The Microscripts

By Robert Walser

New Directions
May 2010
159 pages


Reviewed by Josh Billings


The history of literature is long on walkers, sailors, and drivers but short on balloonists, which is one of the reasons why Robert Walser continues to fascinate us. Like Melville with the sea, or Kerouac with the road, Walser internalized the rhythms of his favorite element to the point that we can feel them in his writing. His highly excitable narrators superheat language until it lifts them into an atmosphere that seems free but is actually as tied to its mood as a train to its traintrack. Such passivity in the face of unpredictable forces sounds dangerous to those of us on the ground, but to Walser, it was the only way to stay safe. In an era of unprecedented upheaval, it allowed him to avoid the twin tragedies of alienation and commitment: to escape, in other words, which is the writer's nightmare as much as it is his dream, since it requires that he kick off the very ladder that he climbed up in the first place – and then who knows but that one morning the clouds might refuse to part, and the balloonist find himself stranded, like an astronaut, with no way back to earth?

This last threat is the soprano continuo of Walser's writing: a Munchian scream like the one emitted at the end of his story "Balloon Ride," as the vessel "soars upward into a magical and dizzying height." As with Freud's interpretation of vertigo, it expresses a fear, not of falling, but of the intoxicating desire to slip. People who feel this way tend to stay away from cliffs, but Walser knew that this was foolish. The world itself is a gigantic cliff, and the only thing keeping us from throwing ourselves off it is gravity, which like all forces is not a thing at all but a relationship between things. In their quest to cultivate this relationship, his clerks ballast themselves with unfortunates: widows and old maids and orphans, to whom they devote their lives with the insane willfulness of men hurling themselves out of windows. They bounce back unharmed, which is one of the reasons why, for all his ecstasy, Walser is a much more equivocal writer than, say, Dostoevsky, who convinced himself that self-sacrifice was possible, or Hamsun, who convinced himself it wasn't. Walser couldn't convince himself of anything. He went up or down, abandoning his charges with the ruthless whimsy of the perennially beloved.

His genius was to channel his ambivalence into a form that was similarly divided. As imagined by Baudelaire, the prose poem (or short essay/story/feuilleton) returned narrative writing to its original poetic receptivity by scrubbing it clean of generic encumbrances like plot and scene and installing in their place a roaming and merciless eye – an eye at war with its own boredom. Its dandified narrators strolled the arcades pen in hand, transmuting the dross of late-Victorian experience into the gold of art. Walser's heroes lack the tubercular hauteur of Baudelaire's, but they inherit their understanding of writing as essentially transcription, and the self therefore as a sort of spiritual seismograph. They channel their anxiety by keeping their eyes open and their noses to the paper, spiraling out into digressions so fascinating that they make us forget that there was ever a story to digress from.

Their escape would be perfect if they could only convince themselves that they weren't heroes, but they can't, which is why even the most meandering of the Microscripts recall not Baudelaire but the brothers Grimm. Their bustling mix of action and address sounds nonsensical to ears trained on consistency. What's going on, we want to know. Or is this mess exactly what it appears to be: the disjecta of a genius following his prerogative to its depressingly uncommunicative conclusion? Our frustration is understandable; but by relaxing our expectations, we begin to see that the confusion of these stories is only skin deep. Like fairy tales, they present us with a vision of a world in constant flux. In order to survive in such a world, the writer's mind must be equally metamorphic: a seventh son, who turns "nothing" into "nothing to lose" by surrendering to chance with a trust that seems either foolish or heroic to us. It is both, of course; for by placing the various trinkets of his mind next to one another Walser transforms them into a story-collage whose underlying message seems to be that, beneath its surface incongruity, the world makes sense. The balloonist sees how the fields fit together.

