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:

The Assistant

But watch out, because when you see it in real life it will be swagged with a vivid removable sleeve, like so:

The Assistant (and sleeve)

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.


  1. Funny, in the small world of publishing, a never-before-translated work is often considered “brand new!”—not really an oldie. Often these books are done in hardcover, and get the sort of review attention that is usually reserved for new offerings.

    As far as the assertion that “if it really is a masterpiece, then someone would have translated it a long time ago,”—I expect better from you, Mr. Self! You know that there are plenty of “marketplace failures,” to use a euphemism. In Walser’s case, the neglect of his books has an even more direct explanation: He wrote much of his work in a minuscule shorthand of his own. It’s only recently that many have been decoded.

    You can see an example of one of the MS pages here:

  2. Yes Isabel, it is subtle indeed, thanks for your comment.

    Often these books are done in hardcover, and get the sort of review attention that is usually reserved for new offerings.

    Quite: see for example Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, also a Penguin title, which has attracted quite a bit of attention from its hardback publication.

    As far as the assertion that “if it really is a masterpiece, then someone would have translated it a long time ago,”—I expect better from you, Mr. Self!

    Ah well, now I was only being mischievous Sara! And I did say that was the obvious response: my more considered response constitutes the rest of the review! And will I get back in your good books (pun intended) if I mention that a selection of Walser’s stories and his novel Jakob von Gunten are published by those nice people at NYRB Classics? 😉

    That shorthand is extraordinary isn’t it?

  3. Now, about the drawers on the front of the cover. I have recently been quite taken with these things and am thinking of ways to have them in my house. I was actually inspired while watching the wonderful animated movie Spirited Away where the arachnoid character Kamajii has floor to ceiling drawers, a bit like in a Chinese herbalist shop.

    So the plan is to find out who supplies the Chinese herbalist on the high street an get them to install a set in my house.

    Now, just need to win big on the horses this month to be able to afford them.

    Oh, and the book sounds good too.

  4. Thanks for the link Mark – I discovered another Walser-oriented blog yesterday which I can’t find now but will post the link up if it reappears, and this excellent review of The Assistant which, as is so often the case, made me droop my head in despair at how much I had failed to get across the essence of the book in my own review.

    I got a Serpent’s Tail catalogue through the post this week so will have a look at that: I see that Institute Benjamenta is an alternate title for (and presumably a different translation from the NYRB edition of) Jakob von Gunten.

    Scott, those drawers are terrific, aren’t they? I can just feel the easy glide of them and the cracked varnish catching the light. If they were large enough to hold a paperback then all would be well with the world. Excuse me a moment.

  5. John, I’m afraid it highlights the rather limited following Walser enjoys in the States to confess that I’m responsible for review you flatteringly mention, and the image of the MS page you cite, and website Mark kindly recommends, and (if I guess correctly) the other Walser oriented blog you noticed. Kind of embarrassing, actually.:)

    On my Walser blog, the in-progress translation of a memoir by Walser’s friend Carl Seelig may be of interest, as well as the bibliography of Walser translation in English or the maps of Berlin and Zurich showing Walser’s many residences.

    I personally consider the short prose pieces the pinnacle of his art (and also the funniest), but the complete arc of his work, from the early, more conventional novels like Assistant to the late, densely difficult Robber, is rewarding in its own way at each stage.

    I had been expecting that the UK publication of The Assistant would spark some interesting responses, so I was delighted to find this post (and comments). Your review is wonderfully thoughtful. Thanks too for the images, and also for the Thirlwell citation (which I wasn’t aware of previously)!



  6. Hi Sam, thanks so much for dropping by. Yep, you’re the Walser renaissance man it seems 😉 – and it was indeed your blog which I had spotted before. I’m looking forward to exploring it in more detail, together with some of Walser’s fabled shorts which I will get hold of as soon as I can.

  7. John, the Serpents’ Tail “Institute Benjamenta”, is the same translation of “Jakob von Gunten” by Christopher Middleton, but minus the translators’ introduction and with the title changed to tie in with a film by the Brothers Quay, based on the book. The Serpents Tail edition of “The Walk”, is also the same as the NYRB “Selected Stories”., but lacking a postscript by Middleton for some reason.

