The Lingering Ghosts of an Author’s Oeuvre

Robert Walser’s Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories shows big things come in small packages

The arrival of Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, the third Robert Walser collection from New York Review Books — and fourth title overall, including Walser’s celebrated novel, Jakob von Gunten — continues the publisher’s deep dive into the late writer’s work, emphasizing the vastness of Walser’s back catalog and making sure his prose remains easily accessible to English-speaking audiences. This newest offering, lovingly translated from the German by Tom Whalen, with Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner, contains 88 chronologically arranged texts, and the mishmash of stories, essays, reviews, and remarks delightfully captures Walser’s playful use of language.

Though both appear over halfway through the collection, title stories “Girlfriends” and “Ghosts” nicely reflect the book’s overall mood. In the first, a protagonist hides behind a curtain, spying on two sisters as one employs the other as a footstool, while “Ghosts” finds the author using a recently read novel as a device to question the existence of the supernatural. In these stories, Walser’s narrators react to a one-sided encounter — the novelist in “Ghosts,” cannot tell when his words are being read, after all — and this method of storytelling pockmarks the collection, as Walser frequently writes as if an outsider, or a ghost himself. Also, like most Walserian tales, these two stories gracefully flit about via visual association, segueing into ruminations on independence (“Unfreedom can harbor an enormous amount of freedom; independence can be slavery”) and the small pleasures found in dime store novels:

There are little books we read as if we’re eating something delicious. We quickly forget them. After a certain amount of time, perhaps we recall them again. They’re like people we’re capable of loving because they’re not difficult. I also wish this for what I have written here.

Such moments of observation, nostalgia and political curiosity continue in several other texts, and though Walser never mentions it directly, shades of World War I sometimes linger. “The Children’s Game,” from 1919, revolves around a poet who watches a group of children as they gather “against an old tower” to play. The little ones jockey for dominance, and the poet monitors as one grows too powerful before he falls “over a branch” and is “forgotten,” leaving an opening for another child to take the lead. In 1917’s “The Murderess,” a narrator walks with a farmer over a mountain, where he sees a woman possessing a “robust healthy appearance.” After the woman passes the duo, the farmer reveals to the narrator that the woman “beat her husband to death.” Hearing this, the narrator writes, “What astonished me the most was the good, natural appearance of the woman whom we had just seen pass us so quietly and inconspicuously … not a murderess but just any upright, honest, diligent woman.” In both of these stories, Walser’s surrogates take on the role of commoner absorbing the actions of a drastically changing world, where friendly faces can hide danger and power is fleeting.

In ‘Exes,’ We Are What We’ve Lost

All is not political, however, and as those familiar with the author might expect, the collection also features several takes on nature. These contain an even greater sense of wonder and sanctuary for the writer and regularly continue his pattern of one-sided observation/interpretation. The very short “On the Terrace” vividly describes a rain shower’s effect on a lake; “Spring” sees Walser enjoying a bird “trying to practice its singing, endeavoring to loosen its throat”; and “Dear Little Swallow” embraces an epistolary style as the author aims his words directly at the title bird, praising its beauty and asking it to stay as long as possible to stave off the cold winter months. Even the collection’s opening story, “A Morning,” which charms as Walser recounts the tedium and minutiae of office work, speaks to his love of nature. Here, Walser toys with the confines of a traditional job, describing a harried worker as “Totally Be-Mondayed, his face pale and bewildered” and his environment “a life among desks.” Characters battle over an opened window, a woman outside sings, and the temptations on display by Mother Nature make the morning hours drag for the men stuck indoors.

The variety of work on display in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories is impressive. Whether written as fairy tale (“No One”) or drama (“Porcelain”), spy story (“The Red Leather Pouch”) or book review (“Ludwig”), each text sees Walser manipulating language with a wry irony to suit his desires. Of course, sometimes his desires show his privilege as a white male living in a patriarchal world, and texts like “The Bob” and “The Girls” illustrate the author’s perhaps unintentional slips into sexism and degradation masked as good humor. The inclusion of these works may temper the attraction of Walser to some, yet they help round his complex character, and they add extra depth to Tom Whalen’s excellent afterword, which presents a brief, helpful bio on Walser, his correspondence with other authors, and a history of Walser’s translators.

In “Something About Writing,” Walser claims, “The existence of a writer is determined by neither success nor acclaim, but rather depends on his desire or power to fabulate anew again and again.” Though not every text bears fruit, Walser clearly shows his power to fabulate in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories. The collection is a very strong, and it continues NYRB’s winning streak of Walser translations.

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