“What swimming person, provided he is not about to drown, can help being in excellent spirits?” When Joseph is hired as a clerical assistant by Tobler, inventor of the ‘Advertising Clock’ and the ‘Marksman’s Vending Machine’, he moves into Tobler’s hilltop villa, where he enjoys the meals, the views and the presence of Tobler’s wife, who is suffering from an illness of the neck. As Tobler’s enterprise slides towards bankruptcy, Joseph dedicates himself to the role of serving his employer, a role which he assumes inconsistently but with such text-book self-abnegation that he effectively absents himself from the relationship and is unable to contribute in any meaningful or consequential way. He expresses, rightly, doubts about his worth as an employee, but his introspection is limited by his inability to generalise, which keeps him from despair but also precludes effective action and constructive change. Tobler’s own inadequacies as a businessman, and the banal eccentricities of his inventions, mean that Joseph is playing to a void, neither giving nor receiving in any sense beyond the immediate. Both Tobler and Joseph are fantasists: their roles take no shape from them and their characters are necessarily inauthentic. Walser has a knack of emptying bourgeois values of meaning by playing them out with deadpan enthusiasm. Joseph’s (and Walser’s) over-enthusiastic celebration of the small and the particular and frighteningly declutched avoidance of the large and general give the novel a fragile immediacy: each enthusiasm or assertion merely underscores its own transience. The programmatic naivety and over-asserted cliché present as irony: each enthusiasm seems awkward and off-key; every assertion, by being made, invalidates and mocks the impulse for making it. As the Toblers near their nadir, Joseph leaves, fed but unpaid, neither harmed nor improved by his presence in a decline that he neither exacerbated nor assuaged.
Robert Walser is an overwhelmingly original author with many ardent fans: J.M. Coetzee ("dazzling"), Guy Davenport ("a very special kind of whimsical-serious-deep writer"), and Hermann Hesse ("If he had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place"). Charged with compassion, and an utterly unique radiance of vision, Walser is as Susan Sontag exclaimed "a truly wonderful, heart-breaking writer." The Assistant is his breathtaking 1908 novel, translated by award-winning translator Susan Bernofsky. Joseph, hired to become an inventor's new assistant, arrives one rainy Monday morning at Technical Engineer Karl Tobler's splendid hilltop villa: he is at once pleased and terribly worried, a state soon followed by even stickier psychological complexities. He enjoys the beautiful view over Lake Zurich, in the company of the proud wife, Frau Tobler, and the delicious savory meals. But does he deserve any of these pleasures? The Assistant chronicles Joseph's inner life of cascading emotions as he attempts, both frantically and light-heartedly, to help the Tobler household, even as it slides toward financial ruin. Tobler demands of Joseph, "Do you have your wits about you?!" And Joseph's wits are in fact all around him, trembling like leaves in the breeze he is full of exuberance and despair, all the raptures and panics of a person "drowning in obedience."