Toward the Sanitarium: Walser’s Microscripts

A Clairvoyant of the Small

By George Fragopoulos

The Microscripts by Robert Walser (trans. Susan Bernofsky). New Directions. 160pp, $24.95.  

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.”

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