The Microscripts by Robert Walser (trans. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 160pp, $24.95.
A Clairvoyant of the Small
What do we make of a writer’s hand, that place where interior thoughts become an exterior expression? A writer’s work always waits there—on the fingertips poised anxiously, waiting for the hand to move into action.
I begin with such a question for the simple reason that it is impossible to divorce our understanding of Robert Walser’s last, and perhaps greatest, works, his microscripts, from the very issue of the handwriting—and the trembling hand— that helped birth them. Walser faced many a crisis in his lifetime, but the one of the hand may be the most compelling one. The following is from a letter written by Walser in 1927 to editor Max Rycnher:
Approximately ten years ago I began to first shyly and reverentially sketch out in pencil everything I produced, which naturally imparted a sluggishness and slowness to the writing process that assumed practically colossal proportions. This pencil system, which is inseparable from a logically consistent, office-like copying system, has caused me real torments, but this torment taught me patience, such that I now have mastered the art of being patient. . . .
This pencil method has a great meaning for me. The writer of these lines experienced a time when he hideously, frightfully hated his pen, I can’t begin to tell you how sick of it he was; he became an outright idiot the moment he made the least use of it; and to free himself from this pen malaise he began to pencil-sketch, to scribble, fiddle about. With the aid of my pencil I was better able to play, to write; it seemed this revived my writerly enthusiasm.
Many have pointed to this physical and mental breakdown as the birth pang of Walser’s microscopic pencil writing, a moment that Walser himself says “began in Berlin.” It occurred after suffering a “real breakdown in my hand on account of the pen, a sort of cramp from whose clutches I slowly, laboriously freed myself by means of the pencil.” And while it was a distressing period for the writer, it did bring with it a certain degree of youthful exuberance; again from the letter: “I learned again, like a little boy, to write.”
The microscripts attest to this youthful and playful exuberance. While reading them, I never had far from mind Walser’s late masterpiece, The Robber, a novel that has also survived in microscript form (also translated by Susan Bernofsky). Both The Robber and The Microscripts replay and aggrandize, to an extraordinary degree, many of the thematic and stylistic concerns from Walser’s earlier works: his sentences grow larger, are far more dialectical, and far more self-effacing; the writing becomes that much more self-reflexive, as the scaffolding of narrative is constantly exposed; and characters and plot are ushered out of the foreground to make room for language experimentation.
We should avoid, however, the urge of making the easy connection between this moment of ontological crisis and the micrcosrcipts, particularly since both Walser’s life and works argue that there is no original trauma, no singular moment of coming into one’s own. Susan Bernofsky herself makes this point in the introduction to her translation of Walser’s “miniscule” scripts, arguing that Walser had always experimented with different forms of handwriting, most of them of the diminutive kind. But if Walser’s miniscule writing isn’t particular to a certain point in his career, these microscripts are still well suited to late Walser: there is an important connection between the materiality of the texts—even in their apparent lack of much “tangibility”—and the thematic issues they speak of.
As Bernofsky states, Walser was interested in the connection between the material aspects of his texts and the physical reality that underlines the writing process: “Walser evidently took a craftsman’s pleasure in the physicality of beautifully executed writing. . . . It’s clear, looking at Walser’s early manuscripts, that he loved not just the inventive process of thinking up stories but also the pleasantly methodical work of turning a blank sheet of paper into a beautifully filigreed surface.” I would further suggest it is impossible to divorce the writer from the context of his writings, and from the material realities that underline such a process. After all, the written word, as much as the notebook, the blank page, and the pencil, are the very objects of the writer’s process.
Walser often reminds us that objects make the writer: from Microscript 190: “Usually I first put on a prose piece jacket, a sort of writer’s smock, before venturing to begin with composition; but I’m in a rush right now, and besides, this is just a tiny little piece, a silly trifle featuring beer coasters as round as plates.” Here and elsewhere, Walser locates the writerly self in the very things of writing—the hand, the texts, the writing tools; the process of writing and what arises from it cannot be easily separated. The almost casual shifting of pronouns in the letter that opens this review is a telling example of this—in it, Walser identifies a myriad of Walsers, one for every different writing context. That is to say, while clutching a pen, Walser is both the author of the letter and “an outright idiot,” but while holding a pencil, by contrast, he is recently born, a babe, a youth , he must learn once again how to write and how to express the always-absent self in a script of the tiniest kind. It is a form of writing, as Bernofsky argues, that effaces not only the writer’s identity but also the writer’s art: “Looking at [a microscript], how could one judge whether it had been written poorly or well? Handwriting that couldn’t even be read removed a degree of pressure from the writer, relieving him of the burden of being always in the spotlight of his own critical judgment.” What we have, therefore, is a form of writing that speaks of an ethos of the modestly miniature, what W.G. Sebald meant when he said that Walser was a “‘clairvoyant of the small.’”
