Book Review of Robert Walser’s Microscripts.


Today’s post comes from Brian E. Manning, a writer and cyclist who works in Porland’s Central Library. Brian is also the editor’s good friend and even was also his roommate in college!

Robert Walser’s Microscripts. [New Directions, 2010. $24.95]

Robert Walser (1878-1956) was a German-speaking Swiss Writer.  His writing was admired by Kafka, and Hesse, to name a few names of notoriety.  I became acquainted with Walser through his short stories, as well as his acclaimed novel, Jakob Von Gunten, both published by NYRB books.  His writings are whimsical, quirky, and fanciful — showing an acute understanding of human nature through subversive, fairytale-like backgrounds.  In 1929, Walser admitted himself into a mental ward, and remained there for the rest of his life, essentially ending his professional writing endeavors, quipping to a friend that he was there to be mad, and not to write.  However, after Walser died–on one of his habitual walks, in the snow, (hotos of which exist for morbid perusal on the Internet) it was found that he actually continued writing while in the hospital, albeit, in as subtle a form as physically possible: that is, on fragments of paper, in the tiniest of handwriting.

At first, the executor of his estate thought that these tiny markings where evidence of Walser’s mental instability — an undecipherable loony/secret code — but, it was later discovered that Walser was writing in a miniaturized Kurrent script, stemming from the medieval ages, that he had learned as a schoolboy, as was the custom of the time. From there, it took some dedicated scholars, some magnification, and some linguistic guesswork and translation to yield us the English instalment of this endeavor: Microscripts.

I have been fascinated with Walser’s story of late, and have been looking forward to getting my hands on this book.  For the most part, the writings are small sketches and musings, sometimes unfinished, but this is understandable since Walser most likely never meant for them to be “read” (deciphered) by us, which makes them feel even more intimate to read.  Although they are brief (sometimes not exceeding 5-6 pages in length) Walser’s wit and style are still evident in these works–whether he is writing of marriage proposals, or the experience of listening to the radio, or putting characters at play in their settings, Walser’s humane style abounds in these small scripts.   I find that the real treasure of Microscripts, however, are the sporadic color facsimiles of the microscripts themselves included throughout the book.  These examples of Walsers diminutive sketches not only show how impossibly tiny his writing was (1-2 millimeters in height), but also conveys how visually stunning they are.  Whether written on the back of a business card, or on a letter, they are a fine of example of visual art rendered through small script.  (It is also worth mentioning that there are plenty of footnotes throughout this book, giving more detail behind Walser and the individual microscripts; and for those of you who can read German, the original, enlarged German renderings are also included in the back of the book.)

(Mr. Manning’s Microscript — Click for full-sized image.)

But, you may be asking, why should readers of Pencil Revolution care about Walser and his tiny writing habits?  For that matter, why did Walser even start writing in this fashion?  I was surprised to find that the answer to this, as given in the intro of Microscripts, lay in the formative power of yielding a pencil.  According to Walser, he found that using a pen became a physical & mental stumbling block, one that he could only overcome by using a pencil, as wrote to a friend:

With the aid of my pencil I was better able to play, to write; it seemed this revived my writerly enthusiasm.  I can assure you I suffered 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. [Microscripts, pg 13.]

Although this does not necessarily explain why Walser started shrinking his script, he definitely found his voice again through using a pencil; this is of such critical importance that the original six-volume German edition of the microscripts is entitled Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet, or “From the Pencil Zone.”  In Walser’s Microscripts, then, we find a man whose salvation was imparted through this modest writing utensil.  I can’t help wondering, however, how often he would have to sharpen his pencil in order to write such tiny script…?

[Photo, C. Rondo; Microscript, B. Manning.  Used with kind permission.]

One Response to “Book Review of Robert Walser’s Microscripts.”

  1. Eric says:

    Maybe Walser was using too heavy a pen. Some Fountains are so heavy they are really only good for signatures. For me writing that small with a pencil takes a lot of focus, and does not feel freeing.

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