In a famous short story, Borges has one of his characters, an obscure author, remark: “I do not belong to art, but merely to the history of art.” For a while, it seemed as though this would be the sorry fate of Robert Walser, whose boisterous yet oblique prose narratives—with their “alienated” protagonists, formal recalcitrance, and general contempt for civilization—could fit snugly into an academic pécis of European Modernism without ever stirring the interest or excitement of the common reader.
Born in Switzerland in 1878, Walser moved to Berlin as a young man, where his rarefied mind fermented a series of novels and short stories that won the praise of Kafka and Musil; later on, he disappeared into a succession of homes for the incurably deranged and was promptly forgotten by lettered society. Very slowly his work has crept back into print, and, thankfully, into English, with NYRB putting out handsome editions of the novella Jakob von Gunten and a selection of stories, the latter enthusiastically introduced by Susan Sontag.
Now, decorated by plaudits from some very reliable sensibilities, comes The Assistant. Written in 1907 and translated into English for the first time by Susan Bernofsky, the novel tells the story of Joseph Marti, a plain and impressionable young man who comes to work for the Tobler family in their large villa near the German town of Barenswil. Marti’s floundering attempts
to ingratiate himself with this peculiar clan, and the response his efforts elicit from the hapless patriarch, Karl Tobler, lay at the heart of this baggy, rambling, digressive beast of a novel.
Although the spirit of capitalism is alive and well in the Tobler household, its residents are on their way to financial destitution, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Herr Tobler himself, who has been patiently squandering a large inheritance on a string of supremely useless inventions—the Marksman’s Vending Machine, for example, which dispenses “not a little slab of chocolate, peppermint or the like, but rather a pack of live ammunition.” Unsurprisingly, Tobler is having difficulty in his search for magnates to back the enterprise.
Comparing the high praise on the book’s jacket (“if one read one 20th-century novel, there is a case to be made for it being The Assistant,” etc.) with its first few pages, your reviewer found himself uncomfortably wondering what all the fuss was about. Only gradually did it become clear. Walser seems to have had no aptitude—or at least no interest—in the careful phrase making that forms such a staple of contemporary fiction, and which many reviewers see as their job simply to cull from the text and marvel at dutifully.
Indeed, from one perspective, Walser’s prose is a tepid slurry of solecism, platitude, and tautology force-fed to the reader in large, grim spoonfuls. It is difficult to think of a modern novelist of any worth who would not think twice about perpetrating a sentence like: “It was as if a black wave were devouring his entire being.” Or: “The word ‘autumn’ pierced Joseph’s soul.”
Why, then, is The Assistant not a disaster? However flawed, irksome, and demanding of our patience, why is it so good? For one thing, it is very funny, and a deep and expansive sense of humor can offset just about any literary shortcoming. Attempting to conceal his gradual descent into pauperism from the neighbors (whom he contemptuously refers to as those “bacon and sausage eaters”), Tobler does what any self-respecting, turn-of-the-century German bourgeois would do: He constructs an elaborate “fairy grotto” in his front garden and invites the skeptics over to marvel at this symbol of prosperity. Here, Walser’s starched and finicky prose comes into its own: “At once they proceeded to the fairy grotto, a cave-like, cement-lined, wallpapered thing, oblong in shape like the inside of a stove, and somewhat too low, causing the visitors to strike their heads on more than one occasion.”
The pleasure of watching characters marinate in their own provincial vulgarity is not infinite, however. Like Kafka and Beckett, Walser is a master of negation, of laying bare the empty round of necessities that most of us call life. Like Flaubert, he takes an almost sadistic relish in thwarting the best-laid plans of the small people he chronicles. Like Dostoyevsky (perhaps the biggest influence on his writing), he conceives of personality as an excruciating dialectic of pride and humility. Yet unlike these masters, Walser seems to offer no exit from the poverty of ordinary existence, no vision of anything worthwhile or of value. The result is a kind of stultifying cynicism.
In spite of this imaginative deficiency, The Assistant is a marvelous book, and I would be surprised if 2007 sees the appearance of a stranger, more inexplicably compelling piece of fiction. If it isn’t already clear, Walser belongs not just to the history of literature, but to literature itself.