Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Robert Walser's The Microscripts

I stumbled across The Microscripts by Robert Walser in Unabridged Books in Chicago a few weeks ago. The Microscripts are several short stories (actually several hundred, culled and translated from the German tomes Das Gesamtwerk in 12 Banden and Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet) written by Walser in a tiny "secretive" script on the backs envelopes, movie tickets, torn-out pages of magazines and calendars. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough money to buy the book at Unabridged, but, after perusing its pages there in the store, I knew I had to have it.

Walser was the kind of writer who could sit down at his desk and write a novel in a matter of weeks or days; famously noted as not ever having revised a word as he wrote. He was constantly seeking a way to write quicker, leaner prose and in this way he began writing, as Susan Bernofsky - Walser's biographer and translator - says, in a "miniaturized Kurrent script, the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries...an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash..."

Walser was only moderately successful in his lifetime and, as a deeply troubled person, spent most of his later years in a sanitarium, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was also said to be a huge influence on Franz Kafka.

Uusally preceeding the microscripts are the slips of envelopes or book covers or torn-off triangles of drawing paper Walser used to write his stories on. These reproductions are a colorful texture to the book, giving the reader a glimpse of Walser's handwriting and, in a larger sense, his attempts to write smaller and smaller stories (Walser wrote his final novel, The Robbers, first in microscript format). The back of the book also contains the untranslated stories.

The stories contained in The Microscripts concern all sorts of things: alcohol abuse, marriage, pigs, jealousy, love and lust. What struck me was the juxtaposition of Walser's tiny script and the "big" ideas contained therein. I think he wanted to say as much as possible with as little as possible. In this way, Walser was a Romantic, perhaps hopelessly so. As he writes in the microscript New Year, "The story keeps on going, and the beauty of a context is revealed."

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