The Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878–1956) at some point abandoned pen for pencil and began to write in a tiny, nearly indecipherable script on small scraps of paper — business cards, calendar pages, envelopes. Microscripts presents a selection of these works in English translation, accompanied by the German originals and photographs of the manuscripts.
Reading these works for the first time, I think of Laurence Sterne, Franz Kafka, and Max Jacob, but Walser resembles only himself. His prose seems to veer between disarming plainness and parodic eloquence. To borrow Jacob’s terminology, Walser’s work has “style” and is “situated”:
[O]ne recognizes that a work has style if it gives the sensation of being self-enclosed; one recognizes that it’s situated by the little shock that one gets from it or again from the margin which surrounds it, from the special atmosphere where it moves.Here are two small samples of Walser’s work. From “The Prodigal Son”:
Being happy, after all, surmounts and surpasses all frailty and strength. Happiness is the shakiest of things and yet also the most solid.And from “Schnapps”:
What a lovely, thrilling impression a cinematic schnapps scene of excellent quality made one day upon my spectating imagination.The New Yorker has a slideshow of Walser microscripts.
A marvelously handsome young ethicist spoke enlighteningly with the populace, calling on it with ingenious eloquence to turn its back on schnapps once and for all. As he combated this intoxicant, however, he was himself paying tribute to it, distinguishing himself in the consumption of that very thing he was abjuring with spark-emitting zeal, and when asked why he was participating in the practice of that which he was at such pains to avoid or eradicate in principle, he replied that he was most convincing as an orator when in his cups, and that he found this contradiction enchanting.
Here too a lady made her appearance on the scene, his betrothed to be precise, who addressed these words to the one whom in general she worshipped:
“Cut out the boozing!”
Never shall I forget the kind expression with which she framed her so earnest request.
And with this, my possibly somewhat unusual essay that nonetheless strives to fulfill in so far as possible the demands made by delicacy while at the same time aiming at solidity —containing as it does some words of warning — can no doubt be deemed to have come to an end.
[Both passages from Microscripts, trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions / Christine Burgin, 2010). The Max Jacob passage is from the 1916 preface to The Dice Cup, trans. Zack Rogow, in The Dice Cup: Selected Prose Poems (New York: Sun, 1979).]