Robert Walser is one of the least-read great writers of twentieth century European literature. His influence on Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, and Robert Musil alone should have been enough to make his stories and novels much better known and appreciated as well as much more widely available in English translations than they are. Translations did start appearing in 1957, one year after Walser’s death, but to little effect other than to lead the late Guy Davenport to write one of his most intriguing short storiesor “assemblages of fact and fiction” as he preferred to call them. “A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg,” included in Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979), takes place at the end of Walser’s life, the last three decades of which were spent in psychiatric hospitals. Publication of Walser’s Selected Stories (1982) and the novel Jakob von Gunten (1909), both ably translated by the poet Christopher Middleton and issued in attractive paperback editions by Vintage Books in 1983, should have made a greater impression and perhaps would havehad Magical Realism not begun to have gone out of fashion and been replaced by the minimalist, stripped-down, working- and middle-class fiction of Raymond Carver and others. All the more pity, for Walser wrote what may best be described as minimalist Magical Realism. It is no wonder that he influenced Kafka and anticipated Samuel Beckett. The main character of Jakob von Gunten, for example, arrives at the Benjamenta Institute (a school for butlers), where nothing is taught, where nothing happens, and where Jakob learns only “one thing for certain: in later life, I shall be a charming, utterly spherical zero.”
The same is true of the similarly antiheroic protagonist of The Assistant, first published in 1908 and now translated into English for the first time by Susan Bernofsky, whose translations also include Walser’s Masquerade, and Other Stories (1996) and The Robber (2000). The Assistant is Walser’s longest work but hardly his most perfect. Walser was a miniaturist, and, as Middleton points out, he is most successful in short stories or a short novel like Jakob von Gunten. That The Assistant was written in just six weeks (or so Walser claimed) and at a time when Walser badly needed money (but was also optimistic about his chances of making a career as a writer) helps explain both the flaws and the muted brilliance of this curiously angled, semiautobiographical novel.
The Assistant is, like all of Walser’s fiction, at once wondrously dreamlike and monotonously mundane, full of dialogue yet eerily similar to silent film comedy. Set in a place that is simultaneously both Switzerland and Germany, The Assistant is full of doppelgängers, doublings, and sudden swerves. Its main character is Joseph Marti, the titular assistant to the engineer turned inventor Carl Tobler. For all their differences in wealth, Joseph and Toblerassistant and master, employee and employerare strangely alike in many ways: for example, the doubts the townspeople have about Tobler and the doubts Joseph has about himself and above all their shared capacity for self-delusion and self-deception. “But what does any of this matter now that he is staying in the home of Herr Tobler?” Joseph asks early in the novel. “How could a few infelicitous business ventures harm such a house?” Joseph goes on to say as Tobler’s house of cards comes down around Joseph’s well-stopped ears.A person who still felt moved to join in heart-thrilling celebrations of gymnastics and song in the company of his wife and children must no doubt still have some secret source of credit flowing somewhere that he has not yet tapped only because he has not yet felt the need to avail himself of this last of all available resources. A person possessing such a stately wife who is politely greeted on all sides when she walks through the villagehow could he be badly off. And things were indeed not so bad. Money might come raining into the technical office overnight, advertisements had been taken out, and for the moment all that was needed was patience, the profits would most certainly materialize soon.
Joseph continues on in this manner for three more pages, indeed for all three hundred of the novel’s pages. The worse things get, the more Joseph rationalizes, and the more he rationalizes, the more his doubts keep surfacing, in oddly angled ways. The same is true of Tobler. The more he fails, the more he invests in his villa, the Evening Star, which functions as actual residence and as dream house: part Gatsby mansion and part House of Usher. “There seemed to be something spectral lingering about the lovely Tobler...
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