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GREAT HASTE: ROBERT WALSER’S WRITINGS ON ART

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Les Hasards heureux de l’escarpolette (The Swing), 1767, oil on canvas, 31 7/8 × 25 1/4".

ONCE A STUDENT at an academy for butlers, and another time employed as an inventor’s assistant, Robert Walser (1878–1956) approached writing as a kind of butler or assistant too. “To be small and stay small” was an antiambition Walser shared with Jakob von Gunten, the eponymous hero of his great 1909 autofiction-cum-bildungsroman about getting ahead in a school for servants. Walser’s late microscripts—uncategorizable prose pieces written in a hand so infinitesimal that it was long thought to be meaningless scratching—pack prolixity into the confines of the minuscule; his novel The Robber (1925) was written on a twenty-four page manuscript. Style in Walser is small too, leaving things like ringing gravitas for those born to higher callings, going instead for more déclassé pleasures, playing around on the edge of sentimentality, and having fun as a faux-naïf who sometimes

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