Robert Walser: Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories

A new short story collection from NYRB celebrates what is enigmatic about everyday minutiae
Robert Walser

Feuilleton. Traditionally, a ‘feuilleton’ is a portion at the bottom of a French newspaper that is kept free for light literature, criticism, and commentary. It derives from the word ‘feuille’, meaning ‘leaf’. By its very nature, the feuilleton is marginal and fragmentary. For the early twentieth-century author Robert Walser, this became an ideal medium for his wandering and ephemeral style.

The NYRB’s wonderful new collection of the Swiss writer’s short texts, entitled Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, allows us to leaf through a life of extraordinary writing. The German writer and academic W. G. Sebald, using Walser’s own words, described him as a ‘clairvoyant of the small’, a writer of prose ‘at odds with the demands of high culture’. Tom Whalen’s afterword to the NYRB volume echoes this sentiment, recognizing in Walser a sensibility of ‘sovereign insignificance’. Whalen continues: ‘For the fueilletonist anything can be an occasion for a prose piece: a walk in the mountains, a new hairstyle, an old fountain, shopwindows, a kitten, a carousel, a Parisian newspaper’. As Walser drifts aimlessly through the modern European city, we share his curiosity and wonder at the small details of this strange and peculiar life.

Although the author of a number of novels, including Jakob von Gunten (also available from NYRB), The Robbers, The Tanners, and The Assistant, some of Walser’s finest writing can be found among his shorter pieces. Much like his contemporary admirer Franz Kafka, Walser is a master of suggestion. Some of his stories are like well-performed magic tricks; they can be observed in a moment or two, but linger in the mind and reward repeated viewings.

“Walser offers fleeting yet incisive observations, his subjects ranging from tram rides and detective novels to coffee houses and toothache.”

The feuilletons celebrate what is enigmatic about the minutiae of twentieth-century life, and many of them feel strikingly modern and contemporary. Walser offers fleeting yet incisive observations, his subjects ranging from tram rides and detective novels to coffee houses and toothache. At one point he ponders how we ought to respond to that everyday question ‘How are you?’: ‘Isn’t it quite irrelevant how we answer such a question? We hear it every day; some would rather ask it than hear it.’

As the pace of modern life continues to accelerate, Walser remains an idler, a drifter, a flâneur who observes without fully participating. Like the feuilleton itself, his narrators are ephemeral, slipping in and out of acceptable codes of behaviour, and sometimes in and out of existence. Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories is a witty and ebullient introduction to Walser’s writing, documenting a talent as it unfolds over decades. It is a collection that captures, with a startling poignancy, the speed of existence in the age of modernity. As the wistful protagonist of ‘The Terrace’ puts it: ‘I could have stood there for hours reveling in the world. But at last I went on my way’.

Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories is available from NYRB.


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