The Assistant

The Assistant was one of four novels that Robert Walser wrote in the early 1900s, between The Tanners (1906) and Jakob von Gunten (1909). (The fourth, now lost, was a second novel also called The Assistant – “fantastical,” according to translator Susan Bernosky, “where the others are psychological and domestic.”) It is at least partly drawn from life as in 1903 Walser worked as secretary to an inventor in Wadenswil near Zurich – the names of the inventor’s four children remain unchanged in the novel, though the inventor himself undergoes a minor transformation from Carl Dubler to Carl Tobler. The novel opens with the arrival of Tobler’s new assistant, Joseph Marti, sent to the inventor’s villa by an employment agency. (Later we will meet the previous assistant, Wirsich, whose cyclical behaviour of drunkenness and remorse has eventually led to his dismissal). Joseph could not be more pleased with his position, which is in contrast to the poverty he has previously known:

“He took second helpings of each dish on the table. It’s true, he had arrived here from the lower depths of society, from the shadowy, barren, still crannies of the metropolis. It had been months now since he had eaten as well.”

The conversational “it’s true” is typical of Walser’s style, as the narrative flits in and out of Joseph’s point of view both indirectly and directly, with Joseph’s speech frequently accompanied by his thoughts. He is throughout a sympathetic character: lacking in confidence (“Will I be good enough?” he wonders) and perhaps too aware of his flaws (“I have always had trouble comprehending new and unfamiliar things”). The position as assistant is a new start for him, as we can see when he writes to his to his previous landlady:

“Do you still remember how often you had to shake me out of my dull, hermit-like existence and all my wicked habits?”

The letter itself suggests Joseph’s loneliness, and the reason he enjoys feeling part of Tobler’s family, lodging, as he is, in Tobler’s house. Thus he develops a relationship not only with Tobler but with the rest of his family, a relationship which changes when Tobler is away:

“The entire house was a different one when the master was absent. Frau Tobler, too, seemed to be a quite different woman, and as for the children – particularly the two boys – their relief at the absence strict father was visible at quite some distance.”

Joseph regards himself as a part of the Tobler household, particularly when it comes to his sympathy for the youngest daughter, Silvi, a “beaten down, slovenly little creature” with whom he can, perhaps, identify, who is regularly punished for wetting the bed:

“As an employee of the Tobler household, I am obligated to put in a word for Silvi, for Silvi too is a member of this household whose interests I am supposed to represent.”

Though generally meek, Joseph can at times stand up to others, telling Tobler, for example, when he is reprimanded for being a little late that “a few minutes one way or another made little difference.” Despite his love of his position, he seems untroubled by Tobler’s furious response, and he generally retains a calm demeanour in the face of emotion:

“This remark was smashing success! For one thing, Joseph was treated to the sight of a livid face…”

Tobler’s anger, we suspect, partly originates in the fact he has invested money he has inherited into developing his inventions and has yet to see any reward. Much is expected of the Advertising Clock – a clock on which adverts can be displayed. Joseph describes the clock in less business-like terms:

“It’s like as small or large child this clock… like a headstrong child that requires constant self-sacrificing, care and doesn’t even thank one for watching over it. And is this enterprise flourishing, is the child growing? Little progress can be seen.”

In fact, the Tobler household is running out of money, and Joseph’s job becomes increasingly focused on keeping creditors at bay as Tobler tries to raise further money from various sources. This creates some tension in the narrative both for Tobler, threatened with the failure of his enterprise, and Joseph, who may lose his job, but it will not be a surprise to learn Walser is not plot-driven and has plenty of time for detours, including a spell in prison for Joseph as a result of failing to present himself for military service which enters the story rather unannounced. The meandering tale feels like a commentary on Tobler’s capitalist dream: Walser gives us a glimpse into the early days of entrepreneurs, but through the eyes of a man who offers a very different perspective. Far from being driven by future plans, Joseph tends to take each day as it comes. Though lonely, he cares for others – even offering his predecessor, Wirsich, money when he falls on hard times. Joseph is a gentle character who at times seems not of this world, and certainly at odds with the cut-throat world of business. Yet, by the end, we might think he is all the better for it.

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3 Responses to “The Assistant”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s interesting to read your thoughts on certain aspects of this novel being a kind of commentary on capitalism. I’m often struck by the resonances between early-mid 20th century literature and the 21st century world – what goes around comes around, to a certain extent!

  2. German Literature Month XI Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] 1 Süsskind The Pigeon 1 Suter The Last Weynfeldt 1 Stifter Motley Stones 1 Walser The Assistant 1 2 Wedekind The Seducer 1 The Vaccination 1 Zeh New Year 1 2 3 Zweig Chess Story 1 Fear 1 The Buried […]

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