18 August 10 | Chad W. Post

Just so happened that a copy of Walser’s Microscripts arrived in the mail this morning from the wonderful people at New Directions, so I thought I’d follow up on the last post with a bit more info about the first event in the fall RTWCS.

On September 23rd, Barbara Epler of New Directions will talk with Susan Bernofsky (translator of Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada, and others) about Walser, his “microscripts,” and the art and practice of translation.

I suspect that most everyone reading this site is familiar with Robert Walser (we’ve written about his work enough times, and here’s an interesting piece by J. M. Coetzee from the New York Review Books), but in case not, he was one of the most important and interesting writers of the twentieth century, author of The Tanners, The Assistant, Jakob von Gunten, The Robber, and tons of short stories. He also worked as a bank clerk, a butler in a castle, and an inventor’s assistant—all jobs that greatly informed his writing. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Walser was hospitalized in 1933 and was institutionalized for the last twenty-three years of his life, during which time he wrote tons of “microscripts,” which were considered “undecipherable” until rather recently.

Here’s some info from Susan Bernofsky’s introduction:

Robert Walser, one of high modernism’s quirkiest, most mischievous storytellers, wrote many of his manuscripts in a shrunken-down form that remains enigmatic even a century later. These narrow strips of paper covered with tiny, antlike markings ranging from one to two millimeters, came to light only after their author’s death in 1956. At first his literary executor, Carl Seelig, assumed that Walser had been writing secret code, a corollary of the schizophrenia with which he’d been diagnosed in 1929. Unsure what to make of these tiny texts, Seelig published a handful of them as enlarged facsimiles int he magazine Du with a note describing them as “undecipherable,” and then put them away for safekeeping.

Naturally, these turned out to be decipherable, and Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte spent a decade analyzing the texts, using a technique more like guesswork than reading:

It isn’t possible to just sit down and read a microscript. Morlang and Echte report that one doesn’t so much read these tiny words as guess at what they might psay and then verify the accuracy of the hypothesis.

Part of this is based on the size of the script, but there’s also the interesting nature of the script itself:

The writing that looked like secret code in Carl Seelig’s eyes turned out to be a radically miniaturized Kurrent script, the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century, when it was replaced by a Latinate form similar to that used in English. Kurrent is medieval in its origins, all up-and-down slanting angles. It is a form of script better suited to compression than modern handwriting, though its graphic simplicity—an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash—means that shrinking it down results in a dramatic loss of detail and comprehensibility.

All of this is fascinating, making me anxious to dive into the writings themselves. And to speed up time so that it can suddenly be September 23rd . . . Barbara and Susan are both absolutely amazing, and it will be a real treat to see them on stage together.


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