The Artist Who Hated His Pen

In the fifth act of many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, as the battle rages and the poison is liberally doled out, the minor characters-all those anonymous servants and messengers-often “enter fleeing.” Walter Benjamin calls our attention to this recurring paradox in his 1928 essay “One Way Street.” “The moment in which they become visible to spectators brings them to a standstill,” he writes. Breaking the legs of the curtain, they find themselves on a well-lit stage, in the presence of onlooking strangers, arriving only to depart.

It’s no coincidence that Benjamin was one of only a handful of critics to publish an essay about the enigmatic Robert Walser during the author’s lifetime. Both asserted modernity’s disarray with a rambling, chaotic style. But where Benjamin expressed his moral concerns through collages of parables, Walser took a nihilistic approach, exposing the dark humor in life’s daily vicissitudes through a series of short sketches that contained volumes of history. Naturally, both were obscure figures during their lifetimes. Now, of course, Benjamin is revered and respected. Walser has yet to find such mass appeal with American readers. With the publication of Microscripts, a lavish reproduction of Walser’s millimeters-high scribblings written on torn scraps of paper in the medieval Germanic script called Kurrent, that will likely change.

Born in Switzerland in 1878, Walser wrote feverishly as a young man, composing as many as nine novels (though only four of them survive), along with hundreds of short stories, dramatic sketches and essays, some no longer than a page of text. He could extract humanity from inanimate objects in a few hundred words, as in the masterfully optimistic Modernist treatise “Radio.” Written on the back of a discarded calendar page, this short vignette has an opening line to rival The Stranger in its slate-faced wit: “Yesterday I used a radio receiver for the first time. This was an agreeable way, I found, to be convinced that entertainment is available.” Yet he could also rip language, objects, and people out of context, effectively sundering meaning through a surplus of significance. “Does not the endlessly endearing drag us down?” he writes in “Swine.” “If morality itself can, as it were, be a bit swinish, no one will wish to undertake to deny that it is a useful, that is, a culture-promoting swine.” Who can say what “swine” signifies after such a claim?

Walser’s biography reads like the great tragedy he never wrote. He is known more now for his struggle with his craft-a result of his schizophrenia, with which he was diagnosed in 1929-than for his frequent and nuanced wordplay. He spent the final 30 years of his life in a mental institution, solidifying his obscurity by not publishing and very possibly not writing. (Though an orderly at the Herisau sanatorium where the author died said he had seen Walser standing by his bedroom window and writing each day, not a word is known to exist after 1933.)

As he descended into madness, beginning around 1924, he experienced a “crisis of ink”-a physical and mental writer’s block. In a 1927 letter to Max Rychner, editor of the journal Neue Schweizer Rundschau, he explained how he “hideously, frightfully hated his pen.” As his “pen malaise” stymied his ability to produce work, he began writing full-time with a dull-tipped pencil in a condensed form of Kurrent, the script Goethe and Hölderlin also employed, but which had disappeared from schools and daily life at the onset of the 20th century. With this old-new technique, the words began once more to flow out of him. He’d write in nearly microscopic letters on whatever he could find: the cover of a trashy French mystery novel, strips of newspaper, an acceptance letter from his publisher. When these writings were found after Walser’s death in 1956, his literary executor, Carl Seelig (one of the few reasons why Walser hasn’t been forgotten entirely), believed them to be nothing more than the absurd ramblings of an old madman. As it turns out, Walser was writing masterpieces of short fiction as well as literary criticism and had even composed an entire novel in this form (his final novel, The Robber, written in 1925 but not published until 1972).

“We can read much by Robert Walser, but nothing about him,” Benjamin writes in his essay on the author, included here as the afterword. But to not know Walser is to know everything about him, a trait he shares with his characters-inscrutable, unclassifiable typologies that negate themselves the moment they seem to open up to you. Each of them enters fleeing, so to speak. Everything by Walser is in turn about Walser. All aspects of his writing, from his sarcastic melancholy to the cramped physical form in which he wrote, paint a picture of Walser, the Author: both mad and sober; cold yet garrulous.

Which makes Microscripts his quintessential text. The ability to see Walser’s manic compulsion to compress makes this collection an indispensable biographical artifact. Crucially, the very structure of the words contained in these pages reinforces the ceaseless contradictions of Walser’s style. As just one example: In the author’s handwriting, ehemalige (“former”) and letzere (“latter”) look nearly identical. Again and again, Walser withdraws from interpretation, but demands that we interpret his retreat. He cracks the window, allows the smell of the room to escape out, allows us even to catch a glimpse inside, but he never turns on the light. Each entrance signals an exit, and yet it’s also the other way around. As Walser writes at the end of “New Year’s Page,” the final microscript collected here: “When a year stops, another instantly commences. The story keeps going.”

mmiller@observer.com

The Artist Who Hated His Pen