A Charming Zero

On Robert Walser's Microscripts

by Will Weatherly

Illustration by Julie Kwon

published November 13, 2015

Writing, by nature, is a physical trade. It has motion, exertion, exactitude. Handwriting is formed by the tracing of a pen along set routes, the strain of muscles in your hands to make the movements precise. Keyboards haven’t abolished this practice; fingertips must still fly to keys, must still enact a rhythm. Writing has as much to do with corporeality as it does with communication. A writer, sitting down at a desk, shares the posture of a craftsman at his bench, practicing and refining the labor of his hands. 

The conception of “the writer” is now an artistic identity rather than a practice. It is a romantic vision, as tied to a notion of celebrity as it is to the art of writing itself. Some writers attempt to monetize their craft, while others do it for the sheer pleasure, not seeking wide readership for their writing to have meaning. Both kinds of writer are far from our culture’s fixation on the author as a public intellectual. This is not always flashy work—there is little room to acquire widespread status and prestige, the consequence of an abundance of talented writers within a culture that praises a few prominent figures. While some may acquire specialized followings, a large portion of writers today, from bloggers to online columnists, lie in stages of relative obscurity.

Judged by the allure of writerly fame, this obscurity is a failure. But it doesn’t have to be. For the Swiss writer, Robert Walser, creating art on the humblest, most workmanlike of fringes saved his art. Some of the best works of his career were also some of the twentieth century’s most fascinating and enigmatic. These pieces, called microscripts, were so obscure, so physically tiny, they could not be read with the human eye. Walser embodied their miniscule nature throughout his career—in a profile for the New Yorker, contributor Benjamin Kunkel called him “the incredible shrinking writer.” His work constantly strived for a full retreat—its ideas were so quavering and uncertain as to hardly seem present at all—but his craft gained meaning in its move towards humility. As it shrank, it grew. 




Robert Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, to a father who ran a meager bookbinding enterprise and a mother who descended from a family of nail smiths. Like his parents, Walser often worked modest professions. He was forced to leave school at the age of 14; his first jobs included working as both a bank clerk and an office clerk. In 1906, after working as a servant at Daubrau Castle, he moved to Berlin. There, he wrote his first three books, Fritz Kocher’s Essays, The Tanner Siblings, and The Assistant. These early novels centered around topics Walser would obsess over his entire career: subservience, practicality, and those honorable people who have no need for honor. 

Franz Kafka, upon his debut, was called “a special case of the Walser type” by the Austrian writer, Robert Musil. The comparison is apt; both Kafka and Walser avoided emulating the bravura of other modernist experimenters of their time. Instead, their styles were both progressive and discreet. For Kafka, this meant revealing the alienation in powerlessness, the disconnections and crises brought by power’s interventions. Walser’s subjects were just as characterized by their suppression, and were relegated to professions on the periphery: clerks, servants, assistants. The magic of Walser comes when his characters’ emotions grow larger than their marginal status. 

His characters are eternally cheery, even as they ruminate on their insignificance. The titular protagonist of his most famous novel, Jakob von Gunten, finds uncanny delight in being nonessential: “In later life I shall be a charming, utterly spherical zero. As an old man I shall have to serve young and confident and badly educated ruffians, or I shall be a beggar, or I shall perish.” Walser admires his protagonist for wanting to be of use, but he affords Jakob more freedom than Jakob allows himself. Jakob is a dreamer, and often slips into reveries of castles and medieval dames. As he dreams, his descriptions becomes more emotional and abstract; we can see Walser allowing himself glimpses of impressionism and fantasy before staring back down at his shoes.

The experimentation of Walser’s first novels garnered the most attention he would ever receive in his career, and Walser soon found himself praised by the literary elite of his time, including the Czech writer and Kafka’s close confidante, Max Brod. Even with his newfound acclaim, Walser preferred humility over vanity. Turning to Hugo van Hofmannsthal, then one of Austrian literature’s crown jewels, at a soirée, he chided: “Couldn’t you forget for a bit that you’re famous?” 

Even the quality of his prose seems to eschew formal ambitions. In few other bodies of work can you come across a phrase as beautifully clumsy as this: “Yesterday I engaged a more uncomely than pulchritudinous member of the solicitude-requiring faction of the collectivity of humanity—at what hour of the day need scarcely be divulged—in a suitable location, that is to say amidst the city’s hustle and bustle, in a to my mind appropriate conversation, which touched, among other things, on the, as I am surely justified in asserting, most certainly not uninteresting topic of astrology, a science which, to underscore this in passing, is currently all the rage.” 

This is unstylishly stylish writing. Like all of Walser’s subjects, each word gains importance by being almost entirely unnecessary. German literary critic, Walter Benjamin, observed that in Walser’s writing, as soon as the sentence leads somewhere, a qualifier makes a quick reversal, causing “a torrent of words…in which the only point of every sentence is to make the reader forget the previous one.”

As nationalist sentiments took hold of the German literary establishment in the years before World War I, Walser lost the favor of the publications that had supported his odd endeavors in poetry and prose, forcing him to return to Switzerland in 1913. Walser struggled to write, first in his sister’s apartment, then in a miserable room in the attic of the Hotel zum blauen Kreuz. It was here that Walser stooped at his desk, in his dusty military jacket, for 13 hours a day. German writer, W.G. Sebald, writes that Walser’s shoes were “slippers [Walser] fashioned himself from leftover scraps of material.” Walser’s writing, once defined by its miniature revelries, had become claustrophobic. Observing the character of ash and his own diminution, he writes: “Ash is submissiveness, worthlessness, irrelevance itself...tread on ash, and you will barely notice that you have stepped on anything.” 

