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The Conjurer

The Assistant

by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions, 301 pp., $16.95 (paper)
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Robert Walser Foundation, Bern, Switzerland
Robert Walser, Berlin, circa 1907

We’re only just getting to know the work of Robert Walser, the Swiss writer who died, in 1956, on a walk in the snow at age seventy-eight after wandering away from the mental institution where he had spent the previous twenty-two years of his life. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Walser managed to earn a degree of renown in the German-speaking world as a crafter of eccentric novels and short stories; his admirers included, notably, Franz Kafka and Robert Musil.

Then his reputation faded, a victim of changing styles and his own deepening psychological problems. He suffered for years from severe panic attacks and confessed to hearing voices. Two contemporary medical experts have concluded that Walser was afflicted, in part, by a severe version of Asperger’s syndrome, which goes some way to explaining his notable difficulty in coping with social situations.1 His work was rediscovered decades after his death by literary scholars who soon unearthed a large and exciting body of texts—mostly surreal sketches written in pencil in a spidery, almost indecipherable hand—that had escaped publication during his lifetime. English speakers had to wait until the present century to discover his writings—but they have gradually begun to make their appearance here, too, due largely to the heroic efforts of the translators Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky.2

One thing that comes through quite clearly about Walser’s somewhat elusive life is that he spent most of it poised on the verge of poverty, barely earning his keep with a series of odd jobs from which, more often than not, he contrived to have himself fired. In 1903, after completing his Swiss military service, he managed to land a position as the factotum of an inventor in the village of Wädenswil, not far from Zurich. He didn’t last long in the job, though—like Joseph Marti, the title character of his novel The Assistant (1908), which tells the story of Marti’s stint as a clerk to an inventor after serving his time in the army.

It’s hard, of course, to make precise comparisons between a real-world medical diagnosis and a literary character that emerged from it. What we can say is that Marti bears his own version of Walser’s extreme “eccentricity” without the darker edges that we know to have plagued the author during his life. Marti is clearly aware that he’s not entirely normal; his sense of his own difference verges on outright disability: “he understood only half of what was said,” while information that others comprehended quickly “took so strangely long to sink into his skull.” His sense of dissociation is driven home in the very first paragraphs of the book, when he looks down at his own body as if he were renting it from someone: “the hand extending down at his side held a brown suitcase.” “He and his entire person appeared to constitute merely a sort of frill, an ephemeral appendage, a knot tied for the nonce,” we are told not long after. And a few pages later: “In this, too, he was hanging by a thread, just a button that no one took the trouble to sew back on again, as the jacket itself no longer had much wear left in it.” Well into the book the narrator is still remarking how “peculiar” even the most ordinary things can seem to him. The novel ends with Marti leaving the house of his employer just as he entered it in the opening pages. The thread has been severed, and he is loose once again.

You can understand why Marti longs for home, any home. “Life,” as one of the other characters in the novel tells him, “has neglected you a little.” We don’t know all the details; some are only hinted at. We learn that Marti has worked in a series of short-lived menial jobs. Along the way his ties to his family have become dangerously attenuated, leaving him no one to fall back on in difficult times. On several occasions he has been compelled to sleep rough, and his meals have been few and far between. As the novel begins he arrives at the home of Carl Tobler, who has offered him a job as a live-in helper. When the Toblers offer Marti a meal, his hunger soon gives him away:

Yes, the Toblers had clearly noticed at least something. The woman gazed at him several times with almost a pitying expression. The four children…kept glancing at him surreptitiously, as at something utterly alien and strange. These openly questioning and probing glances dismayed him. Glances like these cannot help but remind a person that he has only just come to perch in this unfamiliar place, and draw his attention to the coziness of these unfamiliar surroundings which are in fact a home to others, and at the same time to the homelessness of the one sitting there now, whose obligation it is to make himself at home as quickly and eagerly as possible in this snug unfamiliar tableau. Glances like these make one shiver in the warmest sunshine, they pierce the soul with their coldness and loiter coldly within it for a while before departing just as they arrived.

In short, he certainly doesn’t fit into this world, either; to these people Marti is a living non sequitur. But this time he’s going to give it his best effort, for in many respects the Tobler household appears to offer an ideal safe haven.

His new boss is the very embodiment of haute-bourgeois stolidity: “Cigar between his teeth, he [Tobler] gazed down contentedly at his property, thereby presenting, unbeknownst to himself, a flawless tableau of seigneurial midday leisure.” Tobler is self-employed in the imposing sense connoted by the original text’s word Freiberufler—not the ineffectual “freelancer” familiar to the English speaker, but, rather, the intensely solemn “free professional” of German. As an inventor, Tobler ought to combine creative élan with an engineer’s matter-of-factness and lofty education. The scion of a well-to-do family, he rules as “lord and master” over his villa, which is located on the shore of a picturesque lake in a country strongly hinting at—though not seamlessly identical with—Walser’s own Switzerland, the apotheosis of upper-middle-class self-contentment. He has an attractive wife (“the ‘mistress of the house’”) and a suitably symmetrical brood of well-groomed children (two girls, two boys).

