(A little break from the #1947 Club, with a review of a lovely new book out today from NYRB)
Girlfriends, Ghosts and other Stories by Robert Walser
Translated by Tom Whalen with Nicole Kongeter and Annette Wiesner
Swiss author Robert Walser, who wrote in German, is another one of those authors I’ve been circling for a while, thinking that I really should get on and read one of their books. So when NYRB kindly offered a review copy of a new collection of his short pieces, I was really pleased to have the chance to get to know him. Well-known during his lifetime owing to early success, his star waned as he got older and his mental state became more fragile; his ability to make a living apart from his writing declined and he ended his days in a variety of sanatoriums. However, his work was rediscovered in the 20th century and has continued to be recognised into the 21st.
So what exactly is Walser’s writing about? Well, it seems that many of his works are shorter ones, and indeed this lovely book collects together 81 short pieces (often of 1 page in length), all dated and presented chronologically. Interestingly, it seems he was admired by a wide range of writers, including Robert Musil, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin and Franz Kafka, which gives some idea of his literary stature. The afterword by translator Tom Whalen describes the works as feuilletons and this is an art of which I’ve written on the Ramblings before, most particularly in relation to Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote many in his time. Short, newsy pieces on any topic of interest, I’m not entirely sure the word fits Walser’s very unique writings, but that’s by the by.
The living picture of the dear revered one with her face and noble expression rose softly and mysteriously out of the unfathomable depths of the green, silent grave. I stood there a long time. But not melancholy. Even I and you, all of us will come here once where everything, everything is still and comes to a close, and everything ends, and everything dissolves into silence.
In fact, deciding how to describe these pieces is quite difficult. They’re a mixture of fiction, comment and personal opinion, little nuggets and vignettes from the mind of Walser. The early ones are perhaps more straightforwardly stories, but as the book progresses the pieces become almost abstract, meditations on whatever Walser feels like talking about. So the first story “A Morning” (one of my favourites in the collection) follows a bored clerk through an interminable morning at the office; in “The Young Travelling Salesman”, Walser retells a story from a pulp magazine that frightened him as a child; and in numerous pieces he wanders through the natural world and wonders. There is infinite variety in the stories, and short as they are the linger in the mind, making you look at the world around you in a slightly different way.
The last piece in the book is dated 1933, and in that year Walser abandoned writing completely. In the time leading up to this his working practices had become increasingly more eccentric, as he wrote in pencil on tiny scraps of paper and in code. These works were eventually rediscovered and collected, and this volume draws on some of those writings. They’re evocative and intriguing metafictional pieces; Walser is constantly smashing the fourth wall, breaking off from his story to reflect on the fact that he’s writing a sketch, so that the reader is never in any doubt that what he or she is reading is filtered through the author’s particular and individual perceptions.
We don’t need anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of reading Robert Walser; his works are unlike anything else I think I’ve read, and my only caveat about this book would be that it’s best read a little at a time rather in big gulps, just to allow Walser’s beautiful writing to settle in the mind. W.G. Sebald, a great admirer of Walser, refers to him as a ” solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings” and that’s very much the impression I got from reading the book. The quotidian can be very special if we just take the time to pay it the proper attention and Robert Walser was obviously one of those people who did just that.
(Many thanks to NYRB for kindly providing a review copy)