In a brief appreciation of Robert Walser published in the fall of 1929, the German critic Walter Benjamin noted, with customary owlishness, that the bright air of convalescence threads its way through the Swiss writer’s work. When characters in Walser’s second novel, The Assistant (1908), take ill, it’s apparent that sickness is a portal to enhancement. In their convalescent state, nerves are becalmed, countenances beautified, and a respite from hurried lives is temporarily in order. Much of the strain that’s placed on the adults in this book arises from their demand that life be wreathed with finery and dignity while, regrettably, maintaining a toehold in society frequently requires the obverse.
Although Walser satirizes this quintessential predicament of the bourgeoisie, there is a delicacy to his activity. One gathers that the author’s reproof against the foibles of keeping up appearances is offset by his awareness that a reprieve from struggle is merely that. Considering the extraordinary solicitude he displays towards his characters (who retain their humanity, even when their actions are unjust), it’s appropriate that the novel begins with a stroke of serendipity.
Alighting in the rain upon the doorstep of his new employer, Joseph Marti pauses before ringing the doorbell to note his near surprise that, unlike in times
past, there is an umbrella in his hand. Given the novelty of this situation and the shabbiness of Marti’s briefcase, the protagonist’s impecuniousness is clear. Even though his cash-flow situation hardly improves over a half-year tenure as a clerk for the inventor Carl Tobler, Marti’s vitality is as irrepressible as that of his employer’s family, who are up to their earlobes in debt.
At twenty-four, Marti is like many young professionals everywhere—eager to please but given to flights of insouciance. He simultaneously shelters a foolish belief that he’s left youth behind while indulging in the belief that his die is not as hopelessly cast as, say, that of his thirtysomething predecessor, Wirsich, who was fired because of his reckless, off-hour drinking habits. Unlike today’s cubicle set, Marti enjoys a variety of enviable perks, such as exquisite meals with the Toblers and the freedom to smoke—bumming from his employer’s stash—while working. There is, however, one noticeable drawback: except for a bit of weekend pocket money, his salary, for the most part, is perpetually forthcoming. Nevertheless, Marti enjoys much of his stay with the Toblers because his work is far from grinding.The choice between quality of life and succumbing to the pressures of the practical finds a wider expression in the affairs of the Toblers, who prop up their luxurious lifestyle on credit as they wait for one of Herr Tobler’s inventions to take off.
There is nothing in this story’s plot that will catch readers unaware.The same is not the case for this novel’s sentences. In addition to Benjamin, Kafka was also impressed by Walser. In a passage which comes when a potential investor makes his way to the Toblers’ villa, it’s possible to see why: “What a delicate, almost feminine handwriting the man had… Nearly all capitalists wrote
just like this man: with precision and at the same time somewhat offhandedly.” Along with Kafka, Walser is a great chronicler of the imbalances between worker and
employee, and the spillover from such an arrangement into family life.Yet, The Assistant is more of a palliative work than a diagnostic one; it might not deepen your understanding of life under capitalism, but it might cushion it.