Wed Jul 25 2007
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
If you’ve ever read Swiss author Robert Walser, the title of his newly translated 1908 novel, The Assistant, will strike a familiar note of modesty. Walser dwelled on all things unassuming, and himself shied away from the prospect of literary success. But “success” and “failure” are categories in a system of values that he stood apart from, even as he observed it meticulously, asserting only the most courteously understated judgment.
In The Assistant, the über-Walserian Joseph Marti is assigned by the unemployment office to work as a clerk for Herr Tobler, a blinkered inventor of unmarketable devices like a vending machine that dispenses bullets. Joseph is a natural clerk, but not servile. He alternately talks cheekily out of turn to the Toblers and frets about whether he is living up to his obligations. He sincerely respects the bourgeois comforts they enjoy (but can’t afford), and the pleasures of their house, gardens and food merge magically with those of Joseph’s own emotions, in passages of sudden rapture.
But living for the moment, Joseph remains aloof from the mounting anxiety of the Toblers’ inevitable ruin and, therefore, so can the reader. Or so it seems, until it’s time for him to move on. In our literary world overly preoccupied by the metrics of fame, Walser’s exploration of humility and autonomy is a welcome blast from the past. Like Joseph, Walser is glad to be of service if possible. But ultimately, he’s working only for himself, and will eventually pack up his few belongings and be on his way, leaving behind his melancholy knowledge: that lightness of being is no insurance against the sorrow of loss.
New Directions. $16.95 paperback.