Here is something very unusual. I recently reviewed a new translation of Swiss novelist Robert Walser's (1878-1956) novel The Tanners. It has now been joined by a new book entitled Microscripts (New Directions, 24.95). The title refers to the minuscule script in which Walser wrote for the last 30 or 40 years of his life, which was long thought to be undecipherable but which scholars have finally unraveled and published (the German edition apparently extends to 6 volumes). Not only was the writing unbelievably tiny, it was done on scraps of paper or receipts or calling cards or book covers.
The new volume -- for which the publisher, New Directions, is to be congratulated -- is exemplary in every way. It consists of a selection of the pieces written in mircroscript in excellent translations by Susan Bernofsky (who also translated the novels for the same publisher), facsimiles of the originals of these pieces, notes, the German text and an afterword by no less than Walter Benjamin (an essay originally published in 1929).
The pieces represented here occupy a middle position between story and a kind of non-fiction writing not very well known in this country, the feuilleton, which still appears in European newspapers today. These are usually light somewhat literary pieces, observations of or comments on local occurrences, sometimes interwoven with fiction or at least fictional elements. Walser made a living--barely--writing these kinds of pieces when he lived in Berlin in the early years of the Twentieth Century.
But most of these pieces have an off-kilter aspect, a very quirky disconnect from the real world of order and logic that make them particularly modern; somehow a paragraph on one topic or another will start in one direction and end in quite another, without the reader being aware of how or why this has happened. It is well known that Kafka was a huge fan of Walser's and in this collection one can see why: the themes of the outsider trying to make sense of a world that always just eludes him are common to both and you will find yourself laughing and crying at the same time.
Whether Walser was consciously making some stylistic point or whether this writing was a sign of an unraveling mind (he spend the last third of his life in an asylum) is not known to me, and doesn't really matter in one's enjoyment of this book. I doubt that you have ever come across anything like this, especially with such high production values. Give it a try.
-- Jeremy Nussbaum