Robert Walser: The Assistant

This novel was written in 1908. That seems just about right. And that’s odd for Robert Walser, because his other novels, whatever their connection to the German modernist and expressionist tendencies of their time, stand apart from their contemporaries. Walser does not fit into the puzzle in the way that Broch, Zweig, Canetti, Doblin, Roth, and other Germanic writers do. Perhaps this is because he is Swiss, perhaps it is because he has been rather ignored and excluded from construction of the period’s literary history, but I think it’s mostly because his ruminative short stories and his enigmatic, sui generis novel The Robber stand on a path that no one directly followed. Even his comparatively normal Jakob Von Gunten has a withdrawn airiness to it that is closer to Bruno Schulz’s detached aesthetic than to any Germanophone author.

What’s strange about The Assistant is that it is much more easily connected to those German antecedents and successors. This short novel about Joseph Marti’s life as a live-in assistant to the hapless inventor Carl Tobler and his family has clear affinities with the more pedestrian neuroses portrayed in the stories of Hofmannsthal, and the outsized characters (not just Tobler, but Joseph’s alcoholic predecessor Wirsich, and the two Manicheistic Tobler daughters) are a more subdued version of the histrionics of Schnitzler and Wedekind. But what’s most striking is how the tone and scenario anticipate that of early Kafka, particularly that of “The Stoker” and the novel it became part of, The Man Who Disappeared (aka Amerika). Walser is often compared spuriously to Kafka, but in The Assistant, and not in any of his other work that I’ve read, I think there’s some merit to the comparison. Marti, like Karl Rossmann, begins and ends as a bystander, pulled into the circle of affairs without becoming their center. Unlike Kafka’s later work, where the protagonists continually fail in their attempts to be mere quotidian bystanders in life–think of “Report to an Academy” as well as the last two novels–Walser’s protagonists steadfastly remain in the interstitial zone between observation and action. (Joseph’s only real decisive act ends the book.) Yet the concreteness of the situation here–absent in Walser’s subsequent work–is what gives it some of Kafka’s urgency.

Consequently, Walser goes off in a different direction, and Joseph’s mixture of passivity and inchoate loyalty result in very un-Kafka-like conversations like:

“Is your salary being paid?” the visitor inquired.

“No,” the assistant said, “and admittedly this is one of the things with which I am not fully satisfied. Often I have wanted to discuss this with Herr Tobler, but each time I am about to open my mouth to remind my superior of this matter which, as I have had occasion to perceive, is not exactly the most agreeable to him, the courage to speak deserts me, and so each time I tell myself: Put it off! And I’m still alive today, even without a salary.”

And Walser too lets things proceed languorously as Tobler fails and fails in his attempts to market dubious projects (most memorably the Marksman’s Vending Machine, which dispenses bullets). There’s even a disconnected, burlesque scene in which Joseph is picked up for evading army duty and dumped in jail for a night, which seems to have entered from another novel entirely. It distracts somewhat from the novel’s central pivot, which is the character of Tobler himself: desperate and arrogant, controlling and helpless, grandiose and pathetic, he is the very model of the petty capitalist cog that still exists today. Walser’s portrayal of his rationalizations and indignations is masterful, as when he begs his mother for more money for his business:

I am sitting here in my house like a bird trapped by the piercing gaze of the snake–already being killed in advance…What would you say if one day soon, one fine morning or afternoon, you were to read in the newspaper that your son had taken his own li–…but no, I am not capable of uttering such a thing in its entirety, for it is to my mother I am speaking. Send me the money at once. This, too, is not a threat, I am merely urging you to do so, urging you desperately. Even in our household budget nothing remains, and both my wife and I have long since had to accustom ourselves to the idea that sooner or later there will be nothing left for our children to eat.

Confronted with such self-propelling desperation, what can Joseph do except be a bystander?

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