30 January 2020

The micrographia of Robert Walser

I listened to a fascinating story in the "Small Things Considered" podcast of This American Life (in Act 3 - "What the Eye Can't See")
After Walser died, a nurse in one of his hospitals came forward with these strange scraps of paper. His sister had a shoebox full of them too-- hundreds of little scraps, used postcards, business cards, old calendar pages ripped in half. And those little shreds were just covered in ant-like pencil markings, dense little rows of tiny slashes and ticks, packed onto shreds of paper. Everyone thinks it's just mad-man scrawl, and they put the papers away.

A few months later, his friend, who, for years, was one of the only people who really visited him in the hospital, publishes a blown-up photo of one of these scraps in a Swiss literary magazine. "Undecipherable," he writes, "a product of Walser's schizophrenia." But when the magazine comes out, a grad student writes in saying, Wait, I can read this. I think those scratchings are letters.

He got the papers and spent months staring at 24 pages trying to decipher the tiny handwriting. It turned out to be an entire novel. But there were still hundreds more scraps. It wasn't until the 1980s that someone tackled the rest of them...
It's worth the listening time to hear the full story (audio clip here).  More on Robert Walser.

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