“Instances of Delightfulness are Always Beautiful.”—Robert Walser
by Weston Cutter
Here’s a theory: the reason small presses are so vital is because they put out books like this, books which could not be demographically tested or vetted by bigger publishers, books which don’t have an easily-identifiable point, books which are simply good and fascinating. This, of course, is why we need places like Graywolf, and Milkweed, and Coffee House, and Two Dollar Radio, and Dzanc.
And, of course, the granddaddy: New Directions (still published for J. Laughlin, every last one of their books). Among such devastators as Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard, and whatever latest newly translated Bolaño, along with (of course, how could it possibly be forgotten) A. Carson’s magnificently sledgehammering NOX, Robert Walser’s Microscripts, the latest ND book I’ve read to knock me sideways from my chair, is printed proof that wonder is vital, that the unknown is critical, that life is better when, at least once in awhile, we come into contact with works of art which don’t fit any preconceptions.
Microscripts is, like Carson’s NOX, a book which is as interesting as object/gestational idea as actual narrative-through-text. Meaning what? Meaning Walser, an early modernist (a big deal modernist, too: there’s a Walter Benjamin essay in here about Walser, and I’m part of whatever group who feels bad for not having known Walser earlier [even if I got halfway through his The Tanners, even if I keep meaning to finish it]), spent his last decades locked up in a sanitarium (to which he had an interesting relationship, if Wikipedia’s to be believed) and writing using something he called his ‘pencil method,’ which method sounds (and looks, vaguely) cunieform-ish (actually, that’s not true: it looks less cunieform and more like the invented language in the Codex Seraphinianus). His pencil method, though, allowed him to cram massive textual info into/onto exceptionally small places (shortest story reproduced in Microscripts: maybe 1″x2″, maybe; there are several reproductions in Microscripts of the original scraps Walser attacked and good lord, the stories themselves are satisfying, but the effect of seeing such writing is to get a megadose of inspiration, honestly: you find, in the introduction, that Walser chose small scraps of paper, and that, unlike the easiest image, he wasn’t some wild-man of urge and overwhelming need, scribbling and scrabbling on the back of whatever was nearest, but there’s no way to see the texts without feeling a tug of that sensation).
It’s a fantastically strange book, Microscripts: it’s valuable and great because Walser’s stories are generous and strange, featuring the ho-hum weirdness that makes some early 20th century stuff akin to David Lynch. Here’s how “Somewhere and Somewhen” begins: “Somewhere and somewhen, in a region quite possibly furnished with all manner of agreeable sights and significant figures, there lived a peculiar girl—being at once beautiful and clever—who was capable both of making merry and of handling her income or assets in a thrifty, economical manner.” The line, while generally establishing the narrative world of the story, raises at least as many questions as it may eventually answer (Who’s the narrator? Why make it maybe/maybe-not that the regions furnished with sights/figures? Why is there an implied divide between merriness and fiscal responsibility?), and Walser does this, over and over and over. The actual fiction in Microscripts is fascinatingly wild in just this way, page after page, and it’d be a good book if what the reader got were, simply, the stories, translated and transmitted finally, all these years later.
But it’s better than that, of course: the story of Walser’s ‘pencil method,’ and the story of the microscripts sitting for decades untouched, untranslated (having been thought scrap, of little importance), the fact that he wrote this stuff after he was locked up in a sanitarium (seemingly against his will) though a sanitarium he, in his later years, refused to leave Microscripts offers (especially awesomely for the contemporary anything-goes reader/writer) is a lesson or idea or template in borders, in restriction. Writers, presently, can run any direction, we’re invited to knock all walls down, we can approach limitlessness if we choose (AMonson’s latest book of nonfiction and attendant website, as an example). Walser, however, is a faint and necessary reminder, though, of the beauty of rules, the shocking possibilities that arise because of, not despite ridigity.