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The Robber

The Robber

by Robert Walser, Susan Bernofsky (Translator)

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The Robber, Robert Walser’s last novel, tells the story of a dreamer on a journey of self-discovery. It is a hybrid of love story, tragedy, and farce, with a protagonist who sweet-talks teaspoons, flirts with important politicians, plays maidservant to young boys, and uses a passerby’s mouth as an ashtray. Walser’s novel spoofs the


The Robber, Robert Walser’s last novel, tells the story of a dreamer on a journey of self-discovery. It is a hybrid of love story, tragedy, and farce, with a protagonist who sweet-talks teaspoons, flirts with important politicians, plays maidservant to young boys, and uses a passerby’s mouth as an ashtray. Walser’s novel spoofs the stiff-upper-lipped European petit bourgeois and its nervous reactions to whatever threatens the stability of its worldview.

Editorial Reviews

John Ashbery
Those familiar with the work of Robert Walser, who led a life of obscurity, but whose admirers included Kafka, Hesse, Musil and Walter Benjamin, won't need to be prompted to procure his 1925 novel, The Robber...In the eupohoric, endlessly proliferating style typical of his work of the early 1920's, this "story of a dreamer on a voyage of self-discovery" is in marked contrast to the angst and mystery of his earlier novel, Jakob von Gunten.< br>—Times Literary Supplement

“It's the sharp observation of the mundane details of daily existence in a smallish European city after World War I that helps keep the reader grounded. The narrative twists and leaps, along with asides bout the writing process, give the book a hectic energy.”—Booklist
New York Review of Books

"[The Robber's] charm lies in its surprising twists and turns of direction, its delicately ironic handling of the formulas of amatory play, and its supple and inventive exploitation of the resources of German. . . . Susan Bernofsky rises splendidly to the challenge of late Walser, particularly his play with the compound formations to which German is so hospitable. . . . The Robber is more or less contemporary in composition with Joyce's Ulysses and with the later volumes of Proust's Rechere. Had it been published in 1926 it might have affected the course of modern German literature, opening up and even legitimating as a subject the adventures of the writing (or dreaming) self and the meandering line of ink (or pencil) that emerges under the writing hand."—J. M. Coetzee, New York Review of Books

— J. M. Coetzee

International Fiction Review

“In an informative introduction, the translator Bernofsky sets out the pragmatic context of this writer and his work: a novel published posthumously in 1972, written by an author secretively during the twenties, his years in Bern, Switzerland. . . . It was an acrobatic act to translate this novel, for Walser spares his silent reader no effort to follow his dazzling train of thought. . . . Susan Bernofsky has achieved what every good translator aspires to: Her work reads like an original English text.”—Josef Schmidt, International Fiction Review

New York Review of Books - J. M. Coetzee

"[The Robber's] charm lies in its surprising twists and turns of direction, its delicately ironic handling of the formulas of amatory play, and its supple and inventive exploitation of the resources of German. . . . Susan Bernofsky rises splendidly to the challenge of late Walser, particularly his play with the compound formations to which German is so hospitable. . . . The Robber is more or less contemporary in composition with Joyce's Ulysses and with the later volumes of Proust's Rechere. Had it been published in 1926 it might have affected the course of modern German literature, opening up and even legitimating as a subject the adventures of the writing (or dreaming) self and the meandering line of ink (or pencil) that emerges under the writing hand."—J. M. Coetzee, New York Review of Books
William H. Gass

The Robber, a large novel writ small—in microscript—didn’t reach print in its original German until 1972. Now, to the great benefit of all of us who haven’t microscopes, comes Susan Bernofsky’s triumphant translation of this extraordinary novel, one of the true wonders of the European fictional world. If you are fond of pleasure postponed, of insertions, digressions, concealments—and who is not?—this maze will amaze you. This translation has caught it all: you will scratch your head; you will laugh out loud.”—William H. Gass