  8. Thank you so much James, useful information – I feel like I’m learning more about Walser by the hour. The Brothers Quay ring a bell – I think they designed some fabulous covers for Italo Calvino books in the UK about 15 years ago, for Picador.

    …In fact I’ve just checked and they did (under the name the Brothers Quai, presumably the same people). I’ve scanned one of them in here.

  9. That’s the ones…there’s also a short by them called “The Comb”, available on the BFI DVD, “Quay Brothers, Short Films”, based, loosely, on Walser works. They’re American twins, masters of pixilation animation, living in London and influenced by, largely, European literature of the Kafkaesque variety, for example, their wonderful “Street of Crocodiles”, is based on the Bruno Schulz work of the same name, (originally tittled “Cinnamon Shops”), also on the same DVD.
    “Selected Stories”, or the Serpents Tail equivalent, “The Walk” is a great place to start with the shorter the story “The Walk” itself and tell me that you’re not moved by it…one of the great 20th Century authors, in a small way, as he would have wanted it, probably…IMO.
    My wife and I went to see ” Institute Benjamenta”, and, although she liked their short films, she fell asleep during this film and declared it to be the most boring film she’d ever seen…I had to nudge her a couple of times, because she was snoring..I thought it was great however, I think it helps if you’ve read the book first.
    Do read the short works though, Walser is a sadly neglected figure, in English at any rate.

  10. “and this excellent review of The Assistant which, as is so often the case, made me droop my head in despair at how much I had failed to get across the essence of the book in my own review.”

    True. No avoiding a drooped head there. That review is extraordinary. Somehow I only read it for the first time today. Here I was thinking I’d read every Walser review that exists in English. Sam was probably too modest to ever point it out to me. Unless I just forgot about it.

    “densely difficult Robber,”. Don’t scare the gentleman! I’m over-inclined to make that comment because I’m reading Herman Melville’s Pierre, and the language is absurdly complex. The Robber is dense in how many flights of fancies Walser gets onto a page, but the prose and manner is pretty breezy. It should be read last out of the novels though. (I just grabbed my copy off the shelf to test whether I should go out on a limb and say that it’s like a secular bible in that you can stick your finger to any random page and find some insightful passage about a miscellaneous aspect of life or society– my blind finger just hit on a hilarious description of the modern changes and failings of the schooling system. So the answer is yes.)

    ‘one of the great 20th Century authors, in a small way, as he would have wanted it, probably…IMO.’

    That’s true. His presence and spirit though, when we come across it while strolling down some new street, is so curious and evasive and small that it ends up having a more powerful and striking effect than all the imperial mechanized giants that were ever ordered out of the gates by Mann and Hesse and the rest of them.

    The Quay’s Institute Benjamenta was putting me to sleep too, even having read J.V.G and holding Walser as my favorite author (I only watched parts on YouTube though). I constantly envision a screen adaptation of The Assistant, but what I see is the opposite from what the Quays did with J.V.G. Just me though. (I’ve read two Calvino books too, and liked the covers besides, so I can still chalk some points up to the Q’s.)

    Lastly can I say that the exchange up there between John and Sara was remarkably adorable and warm-hearted? It was laced with more mutual charms and tender congeniality than anything I’ve ever seen on the web. Good god. (Yes I’m a Yank.)

    Let me wrap up here. Listen: Walser’s shorts “The Dinner Party” and “Food (I)” in the collection ‘Masquerade’ are the ones that I put my foremost seal of approval on.

  11. Thanks I am Dali; the Walser fans are really coming out of the woodwork now! I’m a bit lost though: The Robber is his first novel, is that right? I probably will leave it to last then, as I had in mind Jakob von Gunten/Institute Benjamenta or some of the stories you guys have recommended above next.

  12. >the Walser fans are really coming out of the woodwork

    Yes, and you’ve attracted the most dedicated ones here! (Thanks for the good words, Dali.:)

    >The Robber is his first novel, is that right?

    In fact, The Robber is Walser’s last novel. It was never published in his lifetime, and was taken from the “microscript” manuscripts he created in the last decades of his life.

    His first novel, Geschwister Tanner, or The Tanner Siblings, isn’t yet available in English. However, Susan Bernofsky, who translated The Assistant, is translating it now and we should be seeing it from New Directions in the US sometime over the next couple of years. Sadly, that’s the last one we’ll see – he wrote several more, but they are lost to the world!

