February 27, 2008
Robert Walser: The Assistant
I was wondering recently about the difficulty publishers have in getting their books noticed. This must be a particular problem for those who are reissuing old titles. Certainly there are people like me for whom the badge of (say) Penguin Modern Classics or Pushkin Press is recommendation enough; but how do these books get wider attention when they’re rarely reviewed, don’t trouble the 3-for-2 tables, and aren’t written by thrusting young lovelies (or not ones that are still alive anyway)? Penguin have pushed the boat out a little with Robert Walser’s The Assistant (1908), newly issued in the Modern Classics range. The cover is one of the most stylish yet of their new look:
But watch out, because when you see it in real life it will be swagged with a vivid removable sleeve, like so:
Well, it’s a start. But, a modern masterpiece, you say? The obvious response is that if it really is a masterpiece, then someone might have seen fit to treat us to a translation some time in the hundred years since it was written.
I hadn’t heard of Walser until I read Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert a few months ago. He earns a couple of pages (and a photo) there, Thirlwell considering him the progenitor of a particular type of plotless, flâneur-based story, an influence on Kafka, an underrated modernist and “one of the first people to develop the story as a place for linguistic delicacy and experiment.” However that assessment came from Walser’s later stories of the 1920s, and doesn’t seem strongly applicable to The Assistant. In fact Walser wrote three novels in quick succession – the last and best-known being Jakob von Gunten (1909) – and his career as a novelist was over at the age of 31. He would live another 47 years, but first restricted himself to short stories, then to no writing at all.
This is worth expanding on. Walser had mental illness all around in his family, and the About the Author blurb in this book is a mini-novel in itself:
After a suicide attempt in 1929, Walser’s depression was misdiagnosed as schizophrenia and in 1933 he entered an asylum in Herisau, where he remained for the rest of his life. There he occupied his time with chores like gluing paper and sorting beans. He remained in full possession of his faculties but, after 1932, he did not write. ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,’ he told a visitor. Robert Walser died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1956. He had been walking in the snow not far from the asylum where he had been living for 23 years.
After that, The Assistant has a lot to live up to. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel, largely free of the modernist effects we might expect. Its protagonist, Joseph Marti, is a young man who goes to work for, and live with, the inventor Carl Tobler and his family. Tobler’s inventions are simultaneously banal and bizarre: the Advertising Clock – a railway station type clock with wings out the sides to carry ads – or the Marksman’s Vending Machine – a six foot tall vending machine which dispenses small packs of bullets. As one might imagine, the business is not destined to blossom, and the progress of the story lies mostly in the tragicomic despair of Tobler to come to terms with his complete lack of the qualities needed in either an inventor or a businessman.
Marti meanwhile has his own trials, mainly in dealing with the predecessor to his job whom he usurped: Wirsich, a young man who had been sacked and reinstated many times by the Toblers, mainly because he was “an extremely precise individual, but only in a state of sobriety.” Marti also wonders how he can bring himself to ask Tobler to pay him his wages at some point… There is some interesting analsyis of power and the master-servant relationship:
People do, by the way, tend to cherish those upon whom they have been able to impose their power and influence. Wealth and bourgeois prosperity like to dispense humiliations, or no, that’s going too far, but they do have a fondness for gazing down on the humiliated, a sentiment in which we must acknowledge the presence of a certain benevolence, and of a certain brutality as well.
The spiralling difficulties of the Toblers are sometimes touching and often dramatic, particularly when Herr or Frau Tobler put pen to paper and write to one of their many creditors: or would-be creditors (“Dear Mother! I am sitting here in my house like a bird trapped by the piercing gaze of the snake – already being killed in advance…”).
Adam Thirlwell believes “Walser was fascinated by the decrepitude of language … the writing frames clichés – which are trying to cope with impossible or unmentionable realities.” Walser claims to have written The Assistant in six weeks, which doesn’t seem implausible. It meanders in a fluid and leisurely way to its conclusion, and must be of importance as a precursor to his later, apparently more radical work, as much as for itself. So bring on the stories, Penguin: red sleeve optional.