Criticism of the Unreadable
The microscripts ably demonstrate that in Walser’s late work the very act of reading is brought up for questioning. How can we as readers negotiate with texts that were never meant to be read in the first place? Take the microscript “Crisis”: “Could this sentence, which perhaps seems not the most jubilantly exultant where its framer’s framework is concerned, merit criticism?” How can one read—and, therefore, make sense of—a text that cannot be read? Must reading automatically engender criticism?
Perhaps, but we should also consider that Walser was attempting to do away with such a need. A mechanical writing style, the kind that Walser often felt he practiced—”I have also written this prose piece, I must confess, utterly mechanically, and I hope it will please you for this reason,” from another untitled microscript—could produce, by extension, a mechanical reading style, one devoid of critical insights, one that would disrupt the need to judge and interpret. But this would be the worst critical mode, the one that seeks only one answer. In other words, simply because Walser’s microscopic handwritings have been “deciphered” does not mean that they have lost their unreadability or indeterminacy. Even in their existence as readable texts, the microscripts are meant to confound, confuse and perplex. Many of them are “incomplete,” half-finished. Although, the argument can also be made that all of them are, in a sense, incomplete and fragmentary. They remind one of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles in the sense that so much is lost when one cannot truly grasp what “reading” the original must be like. For this, New Directions should be applauded for replicating many of the microscripts in their actual size, even though such reproductions will always, necessarily, fall somewhat short.
What do we do, therefore, with a language that refuses legibility? How can one read the unreadable? As Walser indicated in his letter, patience is something that one must learn, and it is an essential aspect of what it means to be a reader and a writer; it is one of the bridges linking the two groups. Teetering on the precipice between meaning and non-sense, these cryptic writings strike one the logical, almost necessary conclusion to the writerly life Walser led, a life and work of constant retreat.
What was Walser retreating from, and toward where? There are too many answers to this question, but here is one more: he retreated from the clamor of the modern world, and the sanitarium that he retreated to was not an end but a continuation, an essential aspect of the story. One sees in Walser’s writing an escape—not from the horrors of his present time but from the terrible uncertainty of the future. Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History comes to mind:
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise. . . . This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
For Walser the past is a ruin, something that can never be recovered. As Bernofsky once told me, the fundamental idea driving the microscript “A Kind of Cleopatra” is that real experience can only occur in the past: as in so much of late Walser, a fully felt life is something that can no longer be had. This does not, however, imply the notion that the best of days are long gone, for in such an equation the past remains a ruin, a fragment, a ghostly demarcation of something that was there but is no longer available. Its very lack of tangibility, in other words, is a failure of sorts, an idea that falls sort of an ideal. This feeling of being thrust into the future, therefore, is not progress, but a maelstrom, a terrible storm. The future provides no escape from the overwhelming presence of the present. So Walser is placed, as his readers often are, in a position of waiting, of uncertainty. Our backs face the ruins of the past, the ruins of what we have just read, but there is never any certainty that the future will provide relief. In this sense, Walser is a remarkably modern writer: he sublimates one of the primary concerns of the modern mind, that the future will be just as faulty and ruined as the past.
This very lack of tangibility—what we can also call unrepresentability— is what the microscripts echo in their form, and what the crisis of the hand represents: the very failure of writing to represent the gravity of everyday, a reality where experience continues to be bureaucratized to a startling and brutalizing degree. We can only access the world through mediation. And this is what the sanatorium at the end of Walser’s tragic life meant and why it is, in a sense, a logical conclusion. It represents the clamor of the modern world in its brutal actualization. What we have in the microscripts, therefore, is a language of the modern world, a language that expresses through its denial of representability not the reality of our age, for reality is multitude, but simply a reality, one of many.
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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