readings: Saer on Robert Walser
by Heather Cleary
Earlier this week, The Quarterly Conversation published a piece I wrote about Juan José Saer (whose Scars, published in Steve Dolph’s translation by Open Letter Books, was nominated for a Best Translated Book Award this year), in which I mention a few barbs the author directed at the likes of Nabokov and Mario Vargas Llosa. It should be said, though, that Saer was equally keen in his appreciation of those he admired, like the Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956). Walser, who has been a consistent presence in the literary limelight since the 1970s — most recently, thanks to Susan Bernofsky’s perfectly measured translation of his Berlin Stories — explored the expansiveness of the small in an oeuvre remarkable for, in the words of J.M. Coetzee, its “lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox.” Saer, for his part, hones in on Walser’s microscripts (a vast assortment of texts written in a miniscule hand during the author’s internment in the Waldau sanatorium), moving from the minutia of their physical aspect to their broader meaning as a miniature of the creative process.
Walser was in the habit of writing on pages taken from calendars (which he tended to cut in half), on the back of receipts, of fliers, of used envelopes. Often, new texts were written on the back of a postcard, or even of the note by which some journal or another had rejected an earlier text he had sent in for publication. The one constant in his use of this medium (singular in that, in many cases, the length of the text corresponded to the size of the page almost to the millimeter) has led those who study Walser’s oeuvre to hypothesize that it was the type of paper and its dimensions that gave rise to the writing. [Werner] Morlang says: “We can point to an affinity between the materials and the practice of writing that inspired Walser and must have been the main draw of his method. The frequent use of paper put within his reach by chance coincides with Walser’s poetic and ethical precept that any event, no matter how mundane or banal it might seem, is worthy of being the subject of poetry.”
Saer goes on to describe Walser’s reception among his “furtive, yet distinguished admirers” (to Benjamin, his prose was a “perversion of the language” that was “entirely accidental, but fascinating and appealing nonetheless,” while Musil saw it as “a human game, agile and harmonious, overflowing with imagination and freedom”). It’s the closing lines of the piece, though, that I wanted to reach with this; lines that, like all good criticism, have a bit of poetry to them.
The truth is, finding inspiration in the paper, in the place, in the table at which one writes is fairly common and generally accepted by the public. But what might generate resistance in this utilitarian and consequentialist world of ours is the assertion that a piece of paper destined for the trash bin has a more powerful energy to it than moral, philosophical, and social aesthetic imperatives, an energy absent in those imperatives and endowed with the unusual ability to generate a work of literature. The assertion that even the works most representative of the values of which a given culture is proud would not exist without the irrational dependence on a private stimulus that is totally irrelevant in the eyes of that culture, and which, because of this very irrelevance, presents itself as its negation. The assertion that this obvious particularity of Walser’s, which, given the nearly thirty years he spent locked away in a mental institution, many might be tempted to write off as dementia, is actually the model of all literary creation.
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The full text of the essay can be found on the website of El País (in Spanish). The Microscripts (New Directions, 2010) and Berlin Stories (NYRB Classics, 2012), both in Susan Bernofsky’s translation, are available for sale by all the usual suspects.