Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Ten Best Books of 2010: Microscripts by Robert Walser

I won't lie to you. The pedant in me has pushed me to include Robert Walser's Microscripts on this list. A book this handsome and carefully composed is extremely important to note as things like Google's bookstore grow in popularity, purveying free editions of classic works that are rife with typographical errors, sloppy formatting and a total lack of editorial guidance.

The eBook may be on the rise but it is still the realm of the physical book where the bookman's trade is being honestly and deftly plied.

Do I actually believe that? No. But there are some great indie firms like Melville House (I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't cite them) and celebrated historical institutions like New Directions deserve such praise. In fact every press on this list is worthy, even the massive world-devouring ones. Well... Maybe we shouldn't get too heavy on their praise.

All that said, I would be failing readers if I did not mention that Walser's Microscripts were fascinating in their own right, whether or not they are beautifully housed. That said, I offer up my original review of this formerly lost book. As with the other posts I formerly reviewed I have revised the original slightly and added a few additional images of the book's interior illustrations, all of which are facsimiles of Walser original microscripts.

Microscripts by Robert Walser. Translated from the German and with an Introduction by Susan Bernofsky. Afterword by Walter Benjamin. Fiction. Hardcover. New Directions. 159 pps. ISBN: 9780811218801. $24.95.

A person can be swinish in matters of love and might even succeed in justifying himself to a certain extent. In my opinion, various possibilities would appear to exist with regard to swinishness, etc. Someone might happen to look like a person who appears to be a swine, and all the while he is at bottom perhaps fairly upstanding. One can say with a rather large degree of certainty that men seem to possess a greater predisposition and talent for swinishness than women, who of course are now and then capable of achieving excellence in this regard.

-from "Swine" by Robert Walser.

First let's get the pedantry out of the way: This book is gorgeous. For one it is illustrated with color facsimiles of Walser's original microscripts placed both on the front and back of a single page to fully render the unique nature of this writing endeavor. For two there is the pastedown label on the front cover, heavy paper stock and matte finish jacket that all hearken to better times in the field of book production, or at least to European formats and standards. Like I said before: The book is gorgeous. That said, let's now get to Walser.

On scraps of paper, sometimes postcards that had already been written on or small advertisements containing their own information, Walser wrote what was long believed to be strange coded missives that were formerly believed to be physically illegible. Walser was institutionalized at the time of the composition of these tiny works and this status called into question the intelligibility of the writings, let alone whether they could actually be transcribed or translated.

Sample images from Microscripts.

Time and patience won out however, and Walser's tiny handwriting eventually revealed itself to be a modified and extremely tiny version of the medieval German script known as Kurrent. Kurrent is a simplified script that involves utilizing a more vertical, angular alphabet that makes it highly compressible. Apparently with Walser's obsessive intensity it can become extremely compressible. Like coal into diamonds.

The translator of Microscripts describes the process as educated guesswork. By determining a handful of Walser's tiny letters a single word can be formulated from tendencies and previous words. This makes the translation one of the most difficult ever, ranking among some of the translations of Oulipo authors like Georges Perec and Raymond Queaneau.

At first it just looks small, but after a few seconds for your eyes to finally take in and realize how extremely cramped Walser's microscript writing is.

The reason for Walser's strange style is not one of conservation. Unlike Hans Fallada's vertical and horizontal approach (front and back of a page mind you) to books like The Drinker, Walser's reasoning was not born of a shortage of materials. Oddly enough it has more to do with the aforementioned Oulipo approach to literature than it does an infirm mind or penury.

Walser had encountered an immense writer's block. It became almost offensive to the effortless writer, who delighted in the rapidity with which he could write down his thoughts, not to mention the aesthetic beauty of his handwriting. Walser delighted in the process and look of actual writing almost as much as the stories he created. Thus a block was particularly horrible for the sensitive Walser. So like the Oulipo tenants would do later on, he set himself a limitation in order to forcefully direct his efforts.

Postcard with Walser's writing moving horizontally to the postcard's.

The cramped writing style proved therapeutic and forced a physical constraint on his body as well as mind. Plotting more or less had to be thrown out and in its stead there is a certain rhythm and tidal flow. The people who briefly inhabit these writings are rational (as far as people are rational) and their movements are logical. They exist however only as props, demonstrations and at times can even seem ghostlike. The stories and sketches in Microscripts exist more as impression and humorously implied situation as they do linear narrative. The wry humor, sometimes darkly sarcastic, is the only thing that speaks of Walser's troubled mind.

That last part, about the sarcasm and wit found in Microscripts is important to note because for decades the tiny scraps of writing had been considered the work of a frail mind. Frailty cannot compress black coal into shining diamonds.

Apologies for the hyperbolic sign-off. As a personal limit I try to work at least ten over-the-top statements into every post. Keeps me sane.

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