Product Details

UNP - Bison Books
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Edition description:
New Edition
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5.01(w) x 8.51(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Edith loves him. More on this later. Perhaps she never shouldhave initiated relations with this good-for-nothing who hasno money. It appears she's been sending him emissaries, or — howshall we put it — ambassadresses. He has ladyfriendseverywhere, but nothing ever comes of them, and what anothing has come of this famous, as it were, hundred francs!Once, out of sheer affability, benevolence, he left one hundredthousand marks in the hands of others. Laugh at him,and he'll laugh as well. This alone might make a dubious impression.And not one friend to show for himself. In "all thistime" he's spent here among us, he's failed — which delightshim — to gain the esteem of gentlemen. Can you imagine amore flagrant lack of talent? His polite manners have wornon certain people's "nerves" for quite some time. And Edithloves him, poor lass, and in this warm weather we're having,he takes his evening dip as late as half past nine. All the sameto me, just so he doesn't complain. What a labor his educationhas been! And this Peruvian, or whatever he calls himself,really supposes he could manage alone? "What is itnow?" Words like these are addressed to him by working-classgirls, and — lummox that, so help me, he appears to be — hefinds this way of inquiring into his wishes enchanting.Here and there they've been treating him like a real pariah, anhonor he enjoys to this day. They look at him as if to exclaim:"So this impossible person is back again, just for a change?Oh, what a bore!" To be glanced at unkindly amuses him.Today it rained a little, and so she loves him. She lovedhimtenderly, as it were, from the very first moment, but he didn'tbelieve it possible. And now this widow who died for him. Weshall return, no doubt, to this relatively exemplary woman,who owned a shop in one of our streets. Our city is like a bigfarm, all its parts fit together so neatly. On this subject as wellthere'll be more to say. At any rate, I'll keep it brief. And restassured, nothing unseemly will be disclosed to you, for I considermyself a refined sort of author, which is perhaps perfectlyfoolish of me. Perhaps a few not-so-fine items will slipin as well. That hundred francs, then, will come to nothing atall. How can a person be as prosaic as this incorrigible light-heart,who is obliged to hear from the lips of prettily apronedgirls when they catch sight of him: "And now this. That's reallythe last straw." Naturally such expressions make him inwardlytremble, but he always forgets everything. Only agood-for-nothing like him can let so many important, lovely,useful things constantly tumble out of his brain. Being perpetuallyshort of cash is a form of good-for-nothingness.Once he sat upon a bench in the woods. When was this?Women of circumstance judge him more gently. Might theyharbor expectations of cheekiness? And the way managersshake hands with him. Isn't that odd? To shake the hand ofthis Robber?

