By Robert Walser

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Johns Hopkins University Press

202 pp. $35; paperback, $12.95

STARTING to read the Swiss writer Robert Walser is like taking a ride in a hot air balloon with a garrulous chance acquaintance, whose rapturous descriptions of the countryside initially seem as full of hot air as the balloon itself. But our initial irritation may soon yield to affection. Our new friend turns out to be a loveable, hilarious, sad, profound and utterly rewarding scatterbrain. He himself likes to pretend he's just a "ninny," and indeed some of his contemporaries were foolish enough to accept that mask at face value. Nowadays, it's far easier for us to recognize that Walser blithely shatters many conventional molds.

Born in 1878, Walser captivated a select group of literary contemporaries -- Hermann Hesse, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka and Robert Musil -- but failed to make much of an impact on the marketplace. His solitary, restless life on the margins of society is a biographer's nightmare, since he left few traces, except for the treasure trove of mischievously misleading clues scattered throughout his writings. His work had fallen into virtual oblivion by the time of his death in 1956, during a walk in the snow.

He lived in Zurich, Berlin, his native Biel and then, finally, Bern. He was extremely productive, despite the lack of popular success. During the years in Berlin he published three novels, and wrote several others which were lost. In Bern, his writing grew increasingly experimental; the rejection slips continued mounting, and he had a severe depression.

In 1929, he entered a lunatic asylum, where he was promptly, but probably mistakenly, diagnosed as a schizophrenic. A life sentence in those days. When asked why he ceased writing in 1933, he replied, "I'm not here to write, but to be mad." That sovereign combination of humor and self-irony, even in the grimmest of circumstances, is characteristic of Walser, who spent the remaining 23 years of his life as an inmate, mending sacks and refusing all concessions.

Christopher Middleton's elegant translation of the Selected Stories won Walser a certain following in this country. Susan Bernofsky now offers us another judiciously chosen collection of short prose. In the foreword to Bernofsky's selection, the writer and critic William H. Gass argues that Walser anticipated postmodernists such as Donald Barthelme. A case can certainly be made for that argument in purely formal terms. But Walser also has a hidden and very human depth that is not exactly characteristic of postmodernism. His literary experiments are always covertly autobiographical. The 60 or so texts in this selection form part of an elusive fictional autobiography that Walser dubbed his "book of myself." In the German, that "book" runs to some 15 volumes.

There is actually something rather American about this Swiss "song of myself." Walser is a kind of Whitman in prose; he sings in praise not just of himself, but of all creation. Moreover, he fully subscribes to William James's faith in the flow of human experience. But Thoreau is Walser's closest American relative. His declaration that "it is a great art to saunter" holds true for both these solitary walkers. Both writers are constantly projecting their frequently ecstatic reveries onto nature. There are echoes in these stories of the resentment that hard-working Swiss burghers felt towards Walser, a mere vagabond in their eyes. The townsfolk in Concord felt much the same way about Thoreau. Walser's love life was even skimpier than Thoreau's, and he made no bones about the compensatory nature of his literary daydreams: "What am I supposed to do with feelings, other than let them wriggle and die like fish in the sand of language?"

He handles emotions like a musician, and plays with his associations on the register of his unconscious. If you, as a reader, are willing to listen patiently to a melody that may initially seem somewhat garbled, you will eventually hear a highly orchestrated sensibility. Here is how Walser himself describes his "musical" development: "At first the song was like a simple, rather rudimentary, singing exercise, but gradually it grows and expands into something magnificent, something human; it enraptures, it bewails, then again seems to take pleasure in its own anguish."

While Walser liked to play the virtuoso, he was also tempted by far humbler roles. He often felt an almost mystical longing to sink to the bottom of the social scale and make himself as small and insignificant as possible. These conflicting aspirations surface continually in his prose. He loves to appear before us as a genius or a servant. The latter role was not just a literary pose. He actually tried it out in real life by enrolling in a school for servants in Berlin and working for a while as a servant at a castle in Upper Silesia.

Wenzel, the hero of "The Genius," reflects the self-congratulatory, billowing side of Walser's consciousness. But here, as always, there is a lot of self-irony. In order to keep his grandiose self-regard aloft, Wenzel needs to bury his "oppressive memories" under a blanket of snow. Tobold, the hero of a later story, kills off that self-inflating genius in himself. He desperately wants to impose some order on his unruly inner life, and so he becomes a servant. Another advantage of that humble role is that it renders him so powerless and invisible that he cannot be squelched. In theory, at least. The aristocratic hero of Walser's haunting novel, Jakob von Gunten (1909), is speaking on behalf of all Walser's servants when he says: "I can breathe only in the lower regions."

Walser handles his stream-of-consciousness prose with uncanny assurance. His seemingly artless form of art uncovers intricate patterns amid the flotsam and jetsam of his mind. To fathom those patterns, we have to dive down below the surface pitter-patter about blue skies and sunny feelings into his dark, mysterious, inner depths. Only then can we detect the rich undertow of his meandering sentences. Gradually, we realize that this highly intuitive writer, who likes to masquerade as a fool, is constantly outfoxing us.

The slice of Walser's life-work now available in English should give readers a good feel for this gentle, wonderful writer.

Mark Harman is the editor of "Robert Walser Rediscovered: Stories, Fairy-Tale Plays & Critical Responses."