Marti, whose own life has been thin on creature comforts, is entirely and frankly susceptible to the privileges of this style of life. His room in the house is “bright, airy and friendly. The bed was nice and clean—oh yes, this was a room in which one could do some living.” The food is good, the coffee marvelous; Marti is especially fond of the cheroots his superior occasionally sees fit to hand out (along with the odd bit of spending money). Tobler’s wife, “born into genuinely bourgeois circles,” carries herself with the haughtiness befitting her station, and Marti can’t help being a bit beguiled.

Of course, this being the twentieth century, we quickly begin to suspect that this middle-class idyll isn’t quite all that it seems; surely there must be rot behind that façade. And it doesn’t take long to emerge. We soon realize that Tobler is a failure as a businessman, and he’s even more pitiful when it comes to actually inventing things: he has placed all his commercial hopes on a clutch of painfully idiotic projects, like a vending machine designed to dispense ammunition to hunters or an “advertising clock” for use in train stations. Needless to say, none of these ideas has generated much in the way of revenue, and Marti soon finds that his job consists mainly of placating creditors or sending off correspondence to “customers” who never respond. Bankruptcy looms. The people in the nearby town regard Tobler as a figure of ridicule, and he returns the favor by treating with contempt their demands for the payment of unpaid bills. He’s not above taking it out on his own family, either.

He hits his son, abuses his wife, and generally behaves in the worst traditions of the middle-class tyrant who brooks no dissent within his own four walls. At one point the narrator is moved to an observation:

Wealth and bourgeois prosperity like to dispense humiliations, or, no, that’s going too far, but they do have a fondness for gazing down on the humiliated, a sentiment in which we must acknowledge the presence of a certain benevolence, and of a certain brutality as well.

This observation about the equilibrium between benevolence and brutality exemplifies Marti’s peculiar capacity for seeing through Tobler’s nasty class pretensions even while embracing them at the same time. Walser probably wouldn’t have had much trouble rendering this tale of upscale dysfunction in the bleak vein common to so many of his “naturalist” contemporaries. Yet that’s exactly what he doesn’t do. For all its darkness, The Assistant is a comedy, fueled by the radical incongruity of Marti’s desperate urge to belong to a world that is collapsing around his ears. That villa teeters at the edge of a void—but doesn’t it teeter beautifully? Here Marti enjoys a moment of quiet companionship with Tobler’s wife:

For a while the two were silent. The assistant found it so lovely to be sitting there in that room. This was something that resembled a home. And how often, in former times, he had walked the city’s lively and deserted streets, his heart filled with the cold, wicked, crushing sensation of having been abandoned. How old he had been in his youth. How the consciousness of not being at home anywhere had paralyzed him, strangled him from within. How beautiful it was to belong to someone, whether in hatred or impatience, displeasure or devotion, melancholy or love.

The human magic that resided in a home like this—how dolefully enchanted Joseph had always been when he saw it reflected in some window that had been left standing open, making it visible down where he was standing on the cold street all alone, tossed from one place to another, without a home. How Easter, Christmas or Pentecost or New Year’s came streaming fragrantly down from such windows, and how poor he felt when he thought of how he was allowed to enjoy only the paltry, almost imperceptible reflection of this golden, ancient glory. This beautiful privilege of the upper classes. The kindness in their faces. This peaceful doing, the living, and the letting live! He said:

How idiotic it is to be so swift to find oneself insulted.”

It was quite right of him to say so, the woman opined, peacefully continuing to knit or crochet an undervest for Dora.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the “insult” Marti has just suffered here is an actual physical assault at the hands of his boss. (Elsewhere in the book Marti marvels at his own “oddly generous portion of peace of mind.”) And just in case we are tempted to believe that Marti’s strenuous desire for solidarity with his oppressors is unconscious or naive, Walser is at pains to disabuse us. It turns out that Marti has survived a youthful flirtation with socialism, which he recalls in the most withering terms. (“Both of them, as was the fashion in those days, were in love with ‘all mankind.’”) Nor does Marti show much backbone when it comes to resisting bad behavior in the Tobler household. The younger of Tobler’s daughters, the hapless Silvi, is the family punching bag, subject to all sorts of torments. Though Marti sees the “injustice” in the treatment meted out to her, he’s also happy to declare that she’s a fairly pitiable creature and deserves what she’s getting. If Walser were out to deliver a dose of biting social satire, in short, this would be a pretty odd way to do it.

