Words like ants

by craigepplin

I’ve been buying lots of books at Powell’s lately. One is this beautiful volume by Robert Walser. It’s full of little stories written on ticket stubs and napkins.

When I first heard about these stories I immediately knew or imagined that they had something to do with speed: experiments or private performances, elliptical treatises. I was right but in the wrong way because I had imagined Walser the only way I knew how: writing quickly in scribbles and scrawls, his words akin to yarn spooling out from a ball dropped or warm piss carving a rift into a pile of snow. I had imagined cursive letters pouring forth the way a monitor maps automatically a heartbeat, writing at the speed of life or the speed of blood, which is to say faster than Walser could think, but none of that is right. Rather, as I learned by reading just a little of his translator’s introduction, he wrote his tiny writings to accomplish the opposite, to slow everything down, and he wrote in pencil because pencils stop and hesitate where we do—they don’t lean forward, anticipating our next move like pens—and so with a pencil he could make his letters as dots deformed in old medieval script.

This isn’t a review, just the index of an experience. In any case I can’t say much more about Walser, because I haven’t managed to read beyond the first few stories in the book I pulled off a high shelf the other day. I found it by chance, browsing. I stepped down off the stool satisfied and exulting, made my way through the line at the register, and walked out into the rain. Almost next door was a bar. Once inside, I paid for my beer awkwardly and eagerly, a dutiful five-dollar bill already in my hand by the time the bartender asked for four, and slid into a booth lit by a warm-glowing lamp. I’m not sure why, but I pressed my eyes closed as if I had just witnessed a crime. I carefully pushed my drink away, fearing I’d spill. I imagined a large rectangular placemat spread before me, my glass occupying, I decided, the far right corner, framed by invisible demarcations and rules of decorum among things. I opened the plastic bag and pulled out Walser’s book. I read the introduction, sipped my beer, and turned the page.

Days passed, and I’m still reading. I find myself arriving at the end of long sentences and not knowing what they say, having to review entire paragraphs as if I spoke this language only vaguely. I wonder if I care, or if I only care about the concept of tiny writing, about how speed and surface are not neatly correlated, since not every case of writing on scraps is ephemeral or tending that way. “What if,” Foucault asked about Nietzsche, “within a workbook filled with aphorisms, one finds a reference, the notation of a meeting or of an address, or a laundry list: is it a work or not?” Writing is writing until it isn’t really, so that address and list of shirts likely won’t make it into the editor’s final draft. They’ll be confined to something other and maybe better, the realm of flesh that dissolves and knows nothing of names: writing that’s not a metronome, more like a pulse. Walser’s little words, though, aren’t like those imagined marginalia, destined to keep time with life. They move slowly and eventually sit still. The book I bought has pictures of them: they look like sleeping ants.