Walser, Robert Otto
Around 1890
First name:
Robert Otto
19th century
20th century
Field of expertise:
Place of birth:
Bern (CHE)
* 15.04.1878
† 25.12.1956
Biography print

Swiss writer.


Robert Walser (1878-1956) was born in Biel, Canton of Bern (Switzerland), as the seventh of eight children. During his time in primary and lower secondary school, he had a reputation as a model student and “calligrapher”. When the family suffered economic hardship, his mother, Elisa Walser, received psychiatric treatment for being “emotionally disturbed” and eventually became a case for nursing care. Walser had to leave secondary school at the age of fourteen since his family could no longer afford the cost. He then served an apprenticeship at the Biel branch of the Cantonal Bank of Bern (1892-1895). In spite of this training, he later worked at a succession of unskilled jobs while trying to make a living as a writer.


Life and literary work

Walser’s early literary work is markedly lyrical and emotionally intense. His first poems, published in 1898 in a Bernese newspaper, already gained him some attention. His first books, Fritz Kochers Aufsätze, Der Commis and Ein Maler, appeared four years later. In 1903, he worked as an aide to an inventor in Wädenswil near Zurich. This episode inspired his 1908 novel Der Gehülfe (The Assistant), written during his time in Berlin (1905-1913). There he also wrote the novels Geschwister Tanner (The Tanners) and Jakob von Gunten. He tried to establish himself as a writer but failed to gain a foothold. In his novel Jakob von Gunten, Walser drew on his experiences as a servant at the castle of Dambrau in Upper Silesia. The theme of serving, including the stereotypes and ideals associated therewith, is characteristic of his writings from this period, which depict the bourgeois life at that time. Although lauded by critics and fellow writers alike, Walser never reached a wider audience and, from 1911 onwards, increasingly isolated himself and published less. He returned to Biel in 1913, and his economic situation became ever more difficult. In Biel, he wrote two more novels and a number of short stories. His main characters increasingly appeared to be introverted and solitary, such as in the 1916 novella Der Spaziergang (The Walk).

In 1921, Walser moved to Bern. He lived a very solitary life, repeatedly changed dwellings and wrote the posthumously published novel Der Räuber (The Robber) in 1925. This work belongs to his first “microscripts”: pencil-written, micrographically small and hardly decipherable texts in Kurrent hand. The majority of the extant microscripts were written before 1929 (cf. Walser 1985/2000). Suffering from acute anxiety, he was admitted to the mental institution Waldau in January 1929 and diagnosed with “schizophrenia”. A more recent interpretation in retrospect states a psychotic affective disorder, thought disorder, autism, mannerism, delusion and hallucinations (Partl, Pfuhlmann, Jabs & Stöber 2011). In the same year when Walser was hospitalised, Walter Benjamin remarked on his literary subjects: “For sobbing is the melody of Walser’s loquaciousness. It reveals to us where his favourite characters come from – namely, from insanity and nowhere else. They are figures who have left madness behind them, and this is why they are marked by such a consistently heartrending, inhuman superficiality. If we were to attempt to sum up in a single phrase the delightful yet uncanny element in them, we would have to say: they have all been healed” (1929: 259).


Life in psychiatry

At Waldau, Walser went on writing microscripts on all available pieces of paper. When he was moved to the sanatorium at Herisau against his will in 1933, he quit writing altogether (on this much discussed issue see Gisi 2012). For the next 23 years, he spent his time in “quiet occupational therapy” with chores like gluing paper bags, and was said to have been rule-abiding to the extreme (Blum 2003). His last legal guardian, the writer and editor Carl Seelig, sought to revive interest in Walser’s work and reissued some of his writings. Robert Walser died on 25 December 1956 on one of his daily long walks, presumably of a heart attack.

The extensive body of his work is kept at the Robert Walser Archive at the Robert Walser Center in Bern, and the Zurich-based Robert Walser Society aims to protect and disseminate his literary legacy. Some of Walser’s writings have been turned into films or audio books. Today, he is considered one of the most significant modernist German-language writers.



Amann, J. (2006): Robert Walser. Eine literarische Biographie in Texten und Bildern. Zurich: Diogenes.

Auer, B. (2005): Geschrieben, aber nicht gedruckt? Quellen zu Robert Walsers Schreibtätigkeit in der Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Herisau. In: Appenzellische Jahrbücher 133, pp. 38-4.

