+ -
More! (02/2021)

Robert, what does that say there?

Text: Noëmi Kern

When we read a book, we seldom ask ourselves how the text originated or how closely what we are reading corresponds to the original version. That, however, is precisely what the producers of text critical editions must consider. A research team in Basel is currently working on such an edition of the complete works of Robert Walser.

Picture of a handwritten title page named "Seeland" by Robert Walser.
Title page of the manuscript for the collection “Seeland” by Robert Walser. (Photo: Robert Walser-Stiftung Bern)

Is that a comma or a period? Or just fly droppings? Deciding such things is an everyday occurrence in the field of textual criticism. It can mean spending hours poring over a single passage in a text written in barely legible handwriting, just trying to discover what is actually written there. This is painstaking work that requires remarkable staying power. “But it’s worth it. It’s fascinating and thrilling to immerse oneself so deeply in a text,” says Matthias Sprünglin.

As a Germanist, Sprünglin has gathered years of experience as a member of the team working on the Kritische Robert-Walser-Ausgabe (KWA) a critical edition of the complete works of Robert Walser. The edition is a work in progress – since 2007! The pro project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), is dedicated to the works of the Swiss author Robert Walser (1878–1956) and is a collaboration between the universities of Basel and Zurich.

Walser is probably best known for his novels Geschwister Tanner, Der Gehülfe und Jakob von Gunten. These books, however, are just a very small part of his oeuvre. His works include prose, poetry and short dramatic works, so-called “Dramoletten”. “In his lifetime he was best known for his contributions to newspapers – from Berlin to Zurich and from Vienna to Prague. Short prose works were his particular forte,” Sprünglin tells us. His work could be found in feuilletons throughout the German-speaking world.

The KWA brings together all existing writings by Walser, among those some works that have never before been published in a collection. New approaches have been used in collating those Walser texts that appeared in newspapers and magazines: the individual pieces are sorted according to newspaper or magazine and then sorted, there, according to publication date. “This makes it possible to understand, on the one hand, how and when Walser came to write for a particular publication and, on the other, how his relationship with that publication developed,” Matthias Sprünglin explains. The World Wars in particular, significantly affected the publishing network throughout Europe and, ultimately, destroyed it.

Philological groundwork

Half of the edition (which will ultimately comprise 50 volumes) will be published by the end of September 2021. The project should be completed by 2032. The most significant edition of Robert Walser’s work until now has been that of Jochen Greven. This edition modernized the spelling so it complied with the standard in 1970, but this edition does not indicate where the text has been emended or where the edition has reverted to other textual witnesses such as manuscripts or other editions. Since Greven does not declare these emendations, his interventions are not transparent to the reader, and it remains unclear how the text finally offered actually took its shape.

Nevertheless: “Greven did good and valuable work. Without his edition, ours would not exist.” Significant groundwork with regard to the microscripts was done by Werner Morlang and Bernd Echte. In their work Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet (“From the Pencil Zone”) they first deciphered a large proportion of these small jottings.

The aim of the KWA publishers is to reconstruct an authentic text and to give account of what it is based on and how it was produced – given the materials available. The editors are interested in biographical details only in so far as they are significant to the creation of the work and its written heritage.

In addition to safeguarding the written texts, the aim is to throw light upon Walser’s writing process. Matthias Sprünglin’s enthusiasm and fascination is clearly evident when he says: “The so-called microscripts are a veritable universe of drafting and designing.” Walser wrote them in pencil on various kinds of paper. “The writing is sometimes so abstract that you really cannot speak about the elements as letters as we know them. It is rather a matter of syllables, typographies and word pictures, which even a practiced reader cannot easily decipher.” With the help of transcriptions, however, it is also possible for non-experts to comprehend what is on these various bits of paper.

Walser wrote these microscripts on finished texts, a two-stage method of text generation. The KWA offers an insight into Walser’s writing workshop. The different kinds of text media add another dimension to the microscripts. Walser wrote them onto, for example, a cut-up calendar and a German newspaper’s receipt-of-payment document (the newspaper was the Berliner Tagblatt). The connections between these different pieces of paper have been reconstructed for the first time in the KWA. “Interesting relationships between the texts become apparent,” says Sprünglin.

The advantages of digitization

Digitization offers great advantages in the presentation of findings in the field of text criticism. It is, for example, possible to enlarge digitized microscripts and to place them in relationship to the transcriptions. Moreover, digital presentation forms are continuously developing.” The second major advantage is the full-text search. This offers entirely new ways of approaching the complete works,” enthuses Matthias Sprünglin, who is not only a Germanist but also a computer scientist.

The rapid development of digital formats also has its drawbacks, however. The possible means of storing data are also constantly changing. “When we started work on the KWA, we burned our data DVDs. You just wouldn’t do that these days,” says the researcher. It is also difficult to choose the format for creating archives that will survive in the long term. “We don’t know what the future will bring. But we’re doing what we can,” Sprünglin assures us.

Printing makes a long life more easily achievable: The books published by the KWA will be printed on acid-free archival paper. It will still be possible to read them in 300 to 400 years. “We are aware that it will be some time before anyone else produces a complete works of Robert Walser with this degree of thoroughness and we know that we have to lay the foundations for many years to come,” says Sprünglin. That’s a huge responsibility.

A fundamental edition

Taking responsibility is always important in editing in any case. If we consider, for example, Robert Walser’s work Die Gedichte: In choosing the version of the text, editors have a choice between the first edition from 1909 or the slightly emended version from 1919. In choosing, they decide which version they believe to be more authentic, and that then has a long-lasting influence on the future reception of the poems, even though it is not actually possible to prove that the correct version was chosen. “Ultimately, the reader has to be able to rely on the publisher.” Matthias Sprünglin wants to pass on this awareness. In the current fall semester, he is giving a seminar on editing Robert Walser for the first time. “On the one hand, I don’t want us just to sit in our quiet little rooms poring over the texts. I want us to show our work to the outside world. I want us to speak about it with other people and I want us always to approach our own work critically.”

On the other hand, Sprünglin believes that anyone and everyone who wishes to engage in literary studies should also engage in textual criticism. A text, after all, does not simply appear. “It has a provenance, a history of transmission in which one cannot but be interested if one is interested in the text itself,” he believes. Textual criticism reflects this process and makes it more transparent.

Matthias Sprünglin wants to motivate us to look closely at texts, and to engage with them critically. He also has some hope that he might be able to communicate his enjoyment of and enthusiasm for textual criticism to encourage a new generation of editors. His hope, too, is that in the future people will also sit poring over a text for hours, determined to understand exactly how that text came to be.

To top