Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories by Robert Walser translated from the German by Tom Whalen, with Nicole Köngeter and Annette Wiesner (2016) NYRB Classics (2016) 192 pp
Robert Walser, an author I knew nothing about when I started this site, has now become a favorite. His work — giddy, frenetic, melancholy — has affected the way I see the world. And, fortunately, he wrote a lot about the world, not just in his novels and short stories but also in brief asides he wrote and sometimes published throughout his life, from his first youthful steps as a bank clerk in Zurich, to his enthusiastic twenties strutting around Berlin’s early mornings (and where he wrote The Tanners, The Assistant, and Jakob von Gunten), to his mid-life in Beil, and to his brief but still prolific final phase while at Waldau, a psychiatric clinic just outside of Bern. Through most of his life, then, before entering the sanitarium Herisau, his final domicile, Walser wrote down his observations in miniature texts. It’s a series of these career-ranging brief bursts — eighty-one to be exact — that we get in NYRB Classics’ latest collection, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, a brilliantly curated edition that takes us through Walser’s energetic bliss to his existential sadness.
Let’s start with the bliss. As we’ve seen in several of Walser’s prior collections, he seemed to joyfully respond to each new dawn. This collection has some of his most powerful jubilant passages on how to greet a new day. It also has some of his less joyful but still playful perspectives from days when he had to go to work as a bank clerk. The following is the first few sentences of the first piece in the book, “A Morning,” written in 1907.
There are mornings in cobbler’s workshops, mornings in streets, and mornings in the mountains, which may well be the most beautiful things in the world, but a bank morning gives us far more to consider. Let’s assume it’s Monday morning, surely the most morningish morning of the week, when the scent of Monday mornings is excellently disseminated in the bookkeeping departments of large banks.
I may forget, so often does Walser write about long walks, that he did have to make a living, usually in mundane clerk jobs (and he held many). Remembering this fact, though, makes so many of the pieces here more powerful. Those beautiful walks, after all, are moments Walser snatched out of a busy, potentially stressful day. This collection, more than anything else, reminded me that Walser was keenly aware of time’s quick passage, and his joyful greeting of each morning comes across sometimes as relief that the night didn’t stick around forever.
These snapshots — these pilfered moments of the day — are wonderful. A favorite is “A Little Ramble,” written in 1914. “I walked through the mountains today,” Walser begins. “The weather was damp, and the entire region was gray. But the road was soft and in places very clean. At first I had my coat on; soon, however, I pulled it off, folded it together, and laid it over my arm.” This quote is about a quarter of the entire piece, and most of it is a gracious note on the day and the observations, things we have all experienced if we’ve taken the time to go for a walk and soak in the ordinary surroundings. He ends wonderfully, though, with this:
A village was especially beautiful with humble dwellings set thickly under the white rock face. I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the country lane. We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.
This book made me consider why Walser wrote so capaciously about his day-to-day wanderings. If he saw life passing by, he considered it his duty to capture every moment. The memories, it seems, gave him solace.
He speaks of memory in his 1914 piece “Autumn Afternoon”:
I remember a beautiful afternoon I once had. I walked over the country with the stump of a cigar snug in my mouth. Sunlight beamed over the green region. In the fields men, children, and women were working; on my left flowed a golden canal and on my right I had a view of farmland. I dawdled along. A bakery truck blasted past. It’s strange that I recall so clearly every detail as if it were a treasure. There must be great strength within my memory, I’m so happy. Memories are life.
In the same year, he wrote a powerful single-sentence called “Remember This.” I’m going to cite it in full here because I couldn’t figure out how to shorten it without deflating the build up to the last brief segment where Walser reveals he’s dealing with quite a bit of pain while he records all of the beauty he sees:
Remember how you rejoiced at the sweet, fresh green spring, how enchanted you were by the silver-white, sky-blue lake, how you greeted the mountains, how you found everything beautiful that encountered you and you encountered, how you were enfolded by a splendidly vast, undisturbed freedom, and how happy you were in its embrace, how joyfully you took things as they came, how you enjoyed each beautiful, bright, dear day, how on the warm nights the moon gazed upon you like a brother in whom you placed all your rust and faith, how the many hours glided imperceptibly by like a pleasure boat rocking on the water, as if the water had fallen in love with carrying and by so doing felt an unspeakably delight in bearing weight and in stillness; how constant and still the old mountain was and how white clouds like glowing flames from behind the mountains climbed into the sky, how kindly the people greeted you on the now day-lit, now night-darkened streets as if you were their friend, though to them you had to be totally unknown, how the villages with their cozy homes and abundant gardens, resplendent with sweet, luxuriant disorder lay there as if dreaming of primordial times, how the grass and grains ripened so benevolently and delectably; how the hill curved and how the lowlands gently went on, how in the forest you were welcomed by an unnameable cloister-like calm and silence, as if you were meant to think you were strolling through the realm of vastness and oblivion, and how the dear, delicate birds sang in the forest, so that when you heard their song you immediately had to stand still and listen, deeply moved, as if you were hearing the voice of eternity; how you were moved by a child in its mother’s arms, how you saw an old man on his deathbed, and how it was your father who lay there dead, who had passed on to the silent land — remember this, remember this. Forget, forget nothing, don’t forget the sweetness, don’t forget the severity. If indifference and unkindness take hold of your being, stir your memory and think of all the beautiful, all the burdensome things. Remember there is life and there is death, remember there are moments of bliss and there are graves. Do not be forgetful, but instead remember this.
Sadly, it seems that Walser’s attempts to halt the passage of time by capturing it didn’t work, and the more he realized this, the more distraught he became (and the more he advocated shirking work to walk in the sun). I know he’s more complex than all of this, but it’s hard not to see a shadow encroaching as these pieces get into this later life. One of the most striking for me was the seemingly random “News Number Two,” from 1921. It begins with Walser telling us about his parquet floor and ends with a note on meeting a woman who wrote him a letter.
Though seemingly random, this particular piece, which goes for only one page, is actually a deeply intimate, psychologically complex look at Walser’s sense of self in 1921. He’s building himself up, saying things are not so bad: “Without question I’m filled with self-confidence,” he begins and proceeds to espouse some of his virtues. Underlying it all, though, is a sense of self-deceit, though, and it appears to be conscious. He’s lying to himself, and he knows it — he’s even getting tired of it — and the result is a brilliant little capsule on aging and wondering just what this life is all about: “In the afternoons and evenings I’m occasionally happy. That’s when I take a walk along some path, if possible a new one each time, and try to distract myself.” In brief, Walser touches on something we can feel in his giddy characters: the giddiness is genuinely kind-hearted, but it is also a protection, an attempt to keep demons at bay. His memories start to taunt him; indeed, he seems to be rethinking his whole modus operandi:
The other day in the nearby hills I came to a stately building adorned with pictures; I recognized it as an inn I once visited wen I was young, which I hope I still am, in a certain sense, to this day.
A woman took interest in me. She wrote me a letter several pages long, which I answered with a single page. Since then she hasn’t written a word; now I am awaiting further declarations. Am I a bit bored by all this?
All I’ve written above is just one mode of approaching the vast consciousness we see at work in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories. I didn’t touch on the fictional pieces, the musings on writing, and the many many times he writes about seeing a woman as he wandered about the country side. This is a rich work, possibly my favorite collection of Walser’s miniature writings, and I recommend it as a sparkling glass through which to see the beauty of the world or as a balm to heal you from its ugliness.