BOOKS JUNE 11, 2008
By Robert Walser
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
(New Directions, 301 pp., $16.95)
By now the snapshot of the dead Robert Walser has become one of German literature's most often reprinted and commented-upon photographs, its unstaged, accidental existence only reinforcing the image's iconic charge: the last moments of an almost-forgotten great author in an age of mechanical reproduction. Not surprisingly, descriptions of the photograph all bear a striking resemblance to one another. A single set of footprints, vivid against the deep snow, lead the viewer's gaze to a tallish figure lying frozen, fully stretched out, his left arm extended as if he had been making a snow angel, while a few feet further on, his hat, seemingly tossed away rather than merely fallen off, completes the composition's sparse formality. Even the date--Christmas Day, 1956--carries an instant symbolic resonance.
But then Walser's entire life, just as much as his death from a heart attack while taking a solitary walk near the asylum where he had been a patient for more than twenty-three years, has acquired a kind of exemplary significance. It is a characteristic of German high culture--and not always a salutary one--to transform an artist's life into an allegory, and Walser's decades-long hospitalization and literary silence has earned him precisely that fate. Even Elias Canetti, one of Walser's most lucid admirers, could not resist the temptation: "His [Walser's] experience with 'the struggle for existence' takes him into the only sphere where the struggle no longer exists: the madhouse, the monastery of modern times." Romanticized in this way, it is easy to imagine the clinic in Herisau, Switzerland, and the nearby field where Walser's body was discovered joining places such as Portbou, where Walter Benjamin took his own life, as privileged stopping points for bookish tourists eager to visit their heroes' last haunts. Already the Villa Abendstern in Wadenswil, Switzerland, the real-life model for Technical Engineer Carl Tobler's splendid hilltop villa in The Assistant, has been purchased and refurbished by the publisher and Walser scholar Bernhard Echtes, and in the summer of 2004 it drew more than five hundred visitors. The fact that Walser himself was deeply antagonistic toward the whole ethos of author-as-hierophant, composing grandiloquent masterpieces with an eye firmly on his place in history, turns out, by the perverse logic of all such mythologizations, only to augment its appeal.
For the last twenty-seven years of his life, Robert Walser was an inmate in two mental hospitals. The first, where he stayed from 1929 until 1933, was in Waldau, near Bern. He had been institutionalized at his sister's urging, following a breakdown during which he suffered from a range of symptoms including auditory hallucinations, severe depression, and suicidal impulses. At the Waldau clinic he seems to have recovered his equilibrium, and within a few months he began writing again. But he showed no interest in being discharged, perhaps in part because as a patient he was guaranteed adequate food and shelter, both of which had grown increasingly uncertain in the outside world. The market for Walser's literary work had never been sufficient to sustain him financially, and by the late 1920s it had dried up almost completely.
Then, in 1933, following a re-organization of the hospital, Walser was transferred against his will from Waldau to the clinic in Herisau, where he spent the remainder of his life. Soon after his arrival there, Walser appears to have stopped writing entirely. Although rumors occasionally surface about new work from the Herisau years, no text of any substance has come to light. In spite of his initial resistance to the move, Walser accommodated himself readily enough to the new clinic, and although the more dangerous of his symptoms had long since abated, he made no attempt to be released. When asked why he no longer wrote, Walser replied, in a line that has become a touchstone of his legend, "I am not here to write, but to be mad."
Much of what we know about Walser at Herisau, including a striking series of photographs, comes from the Swiss critic and writer Carl Seelig, who began to visit him there in July 1936 and continued to do so until Walser's death. Seelig occasionally joined Walser on the long walks that constituted the writer's favorite pastime, and he collected some of their conversations into a book. In 1944, after the death of Walser's brother and sister, Seelig became his legal guardian, and tried, with limited success, to interest the literary world in the writer. He wrote about Walser and helped to arrange the reprinting of some of his work, including a five-volume selected writings, which appeared between 1953 and 1962; but for a long time, except for a few ardent admirers, these books were largely ignored. By the 1970s, however, Walser had acquired a posthumous renown. He was celebrated by an ever-growing chorus of admiring writers, philosophers, critics, film-makers, and composers. It is a trajectory that has only continued to accelerate, and for a good while now serious arguments have been made to include Walser alongside Joyce, Musil, Proust, and Kafka in the pantheon of the most significant modernist literary masters.
Literary re-evaluations on such a scale are rarely free of a certain hectoring defensiveness, and Walser's is no exception. Nothing is gained by hyperbolic pronouncements such as Michael Hofmann's claim that "if one read one 20th-century novel, there is a case to be made for it being The Assistant." Well, no, there isn't, and it is no derogation of Walser's remarkable gifts to say so. Walser's admirers tend to characterize him as, in the words of one critic, "the single most underrated writer of the twentieth century," while simultaneously insisting that his brilliance was already acknowledged by many of the canonized authors into whose company he ought to be admitted. With nearly formulaic frequency, Musil, Kafka, and Benjamin are invoked as prescient early witnesses to Walser's genius. But a closer look at their actual responses shows a far more tempered estimation.
