Behold the Microscopically Tiny Handwriting of Novelist Robert Walser, Which Took Four Decades to Decipher

Robert Walser’s last nov­el, Der Räu­ber or The Rob­ber, came out in 1972. Walser him­self had died fif­teen years ear­li­er, hav­ing spent near­ly three sol­id decades in a sana­to­ri­um. He’d been a fair­ly suc­cess­ful fig­ure in the Berlin lit­er­ary scene of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, but dur­ing his long  insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion in his home­land of Switzer­land — from which he refused to return to nor­mal life, despite his out­ward appear­ance of men­tal health — he claimed to have put let­ters behind him. As J. M. Coet­zee writes in the New York Review of Books, “Walser’s so-called mad­ness, his lone­ly death, and the posthu­mous­ly dis­cov­ered cache of his secret writ­ings were the pil­lars on which a leg­end of Walser as a scan­dalous­ly neglect­ed genius was erect­ed.”

This cache con­sist­ed of “some five hun­dred sheets of paper cov­ered in a micro­scop­ic pen­cil script so dif­fi­cult to read that his execu­tor at first took them to be a diary in secret code. In fact Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script a code: it is sim­ply hand­writ­ing with so many idio­syn­crat­ic abbre­vi­a­tions that, even for edi­tors famil­iar with it, unam­bigu­ous deci­pher­ment is not always pos­si­ble.”

He devised this extreme short­hand as a kind of cure for writer’s block: “In a 1927 let­ter to a Swiss edi­tor, Walser claimed that his writ­ing was over­come with ‘a swoon, a cramp, a stu­por’ that was both ‘phys­i­cal and men­tal’ and brought on by the use of a pen,” writes the New York­er’s Deirdre Foley Mendelssohn. “Adopt­ing his strange ‘pen­cil method’ enabled him to ‘play,’ to ‘scrib­ble, fid­dle about.’ ”

“Like an artist with a stick of char­coal between his fin­gers,” Coet­zee writes, “Walser need­ed to get a steady, rhyth­mic hand move­ment going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which rever­ie, com­po­si­tion, and the flow of the writ­ing tool became much the same thing.” This process facil­i­tat­ed the trans­fer of Walser’s thoughts straight to the page, with the result that his late works read — and have been belat­ed­ly rec­og­nized as read­ing — like no oth­er lit­er­a­ture pro­duced in his time. As Brett Bak­er at Painter’s table sees it,” Walser’s com­pressed prose (rarely more than a page or two) con­structs full nar­ra­tives than can be con­sumed rapid­ly – near­ly ‘at a glance,’ as it were. Their short length allows the read­er to revis­it the work in detail, focus­ing on sen­tences, phras­es, or words as one might exam­ine the paint­ed pas­sages or marks on a can­vas.”

These ultra-com­pressed works from the Bleis­tift­ge­bi­et, or “pen­cil zone,” writes Foley Mendelssohn, “estab­lish Walser as a mod­ernist of sorts: the recy­cling of mate­ri­als can make the texts look like col­lages, mod­ernist mashups toe­ing the line between mechan­i­cal and per­son­al pro­duc­tion.” But they also make him look like the fore­run­ner of anoth­er, lat­er vari­ety of exper­i­men­tal lit­er­a­ture: in a longer New York­er piece on Walser, Ben­jamin Kunkel pro­pos­es 1972 as a cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate year to pub­lish The Rob­ber, “a fit­ting date for a beau­ti­ful, unsum­ma­riz­able work every bit as self-reflex­ive as any­thing pro­duced by the metafic­tion­ists of the six­ties and sev­en­ties.” The pub­li­ca­tion of his “micro­scripts,” in Ger­man as well as in trans­la­tion, has ensured him an influ­ence on writ­ers of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry — and not just their choice of font size.

For any­one inter­est­ed in see­ing a pub­lished ver­sion of Walser’s writ­ing, see the book Micro­scripts, which fea­tures full-col­or illus­tra­tions by artist Maira Kalman.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Code of Charles Dick­ens’ Short­hand Has Been Cracked by Com­put­er Pro­gram­mers, Solv­ing a 160-Year-Old Mys­tery

Font Based on Sig­mund Freud’s Hand­writ­ing Com­ing Cour­tesy of Suc­cess­ful Kick­starter Cam­paign

Why Did Leonar­do da Vin­ci Write Back­wards? A Look Into the Ulti­mate Renais­sance Man’s “Mir­ror Writ­ing”

Dis­cov­er Nüshu, a 19th-Cen­tu­ry Chi­nese Writ­ing Sys­tem That Only Women Knew How to Write

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Daniel Thaler says:

    “An unsur­mis­able work.” Art­sy way of say­ing no one knows what he is writ­ing about, hence 3 decades in a san­i­tar­i­um. Not just this book in ques­tion, but any art form that is impos­si­ble to under­stand, not because ot it’s genius but because it is a heap of gobbledeguk(sp) must be great. The proof? No one can under­stand it. Got­ta be great then.

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