The by-your-leave-ism, don't-mind-if-I-do-ishness of pedestrianson the streets vexes motorists. One more quick thingI'd like to say: there's a stand-in here who won't listen to me.I intend to abandon him to his pig-headedness. I'll leave himmost splendidly forgotten. But now a mediocrity has scoreda success with Edith. He wears, at any rate, one of those flatteringhats that lend all their wearers a modern appearance.I'm mediocre myself, and quite pleased that I am, but therewas nothing mediocre about the Robber on his woodlandbench, otherwise he couldn't possibly have whispered tohimself: "Once I frolicked through the streets of a luminouscity as a clerk and dreaming patriot. If my memory hasn'tdimmed, I once went to fetch a lantern glass, or whatever itmay have been, at the request of her ladyship my employer.In those days, I kept watch over an old man and told tales toa young girl about what I'd been before arriving in her proximity.Now I sit idle, and, for propriety's sake, I'll put theblame on foreign countries. From abroad I received, promisingeach time to show some talent, a monthly stipend. Butthen, instead of occupying myself with culture, spirit, and soon, I chased after diversions. One day my benefactor drew myattention to the inappropriateness which seemed to him toslumber in the possibility of his further financial support.This announcement made me nearly dumb with astonishment.I sat down at my elegant little table, that is, on the sofa.My landlady found me weeping. `Don't be worried,' she saidto me. `If you delight my ears each evening with a lovelyrecitation, I'll have the most succulent cutlets prepared foryou in my kitchen, free of charge. Not all human beings aredestined by nature to be useful. You constitute an exception.'These words constituted for me the possibility of continuedexistence without the performance of work. Then the railroadlines conveyed me here so that Edith's face might terrifyme. The pain she brings me is like a sturdy beam from whichpleasures swing." Thus he conversed with himself beneaththe canopy of leaves, subsequently leaping in several boundsup to an unfortunate drunkard who was just tucking awayhis flask beneath his coat. "You there, wait!" he cried out, "explainto me what sort of secret it is you're concealing therefrom your fellow man." The one so addressed stood still as apillar, not without smiling. The two gazed at each other,whereupon the unfortunate fellow took himself off again,shaking his head, and dropping in his wake all sorts of sottovoce platitudes regarding the spirit of the times. The Robbercarefully gathered up all these remarks. Night had fallen, andour expert on the environs of Pontarlier made his way home,where he arrived quite sleepy. As for the city of Pontarlier, hehad made its acquaintance in a famous book. It boasts,among other things, a fortress in which, for a time, both awriter and a Negro general agreeably lodged. Before our frequentand prodigious reader of French lay down in his nest,or bed, he remarked: "Really I should have given her backthat bracelet long ago." Whom might he have been thinkingof? A curious soliloquy, to which we are reasonably certain toreturn. He always polished his shoes with his own two handsat eleven in the morning. At half past eleven he ran down thestairs. For lunch, as a rule, there was spaghetti, oh yes, whichhe always ate with pleasure. How strange it sometimes seemedto him that he never tired of finding it tasty. Yesterday I cutmyself a switch. Imagine this: an author strolls about in theSunday countryside, harvests a switch, which allows him toput on colossal airs, devours a roll with ham, and finds, whilehe's polishing off this roll with ham, that the waitress, adamsel splendidly slim as a switch, merits being approachedwith the query: "Would you strike me on the hand with myswitch, miss?" Nonplussed, she retreats from the petitioner.Nothing of the sort has ever before been asked of her. I arrivedin the city and with my walking-stick tapped a student.Other students were sitting in a café, at the round table reservedfor them. The one I'd touched looked at me as thoughhe'd never before seen such a thing, and all the other studentslooked at me this way, too. It was as if, all at once, they feltthere were many, many things they had never before realized.But what am I saying? At any rate, all of them, for reasons ofdecorum, pretended great astonishment, and now the heroof my novel, or the one who's destined to become this, pullsthe blanket up to his lips and reflects on something. He hadthe habit of always pondering something or other, of brooding,one might say, although he never received the least remunerationfor this. From an uncle who had spent his life inBatavia, he received a sum of how many francs was it? Welack precise knowledge about this sum. And in any case,there's always something very refined about uncertainties.Our Petrucchio sometimes ate, instead of an ordinary, that is,a proper lunch, simply, by way of exception, a slice of cheesepie, which he washed down with coffee. I couldn't be tellingyou any of this if his Batavian uncle hadn't helped him. Onthe basis of this help, he continued, as it were, to conduct hissingular existence, and on the basis of this extraordinary andyet also quite ordinary existence, I am constructing here acommonsensical book from which nothing at all can belearned. There are, to be sure, persons who wish to extractfrom books guiding principles for their lives. For this sort ofmost estimable individual I am therefore, to my gigantic regret,not writing. Is that a pity? Oh, yes. O you driest, mostupright, virtuous and respectable, kindest, quietest of adventurers—slumbersweetly, for the while. What a dullard he is tocontent himself with a room in the attic when instead hemight cry out: "Let's have that luxury apartment you're obligatedto keep at my disposal." He just doesn't see.

