7 October 09 | Chad W. Post

Over at the New Directions blog there’s a fascinating interview with translator Susan Bernofsky (one of my favorite translators) on Robert Walser (one of my favorite authors). Number of interesting comments on the process and art of translation, but this bit about Walser’s Microscripts was what caught my eye:

GD: This spring, New Directions will publish Robert Walser’s Microscripts, a collection of writing on scraps of paper and written in a miniature German script. Could you describe this project? How did it come to be translated? Can you read Robert Walser’s original handwriting?

SB: This project came about as a co-production with Christine Burgin Gallery after Burgin fell in love with Walser’s miniature manuscripts (both the sheets of paper and the handwriting that covers them are unbelievably small) and decided to put together an exhibition of them in New York, due to open in the spring of 2010. The volume Microscripts will serve as a catalogue for the exhibition—it will contain a number of high-resolution facsimiles of Walser’s beautiful manuscripts—and at the same time is a collection of stories from his late work. These stories remind me of Beethoven’s late string quartets: by the time Walser writes them, he’s become such a master storyteller that he starts playing drastically with narrative form and convention, producing truly wacky texts that are both startling in their proto-postmodernism and deeply moving in their reflection of the difficult circumstances under which they were written. Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts, and for one of those years (1987-88) I had the privilege of working in the next room on what would become my first book of Walser translations (Masquerade and Other Stories).

After running a review of The Tanners last week, I started reading the book myself and instantly re-fell in love with Walser’s style and quirky sense of humor. I can’t repeat enough how everyone should read this book, and as an attempt to sway any doubters out there, here’s the opening paragraph in all its hilarious glory:

One morning a young, boyish man walked into a bookshop and asked to be introduced to the proprietor. His request was granted. The bookseller, an old man of quite venerable appearance, gave a sharp glance at the one standing rather shyly before him and instructed him to speak. “I want to become a bookseller,” said the youthful novice, “I yearn to become one, and I don’t know what might prevent me from carrying out my intentions. I’ve always imagined the trade in books must be an enchanting activity, and I cannot understand why I should still be forced to pine away outside of this fine, lovely occupation. For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I’m a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest—and yet not so foolishly honest as I might appear. I am capable of lowering prices when a poor devil of a student is standing before me, and of elevating them as a favor to those wealthy individuals who, as I can’t help noticing, sometimes don’t know what to do with all their money. Although I’m still young, I believe myself in possession of a certain knowledge of human nature—besides which, I love people, of every variety, so I would never employ my insight into their characters in the service of swindling—and I am equally determined never to harm your esteemed business through any exaggerated solicitousness toward certain underfinanced poor devils. In a word: My love of humankind will be agreeably balanced with mercantile rationality on the scales of salesmanship, a rationality which in fact bears equal weight and appears to me just as necessary for life as a soul filled with love: I shall practice a most lovely moderation, please be assured of this in advance—”

And it just keeps getting better, as Simon dismisses the request for personal references (“To me, the most appropriate thing would be if you didn’t make inquiries at all! Whom would you ask, and what purpose could it serve?”) and quits just a few pages later (“During the past week I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly . . .”).

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