The compression and speed of the Microscripts frequently make them seem abbreviated, like the stenographers' shorthand in which they were written. But like Gogol (a writer he admired and resembles), Walser follows his language with such zest and humility that it frequently overflows its own borders, mutating into strange and beautiful rearrangements. A good example of this is the microscript titled "The Prodigal Son", whose narrator is carried away by the famous Biblical character:

I shall now come to speak of the famous biblical prodigal son, who sank with a beggarliness that knew no peer into the most pitiful remorsefulness, which would make him appear to deserve the designation "Glunggi" in every respect. This whimsical honorific refers to a milksop or oversensitive sissy, to whom apologies are of great concern. Glunggis are short on moxie. When they make a mistake, they sincerely regret it. At night these creatures emit highly resonant sighs. The prodigal son may well represent a prize example of this species, for he is depraved, and moreover considers himself depraved, thereby achieving the utmost pinnacle of Glungginess. A different Old Testament figure represents the utter opposite of the Glunggi type. This figure is named Saul, and of him it is known that he had no patience for emotionality. Saul considered music, for example, to be harmful to one's health. First of all, he loved music with all his heart; secondly, however, he cursed its emotional capacity. By simultaneously drawing it to him and thrusting it away, he proved himself an inveterate music lover. The music pierced his heart, which, however, showed itself to be exceedingly, that is, most improperly, up at arms about this penetration. Once Saul let himself go. "Bring me David, so he can sing me a song, the young wretch." This is what he ordered, and at once his command was carried out. David was not lacking in beauty and pliancy, and he was also the most peerless scoundrel. He sang and plucked strings marvelously, with an outright scoundrelly charm. Saul, in thrall, but nonetheless enterprise-y and assaultive, hurled his spear at the rouser and riler of souls. The boy was indeed riling and rousing petrifications with his artistic culture. Saul was no Glunggi. Neither was David, for that matter, since he was taking no steps whatever to protect himself from hurled-spear eventualities.

As a parable (or para-parable, maybe) this seems straightforward: a miniature Portrait of the Artist, in which the Prodigal's sentimental desire to be loved is set against the steelier, and therefore more legitimate commitments of Saul and David. But the piece's last paragraph suggests a further reversal:

The prodigal son turned up at home all covered in rags. And how unreservedly, how prostrately he repented! Uncanniness in our time seems to me possible to lie in our unwillingness to repent, in our being too frail to disclose our own frailties. No one wants to be a Glunggi, least of all me. And yet I am all the same pleased to have spoken in this missive of the prodigal son. He met with understanding. Being happy, after all, surmounts and surpasses all frailty and strength. Happiness is the shakiest of things and yet also the most solid.

It is tempting to read this ending as a sort of trick: a calculated manipulation (as in a Flannery O'Connor story, for example) of the audience's natural desire to know whose side the author is on. Is Saul the idiot, or the Prodigal Son? Or are we the idiots? But Walser's constant shifts are not meant, I think, to provoke the reader's judgment. On the contrary, they suggest – with characteristic gentleness and humor – a similarity: a metaphysical rhyme or, as Baudelaire might have called it, correspondance. Despite their superficial and even mythic differences, Saul and the Prodigal Son and David are all deeply possessed by what we might call a very Glunggi-ish desire: to be happy. So their stories are less Goofus and Gallant versions to be chosen between and more individual maps of a world they share, and share with us.

The Microscripts relationship with the world's sense is more than just a matter of rejection or acceptance. It's a struggle: an attempt to match writing more closely to a life that can no more live in the old plots than it can escape them completely. Beneath its stand-up routine lurks the very real question of how to arrange words in a way that makes us feel at home in the world. For many previous writers (not to mention most later ones), the best way to do this was by building something: an edifice or house, or maybe just a "hovel in which the spirit takes shelter," as Saul Bellow famously called the novel. The metaphor fits our current sense of literature as bastion, but to Walser, the very solidity of such a building ensures its uselessness. Real safety isn't about making something to hide in, it's about abandoning our shelters and immersing ourselves in the world, like a fish in a waterfall or a bicycle in a tornado. It requires us to return happiness to its original happ—"The shakiest of things and yet also the most solid." The writer, that most sensitive and self-deceiving of creatures, is honest at least about the futility of shelter. His floating house is only as dangerous as it looks.