By Robert Walser
A master of the miniature, Robert Walser lived a story grander, at first glance, than any he'd ever choose to commit to paper. After some acclaim for his early novels, written in Berlin during the first decade of the last century and garnering fans as notable as Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, Walser retreated home to Switzerland and—after a failed suicide attempt—eventually found himself in a sanatorium. It was in the time leading up to and during these asylum years that Walser honed what he referred to as his "pencil method," employing a nearly microscopic shorthand, thought by the few who saw it—including his literary executor—to be the inscrutable scribblings of a lunatic or some secret code. Discovered mostly upon his death (on Christmas Day in 1956, still hospitalized, during a walk in the snow), the trove of microscripts—scrawled across scraps of paper, torn-off calendar pages, stationery, postcards, and penny dreadful covers—turned out to be Walser's idiosyncratic, and very small, adaptation of an out-of-use Germanic script. These prose pieces also happened to be Walser's most stirring work, full of dazzling and delicate reflections on the provincial milieu.
The 25 sketches presented in this new collection are above all else perambulatory, meandering modernist parables that demonstrate Walser's penchant for walking the fence between the plaintive and the ironic. The texts, all deftly translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, are juxtaposed beside facsimiles of the original writings, which illustrate the connection between process and product intrinsic to Walser's work.
Modesty, obsequiousness, walking, writing, and beautiful women are recurring motifs. Just as the writing itself required a magnifying glass, Walser—who Sebald called a "clairvoyant of the small"—zooms in on ostensible banalities. Inquisitively turning over stones most of us tend to walk past, Walser is a pattern-seeker, a master of the otherwise overlooked. In "Train Station (II)" from 1932, one of the last pieces Walser ever wrote (he later told his executor, "I'm not here to write, I'm here to be mad"), he describes people in transit for their myriad personal purposes, as a field ornithologist observes and records the behavior of birds—a distant observer, never participating in the same grand scheme. Or perhaps he was participating, by lending language to the proceedings.
Always humble, Walser's seemingly straightforward pronouncements are riddled with qualifying phrases, dripping with ironic timidity. In "The Songstress," he describes the titular performer: "One might almost find oneself capable of feeling justified to claim that each time she sang, it was to romantic effect." Walser unremittingly shuns the authorial role of egotist. Time and again, he puts forth a modest disavowal of power of any kind, a complete rejection of traits we've all been taught to aspire to and respect: leadership, confidence, mastery, ambition, exceptionalism.
If there is any justice in this world (a possibility Walser might find amusing), half of what is currently described as "Kafka-esque" should henceforth be known as "Walser-esque." The wonderful sketch called "What a nice writer I ran into not long ago" could almost be reprinted in place of this review: "The story he was telling gripped me from the start."