  13. Just to correct myself: it’s my understanding that Walser wrote nothing in the last decades of his life (say, 1933-1956). He began writing in microscript sometime before 1924-25. So it’s more correct to say that he created his “microscript” manuscripts in the last decade of his career, rather than, as I say above, “last decades of his life.”

  14. His first novel, Geschwister Tanner, or The Tanner Siblings, isn’t yet available in English. However, Susan Bernofsky, who translated The Assistant, is translating it now and we should be seeing it from New Directions in the US sometime over the next couple of years.

    In the ‘About The Translator’ section of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Book Of Words it says that Susan is currently working on a biography of Walser.

  15. Well John, it seems that after Stefan Zweig and book design, we’ve found some more common ground, as I have been somewhat obsessed with Robert Walser for the past couple of years. It all began a few years ago when, during an interview on France Culture (I think it was this one), Elfriede Jelinek mentioned that Walser is one of her all-time favourites, and that she always inserts one of his sentences into each of her books.

    Anyway, to cut a long story short, I started with the brilliant Jakob von Gunten in the Christopher Middleton translation from NYRB Classics, and never looked back. Sadly, aside from a few collections of stories (Speaking to the Rose [trans. C. Middleton, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2005], Masquerade and Other Stories [trans. S. Bernofsky, Johns Hopkins U.P., 1990] and Selected Stories [trans. C. Middleton et al., NYRB Classics, 2002; including The Walk, one of his greatest works]), I wasn’t really able to find anything in English. I ended up buying everything else in French, and have slowly been working my way through ever since.

    I first bought Der Gehülfe (The Assistant) in the attractive Poches Suisse edition of the Lausanne translation (L’homme a tout faire, 2000), then bought it again in the Paris translation from Gallimard (Le commis, 1985). Since they don’t have the same title, it was only when I started to read the second one that I realised they were the same book. Despite this, I hesitated all of one week before importing the beautiful Penguin Classics edition of the Susan Bernofsky translation from the UK. French translations are all well and good, but when your German is nowhere near up to snuff, nothing beats reading something that’s been elegantly rendered into English.

    The previous two comments mention that Bernofsky is working on a translation of Geschwister Tanner and a biography of Walser; good news indeed. For those interested in reading more about Walser in English, you can check out the following publication:
    In French, the many fascinating books about Walser include:

    The French just seem to ‘get’ Walser. There was even a Robert Walser Week that was broadcast on France Culture in January 2007.

    Sorry to have been so long-winded once again. Sometimes I get carried away…

  16. Thanks Thomas, no need to apologise! Sorry your comment was delayed going up: all the links meant it was marked as spam and I had to extract it from the pile!

  17. Penguin publishing Robert Walser seems like a milestone in his rediscovery.

    Has anyone seen a list of Walser’s personal favorite books? I wonder if he still read once he stopped writing.

    I’ve been reading some of the more obscure German Romantics, and they always make me think of Walser. I mention some of these writers at my site, along with images of old Walser translations.

    John Self, I think everyone posting above would agree that in about six months you will be a raving Walser fanatic.

  18. Has anyone seen a list of Walser’s personal favorite books?

    Is that a rhetorical question Will? If so, are you going to share them with us?

    Thanks for your comments. I am certainly going to be reading Walser’s stories.

  19. It’s not a list of favorites, but here are some authors that Robert Walser had good feelings about, according to Carl Seelig, if I remember right. I’ll include a book by each author in parentheses, but I’m not sure which books if any were mentioned by Seelig/Walser:

    Kurt Tucholsky (castle gripsholm)
    Gottfried Keller (green henry)
    Joseph Von Eichendorff (life of a good-for-nothing)
    Hans Jakob Christoph Von Grimmelshausen (Simplicissimus)

    I got the author’s names from Carl Seelig’s conversations with Walser, which you can read in English at

    Most fascinating of all is Ulrich Braker, even though Walser or Seelig never mentioned him that I know of. I posted some Braker excerpts and info here:

    I’ve never heard of Walser mentioning Braker directly. Instead, a (German) professor I knew who liked Walser once asked me if I knew Ulrich Braker. I checked out some of his books, which are hard to find, and noticed that they were great and also the closest thing to a Walser continuity or precursor that I’ve ever seen.