Yet even this isn’t quite enough to explain away the lingering strangeness of the novel. The farther we read, the less we can avoid asking the question: Why is Marti still sticking around? To be sure, he certainly doesn’t want to end up on the street again. But there’s a better answer, one that comes far into the narrative, almost near the end—at which point Marti is still waiting for a salary that will never be paid:

What was prompting him to continue on as this man’s employee? The salary outstanding? Yes, among other things. But there was something quite different as well, something more important: he loved this man with all his heart…. For it was inevitable that something a person was fond of, something he felt bound and conjoined to, would cause him distress as well: he would have to struggle with it, there would be much about it that displeased him, and at times he would even hate it because he had always felt so powerfully drawn to it.

This “love” is not sexual. Nor is it even a longing for friendship. It is, rather, atavistically hierarchical—a paternal relationship, a low-ranker’s affection for his natural superior. This motive of love—a love that isn’t even really interested in being requited—goes a long way toward framing the novel’s essential, exquisitely poised absurdity: the vexed legal and moral relationship between the assistant and his employer, neither one of whom is in a position to live up to the contract they have entered into. The employer—if Tobler can be dignified by the term—has no money to pay Marti, and the assistant is performing tasks that have been rendered meaningless by the boss’s failure to build a legitimate business. The narrative draws much of its dark comic impetus from the tension between the two men’s roles in this strange embrace—Marti’s fecklessness perfectly complementing Tobler’s aggressive vacuity.

This love that Marti feels for the eminently unlovable Tobler is starkly unmotivated. It’s just there, a numinous fact, a devotion that survives almost every random offense the employer can visit upon his assistant. Small wonder that some readers—like the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben—have seen in Tobler something like a parody of the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions.3 The Creator of Judeo-Christian belief, like Tobler the inventor, must be loved and obeyed precisely because he is the absolute good, transcending petty human concerns. For the longing worshiper, though, this transcendence often comes across more like capriciousness, inscrutability, and frustrating distance. And so it is precisely the job of special mediators—like the dogged “assistant” Marti—to interpret the divinity’s desires and justify his mysterious acts to us, the mere mortals. Joseph Marti is always willing to find a loophole for the man who treats him so badly. “At times,” he thinks,

the state of being fettered and bound to a particular place could be warmer and richer, more filled with tender secrets, than outright freedom, which left all the world’s doors and windows standing wide open. In freedom’s bright spaces, people all too often found themselves beset by bitter cold or oppressive heat; but as for this other sort of freedom that he, Joseph, was thinking of—well, goodness, freedom of this sort was, in the end, the most fitting and loveliest sort, possessed of an undying magic.

Magic” is a key word here, I think. Marti does believe in magic, restorative magic of an immediate, almost offhanded kind—a quality, it should be noted, that melds neatly into the job description of someone who’s supposed to dwell in immediate proximity to the divine. Even as life inside the Tobler household deteriorates into farce, outside of it Marti is indulging in his propensity for what the narrator refers to as “far-off, almost pathologically lovely reveries”—a nice description, actually, of Walser’s rich, whimsical, scudding style. Here is Marti on a walk through the local town:

How brightly the sun was shining, and how modestly people were walking to and fro. How lovely it was that one could lose oneself amid all this bustling, standing, strolling and swinging. How high up the sky was, and how the sunlight was making itself at home upon all the objects, bodies and movements, and how lightly and gaily shadows were slipping in between. The waves of the lake were striking not at all tempestuously against the stone barriers. Everything was so gentle, so overcast, so light and lovely—it all became just as large as it was small, just as near-at-hand as distant, just as extensive as minute and just as dainty as significant. Soon everything Joseph beheld appeared to have become a natural, quiet, benevolent dream, not such a terribly beautiful one, no: a modest dream, and yet it was so beautiful.

These bursts of euphoria seem to convey a sense of completeness that’s entirely missing from Marti’s dealings with other human beings—just note that revealing remark about the sunlight “making itself at home.” Pathetic fallacy runs amok: “The small old working-class houses at the foot of the hill appeared to be sleeping in their shapes.” “Nature seemed at times to be rubbing its eyes.” “The region itself appeared to be sentient and to be experiencing different feelings.” “The whole region appeared to be awaiting some regal princess, that’s how delicately and neatly it was dressed.” Here is Marti’s take on the seasons:

And the world, was it changing? No. A wintry image could superimpose itself upon the world of summer, winter would gave way to spring, but the face of the earth remained the same. It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge, beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry, but remained always the same. It was a great lover of make-up, it painted its face now more brightly, now in paler hues, now it was glowing, now pallid, never quite what it had been before, constantly it was changing a little, and yet remained always vividly and restlessly the same.

Or this:

There was a sense of mystery in everything, in every thought, in one’s own legs, in the clothes lying on the chair, in the wardrobe, between the blindingly white bleached curtains, in the washstand, but this mystery was not unsettling, on the contrary, it radiated calm and peace and smiles. In fact, there were no thoughts in one’s head at all, though one didn’t quite know why—somehow it seemed essential that this be the case.

