Robert Walser, The Microscripts

The Quarterly Conversation reviews the recent translation by Susan Bernofsky

George Fragopoulos (The Quarterly Conversation) on the publication of The Microscripts of Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky):
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 microscripts, 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. [Read More]
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