    I feel like such a zealot, combined here with Sam and James, swooping in on conversations about Walser like this and releasing my bundle of information from my claws.

  20. It’s all gratefully received, I am Dali, by me and I hope by anyone else reading this for Walser guidance. I’ll keep these names in mind; as it is, I’m still trying to find some Walser stories and Jakob von Gunten/Institute Benjamenta. I was in Edinburgh this weekend, and hoped they would have some of his books in their larger stores, but was disappointed. It’s easy enough to order online of course, but I so hoped to find them by chance on the shelves in the flesh, as it were.

  21. In the US, The Assistant, along with twenty-four other titles, has been chosen for Reading The World 2008, a collaboration between publishers and participating book stores. Asylum favourite Stefan Zweig also features.

  22. Re Stewart’s news, the online magazine Words without Borders will be hosting month-long discussions of several of the titles selected for Reading the World, starting with The Assistant in June. The schedule hasn’t been announced yet, but it should appear in early May at:

    Hope to see some of you there!


  23. Hi everybody,
    My name is Noga and I’m a Walser’s “fan” from Israel. Two of his novels (Jacob… and The Assistant) were masterpiecly translated into Hebrew. The short stories, though, were not translated at all so now I read some of them in English. Unfortuneately I don’t read German.
    Can any of you recommend me of a good Walser’s biography in English?
    Another thing I wanted to ask: what is “Institute Benjamenta” you were mentioning above?

  24. Hi Noga. Good to see Walser is so widely read!

    Institute Benjamenta is just another name for Jakob von Gunten.

    I’m afraid I can’t recommend a good (or even a bad!) biography of Walser, but Sam or someone else who’s commented above might be able to help.

  25. No bios in English yet Noga, but one is currently being written by Susan Bernofsky. I don’t know the pub date – I expect it will be a couple years. In the meantime if you can muddle your way through French (I’m definitely a muddler), Catherine Sauvat’s bio is worth looking at. Other nonfiction I’d recommend is the Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XII, #, which is the best collection of essays on Walser.

  26. Thanks, Sam, for your answer!

    Well… French will not do, not even as a muddler. But regarding your second recommendation, did you mean this title which I’ve found in Amazon:
    ” The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 1992): Robert Walser by John O’Brien, Susan Bernofsky, and Tom Whalen (Paperback – Nov 18, 1992) ” ?

    And another question: “Robert Walser Rediscovered” (Mark Harman editor) – is it stories or essays collection about Walser’s work?

    Thanks again.

  27. My pleasure! Yes, that’s exactly the title I mean. You can also order it here:

    “Robert Walser Rediscovered” is actually both – it includes a dozen or so previously untranslated prose pieces, some poems, two plays, a few early critical responses (Kafka, Musil, Benjamin) and more recent ones (Canetti, Martin Walser, etc. Another valuable volume, though long out of print I think.

  28. Just stopping back to this page, I see that John asked me if my question back in March (about Walser’s favorite books) was rhetorical. It wasn’t! Thankfully Sam posted a great list on the WWB book club page.

    This week I’m going add excerpts of the German Romantics I’ve been reading on my site. At least something from Brentano (I dug up a few stories in English) and an Eichendorff quote that goes well with The Assistant.

  29. Thanks Sam and Will. I’ll be keeping an eye on the Words Without Borders discussion.

    I’m delighted to say incidentally that this book is now the most discussed title on my blog! (Actually matched at the moment by Anne Enright’s The Gathering, but then it’s had a lot of extra publicity from the Booker Prize.)

    I’ve also picked up the NYRB Classics edition of Walser’s Selected Stories and will be getting to them soon.

  30. What an enthusiastic reaction on behalf of Walser! This is great! I’ve read his novels and definetely recommend Jakob von Gunten (and The Tanner brothers as well as The promenade). It’s strange that his works are just now being translated (in Spanish there’s more availability). Somebody mentioned Bruno Schulz: what a great constellation: a reading group going from Schulz to Walser, to Jelinek, Bachmann, Bernhard, Handke…

  31. Thanks nico. A tempting pantheon you list there. I have books by Schulz, Bernhard and Handke on my shelves, and you’ve just inspired me to take down my long-abandoned copy of the NYRB Classics edition of Walser’s Selected Stories.

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