Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories brings together eighty-one brief texts spanning Robert Walser’s career, from pieces conceived amid his early triumphs to later works written at a psychiatric clinic in Bern. Many were published in the feuilleton sections of newspapers during Walser’s life; others were jotted down on slips of paper and all but forgotten. Together they string together small nutshells of consciousness, idiosyncratic and vulnerable, genuine in their irony, wistful in their humor. The portraits and landscapes here are observed with tenderness and from a place of great anxiety. Some dwell on childish or transient topics—carousels, the latest hairstyles, an ekphrasis of the illustrations in a picture book—others on the grand themes of nature, art, and love. But they remain conversational, almost lighter than air. Every emotion ventured takes on the weight of a sincerity that is imperiled as soon as it comes into contact with the outside world, which retains all of the novelty it had in childhood—and all of the danger. Walser’s speakers are attuned to the silent music of being; students of the ineffable and neighbors to madness, they are now exhilarated, now paralyzed by frequencies inaudible to less sensitive ears.
The inimitable output of the belatedly canonized Swiss writer Walser proves to be a gift that keeps on giving. The latest collection of Walser's beguiling miniatures makes this more than clear in 88 sketches, fancies, and trifles (or feuilletons) written over the course of his life including many hitherto untranslated "microscripts" composed in inscrutably tiny handwriting while the author was institutionalized. Confirmed Walser fanatics will find countless examples of his reliably strange wit and bracing sincerity among these whimsical appraisals of overcoats ("I'm not wearing one yet because I don't want to pamper myself"), ash ("Ash is modesty, insignificance and worthlessness personified"), ghosts ("In my opinion ghosts are very modern"), and shadows ("Wherever shadows exist, light also shines"). Light fictions such as "Schwendimann" the first sentence of which reads "Once there was a strange man" and dialogues such as "The Lover and the Unknown Girl" are so fragile that their very existence seems a miracle. The beauty and melancholy of landscapes such as "Autumn Afternoon" are accompanied by autobiographical, virtuosic critical pieces such as "Walser on Walser" and "Something On Writing" that show that there are still surprises to be had even this far into the writer's seemingly bottomless catalogue. No other pen could have produced the sentence "Girlfriends, let us praise the never wilting possibilities of life," and the possibilities of life are precisely what this collection, which includes a useful afterword by translator Whalen, assembles.