In no other novel does modern Switzerland show her changing face with such gentle charm. In The Assistant, Robert Walser looks back on his sojourn with the engineer Dubler in Wädenswil in 1903. As a testament to how closely the novel’s contents reflect reality, Abendstern, the villa in the novel, stands to this day; and as if quite committed to the literary realism of the nineteenth century, Walser only slightly changes real places and names. He transforms “Wädenswil” to “Bärenswil,” evoking a community that might have been next to the village of Seldwyla, the literary creation of Gottfried Keller, the great Swiss novelist, from fifty years earlier.
With its antiquated title—”Der Gehülfe,” The Assistant—the novel seems to belong to a fairy-tale past, when the help actually helped. But Joseph Marti, who takes on employment with Tobler, is more than just the Sancho Panza to Tobler’s fusty entrepreneur, who goes bankrupt with his unsellable inventions at the end of the novel. The novel also casts Marti as “the new employee” at its outset: a member of an aspiring social class who must eke out his own place in society and in literature. He maintains a feudal loyalty to his master, in whose secondhand clothes he is decked out, all the while developing a reverential but frustrated erotic attachment to Frau Tobler. Though he meets the emancipated photographer Klara in the nearby city and gets a taste of socialism, he is too much an individualist to join any social movement, and as a clerk feels distant from the working class. Marti seems to be more attracted by the manners of Herr Tobler and his free-wheeling, adventurous entrepreneurship. Back in Abendstern, he lights up his master’s cheroots and indulges an archaic desire for immediate consumption instead of delayed gratification.
Time is free when money is tight, and the novel focuses more on its coffee breaks and Sunday outings, which it depicts at length, than on Tobler’s forlorn efforts to sell his “Advertising Clock.” Natural time with its gently passing seasons gives the novel its own rhythm, one that evokes a romantic sauntering. Gradually, this slow measure takes possession of the whole house, which seems to abandon the fight for economic survival. Unable to pay the electric bill, the family light petroleum lamps and turn to their evening game of Jass; a Helvetic idyll of the end times.
But Walser blends in the modern too. We get glimpses of modernity not only when Marti picks up the phone to find a feasible financial backer or when Frau Tobler orders a “tailored, highmodern dress” from the city. The impoverished urban settings that confront Marti in his excursions into the city also add to the book’s modernity. By contrasting the idyllic life of the countryside with urban modernity, Walser plays on the complicated relationship that literature from Switzerland maintains to this day with the dominant German culture, in which single settings are the literary norm. His Swiss novel, as it has been called, due to its affinity with Keller’s Martin Salander, is also covertly a Berlin novel. Written in 1907 in Berlin and published one year later by one of the best-known Berlin publishers of the time, its currency is the German mark, although one sometimes hears the jingle of Swiss centimes. The engineer reprimands his assistant as a Berliner would, even though the novel openly carries out linguistic Helvetisms. And by making his protagonist a clerk, Walser brings Berlin into focus, the city Siegfried Kracauer would later describe as “the capital of the clerks.” Walser is one of the first to depict the alienation of this upcoming social group, the nomads between the working class and the bourgeois establishment, but he presents this modern problem in the tones of a homey Swiss fairy tale. The result is the crosshatching that characterizes all literature from Switzerland, between metropolitan culture and the critical-concrete confrontation with the topics of a small-bounded society, focused on itself. Informed by this double affiliation, Walser can already draw, in 1908, “a picture of the twentieth century,” one that he purposefully outlines with an open and many-voiced narrative style that builds on literary modernism.
The novel is anticipatory in telling details too: Walser credits his inventing engineer with a vending machine that spits out ammunition instead of cigarettes, like those that would be found much later in Swiss shooting ranges. A fantasy product that is initially impossible to sell, its merits are finally appreciated at the end of the twentieth century. So it is with Walser’s literary creation, over fifty years after his famous death in the snow, now as easily accessible and enjoyable as a pack from Tobler’s inexhaustible cheroot supply.
This article is adapted from a piece by Peter Utz featured in Das Magazin, Zürich, Nr. 20, 20 mai 2006. Translated by Rohan Kamicheril.
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