It is hard to find a serious discussion of Walser that does not mention Musil's review of 1914, in which he directly links Walser and Kafka. In this brief piece, which also discusses works by Max Brod and Arthur Holitscher, Musil famously characterizes Kafka as "a special case of the Walser type," thereby laying down one of the central motifs of subsequent Walser criticism. But Musil had no thought of offering a definitive assessment of the two writers. Indeed, at the time such an idea would have been senseless. In 1914, Kafka was an unknown figure whose first two published books Musil had been asked to review: a collection of short pieces called Betrachtung (Meditation) and the novella-length fragment Der Heizer ("The Stoker"), salvaged from the temporarily abandoned novel project Der Verschollene, which was published posthumously, in 1927, as Amerika. Walser, on the other hand, was a well-established author with numerous publications, among which were contributions to the major German and Swiss literary journals as well as three novels: Geschwister Tanner (The Tanner Children), in 1907; Der Gehülfe (The Assistant), in 1908; and the one for which he is still best known, Jakob von Gunten, in 1909.
That Kafka himself took Walser seriously as a writer is clear, though perhaps not to the extent of looking to him as a model or a major source of influence, as is often claimed. In May 1908, Kafka gave Max Brod a copy of Jakob von Gunten, and Brod has described Kafka's pleasure in reading aloud to his friends from Walser's humorous short sketches. But in 1909 Kafka writes that though interested, he has still not read any of Walser's other books, and except for one intriguing journal entry of October 1917 in which he associates Walser with Dickens in the "blurring effect of their abstract metaphors," Kafka's diaries and voluminous correspondence make no further mention of Walser at all.
It is not particularly helpful to fortify claims for an unfairly neglected writer with a litany of eminent endorsements. A blurb is a marketing device, not an act of criticism, and too many celebrity quotes are as likely to provoke resistance as they are to arouse curiosity. It is hard to imagine, for example, who could be induced to pick up a book because of admonitory phrases such as Hermann Hesse's much-quoted encomium: "If he [Walser] had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place." It is hard even to know what that means. Walser deserves better. He is a much more interesting writer than one might guess from his legend, and his quirky power as a storyteller, the elusive interplay between the hopelessly--even abjectly--naive and the sardonically disenchanted, is utterly singular to him.
Consider the following passages, the first from Walser's text "Kleist in Thun" (1907, translated by Christopher Middleton), and the second from "Tobald (II)" (1917, translated by Susan Bernofsky):
Kleist found board and lodging in a villa near Thun.... He writes, of course. From time to time he takes the coach to Berne, meets literary friends, and reads to them whatever he has written. Naturally they praise him to the skies.... He had intended to become a farmer when he came to Switzerland. Nice idea, that. Easy to think up, in Potsdam. Poets anyway think up such things easily enough. Often he sits at the window.... Thun stands at the entrance to the Bernese Oberland and is visited every year by thousands of foreigners. I know the region a little perhaps, because I worked as a clerk in a brewery there. The region is considerably more beautiful than I have been able to describe here, the lake is twice as blue, the sky three times as beautiful. Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years ago.
The castle itself was an imposing edifice, and the many beautiful rooms and chambers I was permitted to glance into ... naturally struck my attention and interest with their aristocratic appearance ... the aristocracy dwells in inaccessible, impenetrable castles where it rules, reigns, and resides like a god, or demigod at the very least! ... [The aristocracy's] stables are full of the handsomest and fieriest steeds, its customs are traditional and highly genteel, and as for its libraries, I believe or know them to be just as bursting with deluxe editions as are its rooms and halls with luxury, elegance, and riches.... And the aristocracy's women, how is it they stand out and show themselves to advantage? ... There's not much I can say. Only that duchesses, as a rule, excel in their striking corpulence, and that baronesses are, for the most part, lovely as mild, bewildering moonlit nights. Princesses by birth are perhaps, almost without exception, more inclined to be spindly, frail, and thin that robust and wide. Countesses can be seen to smoke cigarettes and are reputedly haughty. Princes' wives, on the other hand, are gentle and modest.