I don't know whether or not I'm entitled to say, like PrinceVronsky in the book The Insulted and Injured by the RussianDostoevsky, I need money and connections. Who knows,perhaps I'll soon be placing a lonely-hearts ad in a localpaper. And the way this lout, upon concluding his supper oneevening, a repast consisting for the most part of chicken andsalad, slammed down the tip before her dear, lovely person.You'll have guessed, my friends, that I'm speaking of theRobber and his Edith, who at times officiated as waitress inthe most elegant of restaurants. Could a demon treat the objectof his adoration any more boorishly, crudely, inconsiderately?You've no idea what a pile of things I have to tell you. Astalwart friend might perhaps be necessary, that is, importantfor me, though I consider friendship infeasible: it seemstoo difficult a task. On this specific point various reflectionsmight be made, but my little finger cautions me to avoid verbosity.Today I gazed into a marvelous thunderstorm whosetumultuous strength delighted me. Enough, enough. AlreadyI'm afraid I've bored the reader atrociously. What in theworld has become of all those "fabulous ideas," such as, forinstance, the idea about the Robber's renting a room fromthe woman with the enormous goiter? This woman was marriedto a railroad man, they had an attic apartment. Theground floor housed a music shop, and in the woods abovethe city dwelt a vagabond whose lips, though by no meansdelicately fragrant, were nonetheless valiantly kissed by theone who, leaving the goiter lady behind, took a train direct toMunich so as to establish himself there, if possible, as a genius.By moonlight he crossed Lake Constance. This Munichtrip and these goiter ladies all rank as early experiences. InMunich he bought himself, at the very least, a pair of kidgloves. Afterward, he never again wore such things. TheEnglish Garden struck him as almost a bit too delicate. Hewas more accustomed to underbrush than to neatly mownlawns. One rarely sees goiters circulating in public these days.In this respect, noticeable changes have occurred. Very earlyon, I saw, while out for a stroll with my parents, a beggarseated on the ground. An enormous hand held out to thepassersby a hat for the receipt of alms. This hand was a veritableblue and red clump. Nowadays such a conspicuoushand would scarcely be exposed to the public eye. Medicine,after all, has long since made advances which permit excrescencessuch as goiters and Cyclopean hands to be nipped inthe bud. This woman with the goiter wished the departingwould-be adventurer all the best in his career. She even hadtears in her eyes. Wasn't it terribly nice of her to behave maternallyon the occasion of this chance farewell, and now, likethat Russian prince in the famous storyteller's tale, I'm seekingvarious optimally agreeable things, and because this littleRobber of mine once, in the presence of his sweetheart aswell as that of other persons, exclaimed: "Long liveCommunism!" he's going to have to beg her forgiveness. I intendto soften this obligation, which he acknowledges, by accompanyinghim on his visit, for he suffers from timidity.Many high-spirited folk lack steadfastness of spirit, plenty ofthe proud are deficient in pride, and not few among the weakwant the strength of soul to acknowledge their weakness.Often, in consequence, the weak will act strong, the vexed delighted,the insulted proud, and the vain humble: take me, forexample, who out of sheer vanity never cast a glance in themirror, for I find the mirror impertinent and rude. It's notout of the question that I will address myself to a representativeof the fair sex in the form of a letter in which I shall affirm,above all else, that I am full of good intentions, butperhaps it is better to affirm nothing at all. People might supposeI've a low opinion of myself. On my table lie magazines.How could someone they name as honorary subscriber be aperson of little worth? Often I receive entire bundles of letters,which clearly demonstrates that here and there I'm verymuch in people's thoughts. If I ever make a visit where visitshave significance, I'd do it quite cozily, with respect, and, asfor the rest, as if I had one of my hands in my coat pocket,that is, a touch woodenly. For it's amusing to appear somewhatawkward, I mean to say, there's something beautifulabout it. Poor Robber, I'm neglecting you completely. It's saidhe likes to eat semolina pudding, and worships anyone whofries him up some nice Rösti potatoes. Admittedly this isslander on my part, but with a person like this, why splithairs? Now something about that deceased widow. Acrossfrom me stands a house whose façade is quite simply a poem.French troops who marched into our city in 1798 beheld thecountenance of this house, provided they took the trouble orhad the time to notice it.

