21 October 2011 Would there be no Kafka without him? Robert Walser’s ‘microscripts’ at the Conrad Festival

The third edition of the Conrad Festival will be opened by a unique event – an exhibition of the ‘microscripts’ of the Swiss writer Robert Walser. The event will be accompanied by a discussion with prominent experts on his work from Switzerland (Werner Morlan and Retro Sorg) and translators (Susan Bernofsky and Małgorzata Łukasiewicz), hosted by Łukasz Musiał and Arkadiusz Żychliński. The event will be held at the Wyspiański Pavillion on the 2nd of November at 5 pm. Apart from the exhibition, the festival will feature a film section dedicated to the person of Robert Walser, held traditionally at the Pod Baranami Cinema, as well as a Reading Lesson at noon on the 2nd of November.

Robert Walser’s microscripts (pieces written in pencil in miniscule handwriting) were presented for the first time in the pages of Du magazine after the writer’s death. The decision to publish the pieces in a facsimile form was made by Walser’s friend and literary executor Carl Seelig. At that time, Seelig did not yet know what was contained in the scraps of paper covered with fine writing, believing that Walser had used a secret code to impede access to his work. Now we know that it was not so. Micrograms are shown all over the world and published in subsequent editions of books. Nevertheless, we still cannot fully explain why Robert Walser opted for this form of writing.

The exhibition prepared for the Conrad Festival has a special character. 13 micrograms by Walser will be displayed along with photographs presenting the writer and other visual items associated with his writing. Thanks to a special arrangement of the exhibition space and the original mode of displaying the micrograms, the audience will be able to try to solve the riddle of Walser’s manuscripts, which – as you might guess – are not just about the Swiss writer and his literary work, but all of us.

The exhibition Robert Walser. Microscripts is prepared by Grzegorz Jankowicz in collaboration with Robert Walser Zantrum in Zurich and the Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council. The show will be open until the end of November – admission is free.

The exhibition is one of three Festival events associated with the work of Robert Walser.
On the 2nd of November at noon, a Reading Lesson devoted to the author of “Jakob von Gunten” will be hosted by Grzegorz Jankowicz (Wyspiański Pavilion, pl. Wszystkich Świętych 2).

Additionally, the festival will include a film section dedicated to Walser, traditionally held at the Pod Baranami Cinema. Lovers of the Swiss novelist’s writing and those yet to begin the adventure with his texts will see three outstanding films, starting with the Quay Brothers’ Benjament Institute, a film adaptation of Walser’s first novel Jakob von Gunten, on Thursday, the 3rd of November. The Locarno-awarded film tells the story of students of a school for servants who learn about the dark aspect of the youthful world of unrealised dreams and lost illusions. On Friday, the 4th of November, you can see Snow White – a film adaptation of Walser’s play – where one of the protagonists is darkness – it’s an avant-garde project by João César Monteiro. On Saturday, the 5th of November – The Guardian and his Poet directed by Percy Adlon, a story of a friendship between Walser and Carl Seelig, an editor and patron of the arts. The writer spent nearly 30 years in lunatic asylums, being treated for onerous schizophrenia. Seelig visited him regularly, talking to Walser for hours on end during walks around the picturesque area of the Appenzell – Ausserrhoden Canton. NOTE: Admission to all screenings in the film section is free of charge.

Robert Walser was born in 1878 in Biel, Switzerland, as the seventh child of eight siblings. Initially highly regarded – in 1909 Franz Kafka wrote in a letter that he knew Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten and that it was a good book – Walser slowly slipped into oblivion, until the renewal of interest in his works in the 1960s. From 1929 until his death, the author stayed as a patient at psychiatric facilities, first in Waldau, then in Herisau. Elias Canetti, the Nobel Prize winner of 1981, argued that there would be no Kafka without Walser. The Swiss writer has never been a proponent of the New, did not fight for liberal arts and was not associated with any artistic group, remaining independent.

Many consider him one of the most original writers of the twentieth century. “Today, familiarity with Kafka’s The Trial seems to be almost a duty, while reading The Tanners and Jakob von Gunten and The Assistant – a kind of positive snobbery,” said Jerzy Łukosz in Polityka after the publication of the Polish translation of Geschichten and Aufsätze (2002). “Perhaps too much attention is paid to Walser’s biography?” enquires Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, Walser’s Polish translator. “Walser’s work itself is sufficiently mysterious and rich. Even if you are not familiar with those realities or the time, you can surely yield to their allure. Columns written for newspapers can be read regardless of context.”
Noteworthy is Walser’s ‘pencil technique’ – writing down rough drafts of new works with a pencil, in very small lettering, on small sheets of paper, on random documents, envelopes, pieces of newspapers, etc. These meticulously written ‘micrograms’, extremely numerous and not read in their entirety until 1990, are the core of Walser’s heritage of the last decades of his life.