"Kleist in Thun" shows Walser's mixture of passionate identification and subversive mockery at its most unsettling. He can change tones more swiftly and unexpectedly than any German writer I know, with only Musil, perhaps, as a possible rival. By comparison, Thomas Mann's shifts seem labored and over- prepared, the irony rarely breaking free of its armature of conventional high seriousness. In less than a dozen pages, "Kleist in Thun" blends elements from Walser's own life (he worked as a clerk in a Thun brewery from January until September 1899) with biographical motifs and textual echoes from two canonical German writers, Heinrich von Kleist and Georg Buchner. In 1802, Kleist briefly moved to Thun to try to recover from a profound personal and intellectual crisis, and Walser draws freely on Kleist's letters for many of the details in his story. But without any explicit sign that he is doing so, Walser abandons fidelity to Kleist's actual story and reinvents what happened to Kleist through the framework of Georg Büchner's "Lenz" (1839), itself a fictionalized retelling of a still-earlier writer's descent into madness (that of J.M.R. Lenz, in the late eighteenth-century). The effect is of one life-story embedded within or superimposed upon another, of individual identity destabilized through multiple, overlapping narratives.
The stories are linked through the motif of a failed flight into nature to restore the writer's imperiled sanity, and the fusion is all the more disconcerting because Walser makes it impossible to be sure of his own attitude toward his characters. For Walser's generation, Kleist and Büchner were archetypal rebels standing against both classicism and realism, their work a daring exploration of the radical fissure between an unknowable external reality and a shattered inner subjectivity. We know from his own letters that Walser admired both authors, and "Kleist in Thun" is usually read as though its passages of rapt identification with Kleist's mental breakdown were the whole of what the story was doing. But the tale is much less straightforward than that. Repeatedly, the prose suggests a marked distance from and irony toward Kleist's entire project in coming to Thun. ("Nice idea, that. Easy to think up, in Potsdam.") At one moment, the text enacts a seamless fusion of the three perspectives--Walser's, Kleist's, and Büchner's; at the next, the narrator's voice is clearly heard in all its skeptical differentiation.
But nothing prepares the reader for the abrupt move with which the piece ends. Suddenly we see Thun and its most famous inhabitant from the temporal distance and social position of Walser's own situation. We also hear the hyper- charged rhetoric of Kleist's lacerated Sturm und Drang consciousness undermined not--as it might in a different writer--by sophisticated ironic distancing, but rather by a kind of vulgar touristic postcard prose that is, in its own determinedly pedestrian way, every bit as eccentric as Kleist's most heated speculations. ("The lake is twice as blue, the sky three times as beautiful.") Finally the story simply trails off into inconsequential, meandering flatness ("Thun had a trade fair, I cannot say exactly but I think four years"), casually dispersing the charged emotions it had so masterfully evoked.
Readers of "Kleist in Thun" have tended to see Walser as ventriloquizing Kleist's and Buchner's voices so intensely that his identity merges into theirs. There is no doubt that many of the descriptions are pitch-perfect in this regard; but Kleist and Büchner risked everything to fashion a language purged of the literary conventions and cliched formulations of their eras, whereas Walser often makes a point of embracing the most banal, hand-me-down language. The effect is one of radical provocation, but it is much harder to decide in what cause. One might say that Walser undermines both the romantic and the prosaic stances by juxtaposing them, but even this is not adequate as a description of his technique. Strictly speaking, it is not through juxtaposition that Walser undoes both traditions, but rather through what one might call an excess of fidelity to their respective rhetorics. At such moments, it is the hidden idiocy of narrative itself, the vacuity at the heart of all description, that seems to stare out at us from his prose. He passes no judgment because the language of judgment itself comes to seem just one more formulaic--and hence ridiculous--code.
Walser's writing lets in every possible formulation from the most radically experimental to the most routinized with such casual equanimity that it can no longer be called ironic. But however one labels it, his effects are deeply mocking in a way that is not dependent on the sanction of high culture. It is not Kafka's clerks but Flaubert's copyists whom Walser brings to mind. There are times when his descriptions remind one of nothing so much as the rapt idiocy with which Bouvard and Pecuchét labor to make sense of the world by mechanically mastering its multifarious systems.
The most unsettling thing, reading Walser, is the impossibility of being able to tell whether the sudden descents into cliches and platitudes is Flaubertian deadpan mockery or the unselfconscious language of Flaubert's obtuse characters. "Tobald (II)," from which my second passage is taken, lets us see just how strange the effect can be. Superficially, Walser's story, with its forbidding castle and demanding masters, might seem reminiscent of Kafka. But nothing in Kafka prepares us for the narrator's joy in serving his superiors, or for his zeal in chronicling their qualities and traits. Like many of his writings, "Tobald (II)" draws on Walser's own life, in this case the period from October until December 1905, when he worked at Dambrau Castle in Upper Silesia after attending a school in Berlin for domestic servants. It is worth noting that he went into domestic service after having already published his first book (with the prestigious Insel Verlag, which also published Rilke and Hofmannsthal); but there is no trace of a writer's injured vanity in "Tobald (II)," no resentment at his menial position, no explicit anger at the social system in which he must dance attendance on the whims of others in order to eat.
