great writer.
TT: I felt that the care and love that you had for Walser clearly shows through.
In closing, just what are you working on today, and do you have any closing thoughts, you want to share with your readers well?
SB: Apropos of our last discussion point, it does seem to me that somebody could write an entire biographical book just about Robert Walser’s experience in the psychiatric hospital. That could be an entire book. I decided to minimize that part and to summarize those 26 years of his life in one chapter. I wanted my book to be about Robert Walser the writer not Robert Walser the patient.
Robert Walser is just such a brilliant shapeshifter in his work, who took on many different personas, and wrote from many wacky points of view. I hope that that readers will enjoy reading his novels, poems, and stories.
Now I’m working on translating Thomas Mann’s massive novel The Magic Mountain. The book is a little daunting in its hugeness. Mann’s life was also certainly quite different from Robert Walser’s. Mann lived a bourgeois existence and had enough family wealth to keep him comfortable, and he himself made a lot of money through his writing. I recently read Colm Tóibín’s novel, The Magician, a fictionalized portrait of Mann and his family, which is fascinating. So Mann is a very different figure from Walser, but also a bit of a shapeshifter. Mann also gets put on a pedestal as the epitome of Germanness. But his mom was born in Brazil and Thomas Mann has a lot of feelings of cultural insecurity. Like, Is he German enough? One feels that in the book and in his writing.
I do miss working on Walser. I spent so long in Walser-land. Eventually I’ll go back and translate some more Walser because I miss him!
Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.