Works on Paper
Robert Walser (author) and Susan Bernofsky (translator), afterword by Walter Benjamin
(New Directions, 2010)
The fact and/or discussion of the publication of the small writings on scraps of small pieces of paper by a German writer may sound like a bad joke, but since Robert Walser is now (finally) firmly part of the modernist canon, the publication of a selection of Walser’s late writings is not only cause for celebration, but will certainly provoke many thousands of words in response. Included in the handsomely produced volume are facsimiles and English translations of 17 of Robert Walser’s “microscripts,” the term used to describe the 529 texts written on envelopes, backs of dime-paperback novels, postal wrappers, business cards—all of which measure less than 6 by 4 inches in size. The writing itself, done in pencil, was once thought to be a type of “secret code” until Jochen Greven, then a young graduate student who saw one of the texts published in a magazine, contacted Walser’s literary executor to tell him that the tiny marks were actually words and sentences written in German Kurrent script.
As much art monograph as print monograph, the volume also makes it clear that Walser himself may have been interested in the fact that at a certain scale, text becomes image. Along with a helpful introduction that offers context and background on the microscripts, included is a newly translated essay by Walter Benjamin on Walser’s writings, as well as the original German text of the microscripts and notes on the transcription process conducted by Bernhard Echte and Werner Morlang. With the extensive notes and appendices, one would have liked to see some explanation as to why Susan Bernofsky selected these particular texts to translate. Unfortunately, such details are not available in her otherwise informative introduction. She seems to have selected microscripts dated from the late 1920s, many of which were written after Walser entered Waldau Sanitarium in Bern; however, a fuller explanation would have been welcome.
Perhaps raising more questions than providing answers, the volume nevertheless provides a new opportunity to discuss various aspects of Walser’s work. Are these texts commenting on issues of technology, printing and otherwise? How autobiographical might these writing be? Was Walser actually a constraint-based writer? How important are these texts in the context of Walser’s artistic trajectory? Whatever Walser’s impetus for the almost indecipherable drafting method (Was it a way to overcome writer’s block, free his mind, or was he simply using the materials available to him?), the texts will also provide an opportunity to discuss, à la Foucault, just what exactly should be included in a writer’s final oeuvre. Nietzsche’s grocery lists form one example from the ongoing debate over these issues. But whether finished or unfinished, notes, jottings, or thinking out loud, the microscripts will, I believe, be received and interpreted by English-speaking readers as kin to Holderlin’s fragments or Kafka’s parables rather than as mere miscellanea.