Robert Walser was not quite thirty in 1907 when he sat down in his Berlin apartment—a fifth-story walkup in a rear building at 141 Wilmersdorfer Straße in the Charlottenburg district—and began to write The Assistant. Two years earlier he’d come to the German metropolis to seek his fortune as a writer, following in the footsteps of his brother Karl, a successful illustrator and stage-set designer popular in the city’s beau monde. Both of them, as natives of Switzerland, stuck out. First there was the accent, which to Prussian ears signified “bumpkin.” Moreover, the two brothers seem to have shared a sense of humor as riotous as it was deadpan. There are stories about the two men trapping the successful dramatist Frank Wedekind (author of Spring Awakening) in a revolving door and repeatedly shouting “muttonhead” at him as he spun round and round. And Robert is said to have walked up to literary giant Hugo von Hoffmansthal in a cafe to ask: “Can’t you forget for a bit that you’re famous?”
But unlike his charming brother, who specialized in entertaining actresses in tony restaurants, Robert never quite fit in Berlin society. The niceties of elegant social interaction eluded him, looking perhaps too much like hypocrisy, or a disagreeable pose. For reasons that to this day are not known with any certainty, he decided to enroll in a school for servants and spent the winter of 1905/1906 stoking stokves and waiting at table in a Silesian castle. Though he was already a published author—his first book, Fritz Kocher’s Essays, had appeared in 1904—he seems not to have viewed his sojourn in Silesia merely as “research” for fictional work. (He did eventually write about the castle, but only a good dozen years later.) Instead he wrote, upon returning to Berlin, a semi-autobiographical novel about the grown children of a Swiss family, The Tanners, followed a year later by The Assistant.
Walser claims to have written The Assistant in a mere six weeks, as an entry for a competition sponsored by the Scherl publishing house—which promptly rejected it, no doubt at least in part because the entry was accompanied by a letter cockily demanding an 8,000-mark advance, a fortune in those days. The novel was then published in 1908 by Bruno Cassirer, who had brought out The Tanners the year before.
The Assistant, by all appearances, is set in Switzerland. We see the national holiday being celebrated on August 1 with the display of a large flag featuring a white cross on a red ground, and the characters speak, like their author, a Swiss-inflected German peppered with dialect expressions like “struber Gauner,” “verschuggt,” and heimlichfeiß” (translated here as “the lowliest scoundrel,” “ill-used,” and “slyboots”) all of which require explanatory footnotes at the back of the German edition. Unfortunately these subtle and not-so-subtle marks of difference and local color become invisible in translation, though I have attempted throughout to replicate the lilt and wiggle of Walser’s style at the novel’s lighter moments and the melodic soughing of the prose when he lapses into melancholy contemplation.
Curiously, the monetary unit changing hands throughout the novel is not the Swiss franc but the German mark. This odd discrepancy sent me running to the Walser Archives in Zurich to consult the original manuscript, and indeed: the pocket money paid out to Joseph on Sundays is in the form of five-mark coins. The cognitive dissonance thus produced forces us to challenge our assumptions about the novel’s setting. Perhaps its characters occupy, after all, some corner of the world that merely appears, by some coincidence, oddly Swiss-like. Walser seems to be inviting his German readers to abandon any suspicions of provincialism they may be entertaining and instead attend to what is universal in his tale.
At the same time, The Assistant is at least in part an autobiographical novel. Walser himself worked for several months in 1903 as an accountant and secretary to an ill-starred inventor named Carl Dubler who lived with his wife Frieda and four children (bearing the same names as their fictional counterparts) in a villa in the town of Wädenswil on Lake Zurich; the villa is still there, now minus its copper-clad tower. Walser himself is known to have worked from time to time at the Copyists’ Bureau for the Unemployed in Zurich, and he gave his protagonist, Joseph Marti, his mother’s maiden name.
The Assistant is the second of Walser’s surviving novels, but in fact, it was his third. Between The Tanners and The Assistant, he wrote yet another novel, also entitled The Assistant, that appears to have been quite different from the others, fantastical where the others are psychological and domestic. It recounted, he wrote, in a letter to poet Christian Morgenstern, the adventures of a young man who sets off for Asia on a scientific expedition in the service of an unhinged intellectual whom Walser refers to as “the devil in a summer coat.” Morgenstern read the manuscript and wrote an enthusiastic report on it for publisher Bruno Cassirer, but Cassirer declined to print it and at some point thereafter the manuscript was lost.
The final paragraph of The Assistant as published in 1908 was no longer the same as in the original manuscript Walser had submitted to the publisher. The ending appears to have been trimmed fairly late in the editing process, and whether Walser himself approved is impossible to say. Walser’s long-time German editor Jochen Greven believes the cut was the publisher’s decision. In my opinion, the original ending provides a more satisfying conclusion, encapsulating the mood of the book’s final pages in a poignant vignette in which the landscape that has been granted such powers of expression throughout the novel appears as lost in thought as its observer. Here it is:
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. There it lay above him, silent in a wintry isolation, as if it felt cold. From the neighboring chimneys, delicate columns of blue-tinged smoke rose up, dispersing in the gray air. The landscape appeared to have eyes, and it appeared to be closing them, filled utterly with peace, in order to reflect. Yes, everything appeared a bit pensive. All the surrounding colors appeared to be gently and sweetly dreaming. The houses resembled slumbering children, and the sky lay, friendly and weary, upon all things. Joseph sat down on a rock beside the road and gazed back at it all for a long time. Fleetingly he thought once more of the woman, the children, the garden and all those mornings, noons, evenings and nights, the voices that for so long he had found so familiar, Tobler’s voice, the smells wafting from the kitchen that had given him such pleasure, all this he now saluted in his thoughts, and then the two of them walked on.
Susan Bernofsky’s afterword to The Assistant used by permission of New Directions Publishing, all rights reserved.
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