The Conjurer

The Assistant

by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions, 301 pp., $16.95 (paper)
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…

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