Institutionalized for the last 27 years of his life, Swiss modernist Robert Walser achieved a literary rebirth when a vast collection of paper strips, covered with tiny, cryptic pencil markings, was discovered after his death in 1956. First thought to be in secret code, Walser's prose fragments turned out to be composed in Kurrent, a script style dating to the Middle Ages.
The 25 short pieces that make up "The Microscripts" (New Directions: 160 pp., $24.95) have been culled from a six-volume German collection of these writings. The book reproduces Walser's original microscripts — he wrote on, among other things, a detached novel cover, a letter, a calendar page — alongside Susan Bernofsky's translations.
Though splendid, "The Microscripts" is esoteric and as such may be most interesting to the already initiated. Walser's sketches touch on a wide array of subjects — train stations, schnapps, marriage proposals, swine — with varying degrees of coherency.
Walser often eschews proper names for evocative mini-descriptions: a cultured individual, the wife of the refined and mentally exceedingly proper person, the problematic character, a marvelously handsome young ethicist and his betrothed. He thus flattens his characters and blurs their features, focusing instead on their strange and often uncanny behavior.
Certain texts, such as "Radio" — which chronicles the author's first encounter with a radio receiver — read like journal entries. Elsewhere, Walser seems to surprise himself with his own whimsy: "This is certainly a peculiar story," he writes jauntily at the end of one tale, in which a winged colorful monstrosity suddenly appears, "and in any case it has never before appeared in print."
The furtive, secretive nature of the microscripts lend them a talismanic aura. "It amuses me to believe that readers are, as it were, writers' chaperones," Walser writes in "Autumn." In "The Microscripts," he appears to have given them the slip, to thrilling effect.