But it's disgraceful how absentminded I am! After all, theRobber once encountered, in the pale November woods,after having put in an appearance at a book-printing shopand chatted a while with its owner, the Henri Rousseauwoman, dressed all in brown. Stricken, he froze before her.Through his head raced the thought that he had once, yearsearlier, on the occasion of a railroad journey in the middle ofthe night, said in an, as it were, express-train manner to awoman traveling with him: "I'm on my way to Milan."Precisely in this way he now thought with lightning-swift rapidityof the chocolate bars you can buy in grocery shops.Children like to eat them, and he too, our Monsieur Robber,still enjoyed consuming this comestible from time to time, asthough the love of chocolate bars and the like were amongthe duties implicit in the rank of Robber. "No lies!" thebrown-clad lady now opened her bewitching mouth. It's interesting,don't you think, this bewitching mouth, and shewent on: "You're always trying to convince your fellow men,who wish to make something useful of you, that you lackwhat is important for life and its leisures. But are you reallylacking this essential thing? No. You have it. You just don'tplace any value on it, insist on finding it burdensome. Yourentire life you've been ignoring a possession." "I have no possession,"I replied, "that I wouldn't gladly put to use." "Youmost certainly do have one, but you're hopelessly indolent.Hundreds of accusations, unjustified or reasonable, trailalong behind you like a lengthy serpent or the very serioustrain of a dress. Yet you feel nothing." "Most esteemed,beloved Henri Rousseau woman, you are mistaken, I am nomore than what I am, have no more than what I have, andwhat I have and have not are matters I alone am best in a positionto judge. Perhaps the whims of fortune ought to havemade me a cowboy, though, to be sure, I'm a terrible weakling."The lady replied: "You are too sluggish even to considerthat you and your talents could perhaps make someone veryhappy." He, however, denied this. "No, I'm not too sluggishfor such a thought, but I lack the implement by means ofwhich happiness is inspired," and he walked on. The woodsseemed to him furious at his refusal to believe the assurancesof the lady in brown. "It's all a matter of faith," said thissomber creature. "Are you not, in a word, willful?" "Why doyou insist absolutely on my having a thing I distinctly feel Ilack?" "But you can't possibly have misplaced it. You can'tsimply have lost it at some point or other." "Certainly not.Something I never had cannot possibly have left me. Nor canI have sold it or given it away, and there is nothing in me thatI've neglected. My talents have been put to industrious use,please be so good as to believe this." "I'll never believe a wordyou say!" She stuck right at the heels of the so delicate one.She'd simply gotten it into her head to consider him a disavowerof a portion of his abilities, and no assurances to thecontrary could change her opinion that he was destroyinghimself, wantonly laying waste to his own most preciousconcerns, treating himself wretchedly. "I manage a hotel," sheannounced at a turn in the path. The trees smiled at thisfrank declaration. The Robber, blushing, resembled a rose,and the woman was like a judge — if female judges, in the zealof their unwillingness to dispense with passing judgments,were incapable of going astray. "Are you one of those pettysouls who quiver with nervousness at the least indicationthat some little cranny or crack isn't being put to good socialuse? It's a shame this narrow-mindedness has become sowidespread. You can see I'm satisfied with myself. Can thiscause you dissatisfaction?" "This contentment of yours isnothing more than a trick drenched with laboriousness. I'llsay it to your face: you are unhappy. It's just that you are alwayscareful to feign happiness." "This care is so sweet itmakes me happy." "You are not fulfilling your obligations as amember of society." She who said this had the darkest eyes;no wonder she spoke so darkly, so severely. "Have you a doctorate?"the other, fleeing, inquired. The Robber fled like agirl before the woman in brown. This was in November. Theentire countryside lay stiff with cold. It was difficult to believein the existence of warm rooms, and so now this confectionery-nibbler,this aficionado of chocolate bars, fledbefore the custodian of the public weal, who, however, inlarge part, had her own good in mind. "Once I attended acolossal Beethoven concert. The price of admission resembledin its minuteness a monumental edifice. A princess satbeside me in the concert hall." "That was all once upon atime." "But surely, with your kind permission, it may be allowedto live on within me, as a memory?" "A public menaceis what you are. You owe me tenderness, affection. In thename of civilization, it is your duty to believe you are, as itwere, made for me. I can see you have husbandly virtues. Youappear to possess a strong back. Your shoulders are broad."This he denied, remarking softly: "Nothing frailer by way ofshoulders was ever created." "You are a Hercules." "It merelyseems so." And a shirker like this went about in robber's garb.In his belt he wore a dagger. His trousers were wide and paleblue. A sash hung across his slender frame. Hat and hair embodiedthe principle of intrepidity. The shirt was frilled withlace. The coat, admittedly, was rather threadbare, but all thesame edged in fur. The color of this garment was a none-too-greengreen. This green probably looked marvelous in thesnow. The eyes, blue, glanced about. There was, so to speak,something blond about these eyes, which emphatically claimedbrotherhood with the cheeks. This assertion proved to benothing but the truth. The pistol he held in his hand laughedat its owner. It appeared to have a merely decorative function.He resembled the product of a watercolor painter."Don't be so hard on me" he bade his assailant. She had purchasedSchlatter's book on paths appropriate for women andstudied it with diligence. And she loved him, but the Robbercouldn't get beyond Edith. Always she stood there, high upabove him, inexpressibly dear to him. And now to Rathenau.


Excerpted from The Robber by Robert Walser. Copyright © 1986 by Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag.
Translation copyright © 2000 University of Nebraska Press.Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Robert Walser (1878–1956), the Swiss-German master of high modernist prose, was once so well known that the novelist Robert Musil, reviewing Franz Kafka’s first book of stories, described Kafka as “a special case of the Walser type.” Susan Bernofsky is an assistant professor of German at Bard College and the translator of short prose by Walser, Masquerade and Other Stories, and Gregor von Rezzori’s Anecdotage.

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