Here is novelist Robert Walser’s microscopically tiny handwriting, which took four decades to decipher
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Here is novelist Robert Walser’s microscopically tiny handwriting, which took four decades to decipher

Robert Walser’s latest novel, Thief Or Thief, was released in 1972. Walser himself had died fifteen years earlier, having spent nearly three good decades in a sanatorium. He had been a fairly successful figure in the Berlin literary scene of the early 20th century, but during his long institutionalization in his native Switzerland – from which he refused to resume a normal life, despite his outward appearance mental health – he claimed to have put letters behind him. As JM Coetzee writes in New York Book Review“Walser’s so-called madness, solitary death, and posthumous cache of his secret writings were the pillars upon which a legend of Walser as a scandalously neglected genius has been erected.”

This cache consisted of “some five hundred sheets of paper covered in microscopic pencil writing so difficult to read that his executor at first mistook them for a diary in secret code. In fact, Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script code: it is simply handwriting with so many idiosyncratic abbreviations that, even for editors familiar with it, unambiguous decipherment is not always possible.

He conceived of this extreme shorthand as a sort of remedy for the writing block: “In a 1927 letter to a Swiss editor, Walser claimed that his writing was overwhelmed with ‘a faint, a cramp, a stupor’ which was at both ‘physical and mental.’ and brought about by the use of a pen,” writes the New Yorkerby Deirdre Foley Mendelssohn. “Adopting his strange ‘pencil method’ allowed him to ‘play’, to ‘doodle, to play the violin’.

“Like an artist with a stick of charcoal between his fingers,” writes Coetzee, “Walser needed a steady, rhythmic movement of the hand before he could slip into a state of mind in which daydreaming, composing and the flow of tool writing became much the same.This process facilitated the transfer of Walser’s thoughts directly to the page, with the result that his late works read – and were late recognized as reading – like no other literature produced in his day. As seen by Brett Baker at Painter’s Table,” Walser’s compressed prose (rarely longer than a page or two) constructs comprehensive narratives that can be consumed quickly—almost” at a glance,” so to speak. Their short duration allows the reader to revisit the work in detail, focusing on phrases, sentences, or words as one might examine painted passages or markings on a cloth.

These ultra-compressed works of the pencil territory, or “pencil zone,” writes Foley Mendelssohn, “establishes Walser as something of a modernist: recycling materials can make texts look like collages, modernist mashups on the border between mechanical and personal production.” But they also make it appear as the precursor of another variety of experimental literature, later: in a longer New Yorker article on Walser, Benjamin Kunkel proposes 1972 as a culturally appropriate year to publish Thief, “a fitting date for a beautiful, elusive work, every bit as self-reflective as anything produced by the metafictionists of the sixties and seventies”. The publication of his “microscripts”, in German as well as in translation, assured him an influence on 21st century writers – and not only on their choice of font size.

For anyone interested in seeing a published version of Walser’s writing, see the book Microscriptswhich features color illustrations by artist Maira Kalman.

via Messy Nessy

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Based in Seoul, Hake MArshall writes and broadcaststs about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city ​​books, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmArshall or on Facebook.

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