Benjamin, W. (1929): Robert Walser. In: Jennings, M., H. Eiland, G. Smith (eds.) (1999): Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings. Vol. 2, Part 1, 1927-1930. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 257-260.

Bernhard, E. (ed.) (2008): Robert Walser. Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten. Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp.

Blum, I. (2003): Robert Walser: Herisauer Jahre 1933-1956. In: Schweizerische Ärztezeitung 84, (15), pp. 688-691.

Borchmeyer, D. (ed.) (1999): Robert Walser und die moderne Poetik. Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp.

Evans, T. S. (ed.) (1996): Robert Walser and the Visual Arts. New York: CUNY.

Gigerl, M. (2005): “Lassen Sie ihn weiter hindämmern...” : oder weshalb Robert Walser nicht geheilt wurde. In: Appenzellische Jahrbücher 133, pp. 10-23.

Gisi, L. M. (2012). Das Schweigen des Schriftstellers. Robert Walser und das Macht-Wissen der Psychiatrie. In: M. Wernli (ed.):  Wissen und Nicht-Wissen in der Klinik. Dynamiken der Psychiatrie um (1900). Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 231-259.

Greven, J. (1960): Existenz, Welt und reines Sein im Werk Robert Walsers. (Reprint). Munich: Fink 2009.

Greven, J. (2003): Robert Walser: Ein Außenseiter wird zum Klassiker. Abenteuer einer Wiederentdeckung. Lengwil: Libelle.

Harman, M. (ed.) (1985): Robert Walser Rediscovered. Stories, Fairy-Tale Plays, and Critical Responses. Hanover, London: UPNE.

Knüsel, L. (2005): “Herr Walser hilft stets fleissig in der Hausindustrie. Falzt zusammen mit Herrn Solenthaler Papiersäcke” - Robert Walser in der Arbeitstherapie. In: Appenzellische Jahrbücher 133, pp. 24-36.

Partl, S., B. Pfuhlmann, B. Jabs, G. Stöber (2011): Meine Krankheit ist eine Kopfkrankheit, die schwer zu definieren ist. In: Der Nervenarzt 82, (1), pp. 67-78.

Seelig, C. (1957): Wanderungen mit Robert Walser. St. Gallen: Tschudy.

Thut, A., C. Walt (2011): “Das muß besser gesagt sein”. Techniken der Überarbeitung in Robert Walsers Mikrographie. In: L. M. Gisi, H. Thüring, I. M. Wirz (eds.): Schreiben und Streichen. Zu einem Moment produktiver Negativität. Göttingen, Zurich: Wallstein, pp. 247-263.

Walser, R. (1985-2000): Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet. Mikrogramme aus den Jahren 1924-1933. 6 vol. Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp.

Walser, R. (since 2011): Kritische Ausgabe. Sämtliche Drucke und Manuskripte. Basel: Schwabe.

Walser, R. (1985/86): Sämtliche Werke in Einzelausgaben. Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp.

Walser, R. (1917): Der Spaziergang. Frauenfeld: Huber. [English edition: The Walk and Other Stories. London: Serpent’s Tail. 1992]

Walser, R. (1909): Jakob von Gunten. Ein Tagebuch. Berlin: Cassirer. [English edition: Jakob von Gunten. New York: New York Review Books. 1999]

Walser, R. (1908): Der Gehülfe. Berlin: Cassirer. [English edition: The Assistant. London: Penguin Books. 2008]

Walser, R. (1907): Geschwister Tanner. Berlin: Cassirer. [English edition: The Tanners. New York: New Directions. 2009]

Walser, R. (1904): Fritz Kocher’s Aufsätze. Leipzig: Insel.

Wieser, M. (1983): “Erzähl bitte nicht jedem Löl, dass ich hier bin”. Briefe aus der Waldau. In: Die Affenschaukel 2, pp. 10-17.


Ansgar Fabri, Burkhart Brückner


Photo: unknown / Source: Wikimedia / [public domain].


Referencing format
Ansgar Fabri, Burkhart Brückner (2015): Walser, Robert Otto.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
URL: www.biapsy.de/index.php/en/9-biographien-a-z/94-walser-robert-otto-e
(retrieved on:17.04.2024)