|A Review ofMicroscripts
by Robert Walser
Translated from the German
with an introduction by Susan Bernofsky
Hardback: New Directions, 2010.
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Reviewed by Alex Joyner.
Has humanity reached the end of writing? We might ask this, living, as we do, amidst the forecasts for the demise of books as physical objects. Is there a physicality to writing itself that is diminished by its transference to print? To digitized bites?
The new collection of recently translated scraps of stories by the early 20th century Swiss writer Robert Walser invites reflection on the meaning of writing’s form, even as the stories Walser tells suggest that the details don’t matter at all. Microscripts is part art book and part window into the literary technique of a troubled man who has been recognized as a significant figure in the modernist tradition. Full color plates of business cards, calendar pages, and postcards show, in actual size, the small canvas on which Walser worked as he scrawled out almost indecipherable marks that constituted small tales of small moments.
Susan Bernofsky’s introduction traces the history of these scraps which Walser produced during the period of 1924 to 1933. It was during this time that Walser began to struggle with mental illness, a struggle that led to his eventual hospitalization for the last twenty-three years of his life. Walser’s own explanation for the curious style of his writing in these microscripts is that he had developed a kind of “cramp” that had both creative and physical dimensions. Somehow writing with a pen in flowing letters had ceased to work for him and it was only by returning to the pencil of the schoolchild and writing in this very compressed form, with letters only millimeters high, that he was able to regain his “writerly enthusiasm” (12).
The writing is challenging on several levels. First, there was the physical challenge of deciphering the words. Bernofsky details the technique of two transcribers who worked for over a decade to produce legible renderings of the writing. The scholars used a weak magnifier to pore over the tiny texts, passing their transcriptions back and forth to test for accuracy.
Then there is the challenge of knowing what to make of the stories themselves. The narratives meander from observations of particular encounters to statements of grand connection. Individuals meld into categories and adjectives offered are immediately qualified by reducing them to mere negations of their opposites. One typical story purports to be the story of a marriage proposal offered to “an exceptionally undelving, good-natured female who is more homely than particularly pretty” (84). By the end, the brief sketch has mined enough images to leave behind the details so that it is about beauty, power and “Europeanism.”
Not every reader will appreciate this collection, but those who are willing to give themselves over to the fractured world Walser presents will be rewarded with moments of insight that can only be gleaned from the skewed perspective he offers. Like the form of his writing, Walser challenges the way we see the familiar and uses the unconventional to press forward into new territory. Who knows? It may spur some readers to new forms of writing in the digital age.
Alex Joyner is author of Hard Times Come Again No More: Suffering and Hope [Abingdon: Nashville, 2010].
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com