The world is rife with human qualities—but other people are rarely involved. Indeed, these qualities manifest themselves almost always when Marti is alone, usually on one of the long walks or swims that help him to order his teeming thoughts. “Moving his arms and legs struck him as hugely enjoyable,” as the narrator notes. (This may also reveal something he shares with Walser himself, who loved to embark on long strolls.) In these states of active solitude Marti’s surroundings come alive, humming with energy in a way that reminds one of Van Gogh’s sizzling landscapes.

There is, indeed, something inescapably manic about the loony beauty of Walser’s writing in these passages. Though the German critic Walter Benjamin never wrote about The Assistant, he did leave behind one particularly shrewd essay about a collection of Walser’s early sketches. In it Benjamin singled out the peculiar qualities of the writer’s “heroes,” characters he placed in a tradition of German literary oddballs running back to the Romantics. (He might have added that Walser’s confounding ability to combine irony and cheery sentimentality in a single sentence hearkens back to a pre-Romantic period when “sincerity” had yet to be elevated to the stature of a supreme value.)

Benjamin diagnosed the irrepressible “lightness” and good nature of the people who populate Walser’s stories as the qualities of “figures who have left madness behind them…. If we were to attempt to sum up in a single phrase the delightful yet also uncanny element in them, we would have to say: they have all been healed….” Benjamin ventures that the euphoria of Walser’s surreally cheerful characters is a “product not of the nervous tension of the decadent, but of the pure and vibrant mood of a convalescent.”

We will never know whether Walser ever reached the point where he was able to entertain the possibility of relief from his mental ailments. As for Marti, at the end of the novel he’s back out on the street, protection from his own problems indefinitely deferred. The Toblers have lost their house, and Marti has lost his job, his home, and the certainty of his next meal. He’s befriended Wirsich, the man who had the assistant’s job before him, and they get drunk together. So how can we possibly speculate about the character’s convalescence? Yet the final paragraph of the book, as he and Wirsich leave the Toblers, hits a note of redemptive tenderness that feels exactly right:

When they had reached the road down below, Joseph stopped, took one of Tobler’s cheroots out of his pocket, lit it, and then turned around to look at the house one last time. In his thoughts he saluted it, and then the two of them walked on.4

No safe haven is permanent, not on the level of fleeting humankind. But in the prose of Robert Walser, language, at least, can offer the promise of healing that eludes us in life. For that reason, if no other, we are lucky to have his works around.

  1. 1

    Walser’s family was plagued with various strains of mental illness. His mother suffered from serious depression, one of his brothers died in an institution, and the other committed suicide.

    For the contemporary diagnosis, see Viktoria Lyons and Michael Fitzgerald, “The Case of Robert Walser (1878–1956),” Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2004). The authors conclude that “while Walser possibly experienced a few short psychotic episodes, he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome and also meets diagnostic criteria for schizoid personality disorder.”

  2. 2

    Middleton’s translation of Jakob von Guten (NYRB Classics, 1999) and Bernofsky’s translation of The Robber (University of Nebraska Press, 2000) were reviewed in these pages by J.M. Coetzee in “The Genius of Robert Walser,” November 2, 2000.

    Microscripts, a collection of Bernofsky’s new translations of stories that Walser wrote on slips of paper in a script only one or two millimeters high, will be published—along with reproductions of the microscripts themselves—by New Directions and Christine Burgin this spring.

  3. 3

    Agamben compares Marti’s role as the “assistant” with other mystical intermediaries, like the angelic messengers of a particular brand of Sufi Islam, “the helpers of the Messiah” who bear in themselves signs of the Last Judgment even as they live in the time of men. Marti also reminds Agamben of the unbaptized children who were consigned to limbo by medieval Church theology. “According to the theologian,” Agamben writes,

    the punishment of the unbaptized children, who have died without any guilt, cannot be a painful punishment: it consists only of the privation of the sight of God. Since these beings only have natural, not supernatural, knowledge, they do not know that they have been deprived of the highest good. The worst punishment—the denial of the sight of God—is thus transformed, for the denizens of limbo, into a state of natural cheerfulness. This cheerfulness of limbo is the secret of Walser’s creations. They live beyond perdition and redemption. They know neither man nor God, neither law nor fate.

    See “Warum war und ist Robert Walser so wichtig? Walsers philosophischer Spaziergang,” available at www.mikrogramme.de/e945/e935/index_ger.html. The translation from Agamben’s German is mine.

  4. 4

    Susan Bernofksy, in her useful translator’s afterword, informs us that the original ending, apparently curtailed by the publishers, contained a more detailed reminiscence of the pleasures of Marti’s time in the Tobler home.

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