The Assistant by Robert Walser

“I contemplated pride and love. All this contemplativeness. When will I be free of it?”
—Robert Walser, 1926
Robert Walser is admired today mostly for his short prose pieces, which originally appeared as entertaining feuilleton in Swiss and German newspapers in the early decades of the 20th century. It is said that Kafka would search the paper for Walser’s stories and read them aloud to friends. But Walser also wrote novels. Only four have survived, and until now just two, Jakob von Gunten and The Robber, have been available in English. So it is with considerable delight that Walser’s small but passionate readership will greet the arrival in English of The Assistant (Der Gehülfe).
Written in 1907 and based closely on Walser’s own experiences, The Assistant tells the story of a young man’s six-month stint as assistant to a fledgling inventor. Joseph Marti, 24 years of age, has spent an unhappy time living hand-to-mouth in the capital (unnamed, but presumably Zurich). When the employment bureau suggests a position in the technical offices of Carl Tobler, Joseph accepts.
Previously a factory worker, Tobler has used an inheritance to set himself up as an entrepreneurial inventor. Tobler is a mercurial, generous boss and welcomes Joseph into his little family circle; Joseph revels in his new position and in the comforts of the Tobler family home, located less than an hour outside of the capital.
But all is not well with the Tobler enterprise. Joseph isn’t being paid. Nor, soon enough, are the inventor’s suppliers, nor his gardener, nor his wife’s dressmaker, nor the power company, nor the town merchants. As beautiful summer turns to fall and then winter, Joseph’s responsibilities shift exclusively to responding to duns and fending off unwelcome visitors. The novel tracks Tobler’s decline from self-respecting citizen to desperate debtor and the impact of that decline on all the members of the Tobler household.
The Assistant is nearly twice as long as Jakob or Robber and in fact bears a surprising resemblance to the larger, fashionable tomes written by Walser’s more successful contemporaries such as Mann or Hamsun. (Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which also deals with the decline of a family business, appeared just seven years before The Assistant, and is probably a work Walser knew well.) The Assistant displays a distinctly Mannian eye for human weakness; take, for example, the case of Joseph’s predecessor, Wirsich, who was sacked for drunkenness. One afternoon after Joseph is installed at the villa, Wirsich returns, accompanied by his mother, to meet with Tobler and determine whether he might be reinstated. The awkwardness of the meeting, Wirsich’s attempts to save face, and the sadness of Wirsich and his mother as they depart for home are affectingly rendered. A few months later, Joseph encounters a reformed Wirsich, who proudly announces that he has found a new position. Together they repair together to an inn to celebrate with a glass of beer. A month later, Joseph learns that Wirsich has lost this new job, too.
Also worthy of Mann is Tobler’s daughter Silvi, an awkward creature who has never earned the love of her family. To Joseph’s horror, Silvi is routinely beaten and confined by the housekeeper, Pauline, while the family looks on unconcerned. “Wherever there are children,” Walser writes, “there will always be injustice.”
But while Walser’s second novel is more conventional than his later books, it also bears his unique stamp. The Assistant is enlivened with Walser’s characteristically florid descriptions of the natural and urban landscape:
What days these were, wet and stormy, and yet there was still something magical about them. All at once the living room became so melancholy and cozy. The damp and cold out of doors made the rooms more hospitable. They had already begun lighting the heating stoves. The yellow and red leaves burned and gleamed feverishly through the foggy gray of the landscape. The red of the cherry tree’s leaves had something incandescent and aching and raw about it, but at the same time it was beautiful and brought peace and cheer to those who saw it. Often the entire countryside of meadows and trees appeared to be wrapped in veils and damp cloths, above and below and in the distance and close at hand everything was gray and wet. You strode through all of this as if through a gloomy dream. And yet even this weather and this particular sort of world expressed a secret gaiety. You could smell the trees you were walking beneath, and hear ripe fruit dropping in the meadows and on the path. Everything seemed to have become doubly and triply quiet. All the sounds seemed to be sleeping, or afraid to ring out. Early in the morning and late in the evening, the slow exhalations of foghorns could be heard across the lake, exchanging warning signals off in the distance and announcing the presence of boats. They sounded like the plaintive cries of helpless animals.
Walser’s playfulness is also present, albeit in shadow. Tobler’s inventions, for example, range from the practical (a chair for invalids) to the preposterous (a vending machine that dispenses bullets). Tobler’s own favorite is called the “Advertising Clock,” a timepiece affixed with eagle wings on which paid advertisements can be displayed.1 The doomed contraption becomes a symbol of Tobler’s ill-fated venture, and, in Joseph’s mind, almost a living thing:
The Advertising Clock is sprawled on the ground in defeat, wailing for a bit of solvent capital. Go to it and give it your support so that it may gradually, one limb at a time, rise up again and successfully imprint itself on people’s opinions and judgments once and for all—a task that is worthy, if you will, of your mental abilities, and useful to boot.
Here also, although less evident than in his mature fictions, is the familiar self-undercutting narrator:
But why had Tobler moved here in the first place? What was it that had inspired him to choose this region as his domicile? The following somewhat unclear account seeks to address these questions.
In theme as well, the book reflects Walser’s lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between masters and workers. It would reemerge the following year in Jakob, his best-known and arguably most perfect novel, and again nearly twenty years later in his essay “Masters and Workers” (1926). As Walser knew, the master’s position depended paradoxically on the consent of the worker, for what is a master without a subordinate? What appears as social fact is in reality a delicate equilibrium only maintained by avoiding injury to the pride of either the ruler or the ruled. Pride also fuels Tobler’s ill-fated efforts, but it is a fragile quantity that wife and worker must labor to preserve. No doubt Walser enjoyed the irony in the fact that Joseph, working without a salary, serves as Tobler’s de facto benefactor.
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