There are no photographs, to my knowledge, of Robert Walser wearing glasses. One might conclude from this that the luminous Swiss writer, who died at the age of 78 in 1956, was either possessed of a certain vanity or else blessed with exceptional eyesight.
If you take a stroll through New Directions’ new volume of Walser’s microscripts, prodigiously packaged with paintings by Maira Kalman and photos of the original text, you might lean toward the latter. Beset by hand cramps in his middle years, Walser developed a new method for writing in which he penciled his irresistibly sly sketches and prose pieces in minute German lettering on any blank surface within reach: calendar pages, business cards, honorarium notices. Counterintuitively, the arduous technique liberated the author to compose, in his own words, “more dreamily, peacefully, cozily, contemplatively.” Like the yogi meditating his way to cosmic consciousness, he hoped the discipline would lead him to “a peculiar form of happiness.”
Walser claims to have toyed with this cockamamie micro-style as early as his 20s. But the short pieces gathered here and translated by Susan Bernofsky with the same witty brio she brought to the author’s “Berlin Stories” and final novel, “The Robber,” were likely written in the middle years bracketing the apparent advent of Walser’s depression in 1924 and eventual diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1929. In 1933, he would enter an asylum, where he would live out the rest of his years.
Where the “Berlin Stories” sang with the ebullience of a young man from the provinces reveling in the hustle-bustle of his new metropolitan home, these diminutively etched pieces career with the helter-skelter virtuosity of a veteran artist coming apart at the seams.
A disregard for rules in the guise of disorderliness was always part and parcel of Walser’s brilliance. Present and accounted for in the “Microscripts” are the signature idiosyncrasies that make him such a gas to sit with, such as the seeming non sequiturs that, upon reflection, resound with a poignant logic. Written on a postal wrapper, the self-referential “Autumn” contemplates the existential plight of a man idling away his days in a state of “spiritual beggarhood.” Walser punctuates the piece with the opaque announcement that “[i]n the city where I reside, a Van Gogh exhibition is currently on view.”
Now vaunted as a modernist before his time, Walser delights in stepping outside his narratives with raffish interruptions. He momentarily waylays a sketch on children playing with a dog to let us know that he didn’t groom himself properly to write it. Unsurprisingly, he revels in characters that stray from the path society assigns them. The collection contains no less than three stories about good women who respond to unappreciative husbands by turning naughty.
Walser’s recalcitrants invariably get a reprieve, less out of any fetish for happy endings than his own desire to be absolved of his errors, like the biblical prodigal son invoked in one story. “Microscripts” is fraught with a yearning to press the reset button on life choices, yearning for gracefulness of manner, yearning for the women who slipped from his hands (or perpetually eluded them). “All his longing,” he sighs with empathy for a cultivated man who lived for the moment, “how he longs for it again!”
His writings also betray a closet yearning for bygone civilizations, not unlike Owen Wilson’s character in “Midnight in Paris,” as evidenced in the artisan-like filigrees of his descriptive passages: “With his doe-eyes he gazed — as one might possibly be permitted to say — in headwaiter fashion, perusing some Vienna Choir heights that can scarcely have existed.” Walser vaulted new heights of expression with minuscule means, going mad in the process. It’s a wonder he didn’t go blind as well.
Jan Stuart is author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.
This story has been updated to reflect the publisher is “New Directions / Christine Burgin.”