Sebald named Walser a “clairvoyant of the small” precisely because of this—he was the prophet of his own obscurity. In this period of suffering, Walser produced some of the most beautifully enigmatic work of the era; unseen and unpublished for decades, only now can this work be read with eyes not attuned to the infinitesimal.




In order to overcome his stifling self-doubt, Walser developed a writing technique that was, quite literally, too tiny to be read and criticized. In what is now called his method of “micrography,” Walser used a pencil to scribble tiny prose and poetry pieces on scraps of paper. Business cards, theater tickets, pulp novel covers. No longer simply depicting life’s detritus, he began to use this method in his work. In order to fit two or three pieces on a single paper fragment, Walser wrote in the German Kurrent script, which used letters so abstracted and simplified their difference was often indiscernible. The transcription in the 1970s of the 526 surviving fragments was painstaking, and required literature scholars Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte to study the text using a thread counter, speculating and reconstructing meanings for many of the unintelligible words. They found, amidst the piles of loose pages, an entire lost novel (The Robber, Walser’s last) written on twenty-four 13 x 21.5 cm cards. 

In a 1927 letter to journal editor Max Rychner, Walser explains the reasoning behind what appears to be a maddening writing process: “I suffered a real breakdown in my hand on account of the pen, a sort of cramp from whose clutches I slowly, laboriously freed myself by means of the pencil. A swoon, a cramp, a stupor—these are always both physical and mental. So I experienced a period of disruption...I learned again, like a little boy, to write.” The microscripts—clumped and grey on each paper scrap like so many particles of ash—are some of Walser’s best prose. Their condensed form typifies Walser in prime ironic form. One microscript begins: “Usually I first put on a prose piece jacket, a sort of writer’s smock, before venturing to begin with a composition, but I’m in a rush right now, and besides, this is just a tiny little piece, a silly trifle featuring beer coasters as round as plates.” Walser goes on, but neglects to provide a reason for the piece’s existence. Ultimately, he was a writer who constantly attempted (and failed) to justify the oddness of his work. He found the best self-expression when he didn’t have any justification to offer, or when his work didn’t need any. After all, what does writing gain if it never asks to be read? 

It would be too easy to call the microscripts Walser’s solution to the suffering brought by the difficulty of his writing. Instead, the microscripts were that suffering’s logical fulfillment; if the prose of his novels receded into slightness and ambiguity, the microscripts were its vanishing point. While Walser was able to put words on paper after an immense battle with writer’s block, few of the microscripts actually found their way to print. Some he transcribed and sent off to magazines, whose readership balked at the fragments’ apparent nonsense. Other microscripts were only unearthed after Walser’s death. Perplexed at the ream of enigmatic work, his literary executor, Carl Seelig, had stored them away as undecipherable artifacts of his late friend. 

For Seelig, it was easy to dismiss them this way. After more than a decade of artistic and financial struggle, Walser was brought by his sister, Lisa, to a Waldau sanatorium in 1929. There he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, an evaluation that remains dubious. Walser, showing few schizophrenic symptoms, seemed merely to have been exhausted and depressed; the strain of writing had whittled down to almost nothing. He was later forcibly moved to an asylum at Herisau, and though he told a visitor, “I am not here to write, I am here to be mad,” a guard reported seeing Walser hunched over a tiny leaflet, scribbling away. 

Even in his decline, Walser’s passions were irreducible. The microscripts show this: in the absence of an audience, Walser was able to retain the art of his writing. He was able to find strength in marginality by writing in the literal margins of book pages, play programs, and index cards. The microscripts perfectly unified Walser’s subject and form, utilizing their tiny medium to demonstrate what beauty could be found in reality’s slightest details. Though just as provocative as well-known high modernists, Walser was never interested in making grand statements. But pulled by contemporary tastes, Walser’s readers came and went. Walser’s constant was writing, in its purest form—pencil on paper. It was as mundane and profound as the aspects of a simpler life he celebrated. 

 Although Walser never traveled beyond his modest existence in Switzerland and Germany, he was prone to taking long walks in the country. In 1925, Walser trekked around 150 kilometers between Berne and Geneva, though we are not left with many records of the journey. He walked alone, saw small wonders alone, scrawled them on paper scraps for him alone to read. The microscripts offer a perspective of this time as well. They envision the possibility of truly personal writing, writing that is not only about oneself, but formed and recorded in one’s solitude. One microscript shows this walking Walser as a kind of beggar, taking private alms from the laughter of children, and finding joy in the way that “beggarly little faces” were reflected in the autumn trees.

Robert Walser died of a heart attack while on a stroll through the winter landscape of Herisau, Christmas Day, 1956. We can credit him for his celebration of the mundane, his strive towards what is real and practical and minute in the beauty of writing. The fact that he died while doing what he loved, walking, was perhaps the last of his tiny tricks, his small miracles. 


WILL WEATHERLY B’19 is more uncomely than pulchritudinous.