And yet something is amiss in this apparently fascinated account of the narrator's social "betters," something too insistently familiar to be entirely convincing in the string of adjectives and adverbs with which the descriptions are overloaded. There are always a few too many of these adjectives and adverbs not to raise doubts. The servility is undone by the excess of its repeated proclamation. Whole passages seem like a parody of some lost instruction manual for the ideal servant, but it is only their misapplied earnestness and a certain slippage in the choice of words that gives one a reason to question their ostensible intention: "What is it, generally, that the aristocracy prefers to eat? This difficult and delicate question can in my opinion be most happily answered with these words: the aristocracy has a predilection for ham and eggs. It is also glad to devour and dispatch all sorts of tasty jam." Subversion has rarely been this sly.
The seemingly awestruck tone with which "Tobald (II)" talks about the aristocracy has an excess of legibility akin in effect to Warhol's silkscreen prints of soup cans, dollar bills, and celebrities. But imagine, for a moment, an artist like Warhol, an eccentric, socially clumsy figure from the provinces who arrives in New York, but after some minor initial success is not taken up by the glamorous and beautiful, or made into a cause celebre by a new generation of critics eager for heroes of their own. Instead he finds himself unable to earn a living, and he retreats back to Pittsburgh, where he lives on, emotionally troubled and critically ignored. He continues to paint for a few more years, his work there undercutting the cherished assumptions of the art world, but what he produces remains largely unseen and has no lasting resonance in the cultural establishment. His programmatic naïveté, unlike Warhol's, is never interpreted as slyly sophisticated mockery. Something like this happened to Robert Walser. His refusal to adhere to the expectations of German high culture was as thoroughgoing as that of the most radical artists, but unlike many of them Walser also rejected the compensatory sanction of revolutionary ideology. It was this double refusal that deprived him of audience and recognition, and for many decades kept him an idiosyncratic and increasingly unread outsider.
With every year since his death, the literary climate has become more propitious for Walser's canonization. The very factors that did so much to ensure his obscurity are now among the principal causes of his acclaim. The cult of high art that flourished for at least a century, from the 1860s until the 1960s, has abated, and even risks seeming somewhat dated and provincial, its limitations exposed by all that it excluded, overlooked, and scorned. Yet our skepticism barely conceals the fact that the ghost of modernist absolutism still survives as a dream we may mock but toward which we also feel a kind of nostalgic attraction. Hence, I think, the renewed interest in what one might call the deliberately minor-key masterpieces from that era--the fragmentary, unfinished, sometimes naïve or even technically clumsy works that were never taken fully into the canon when they first appeared in print. (Musil is a fascinating example of a writer who can satisfy both interests, since The Man Without Qualities is at once monumental and broken, impossibly ambitious and cripplingly aware of the folly of its own ambition.)
Absolute artists such as Mallarme and Joyce required something like an abject reader whose devotion to the masterpiece is both self-abnegating and all- consuming. Or, as Joyce said, not all that playfully, to Max Eastman, "The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." Even allowing for an element of irony, this is a demand that few contemporary readers are likely to meet. Yet there is an alternative tradition that evolved alongside such high modernist absolutism. Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience is perhaps the most compelling example of a constellation of different texts whose cagey wit, charm, and playful modesty serve as an implicit rebuke to the extravagant claims of the modernist masterpiece. Walser's writings belong firmly in this counter-tradition, and rely for many of their effects on being read against the horizon of expectations raised by deliberately monumentalizing authors such as Thomas Mann. Walser seems to have found preposterous the whole idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total and totalizing work of art in which all the chaotic raw material of quotidian experience would be incorporated, transformed and made whole again.
One way modernist writers announced the seriousness of their ambition was to imply a kind of imaginative apostolic succession in which their own work is seen as the rightful successor of the masterpieces that preceded it, and the early years of this century showed an unprecedented use of classical literature for just this purpose. From Joyce and Pound to Broch and Giraudoux, writers drew centrally on Greco-Roman narratives, both for specific thematic material and, more significantly, to provide a secure, culturally charged scaffolding for their own works. Walser, too, was tempted to offer his own take on mythical heroes, and his brief texts "Hercules," "Odysseus," and "Theseus," from 1920, are among the oddest I know. About Hercules, Walser writes (translated by Middleton):
His birth was brilliant. If I'm not mistaken he was the outcome of an illicit relationship.... The boy gave early proofs of remarkable strength. Probably he preferred sport and that sort of thing. We know nothing of his schooling. Perhaps he didn't even go to school. It seems to us that he must have assigned more value to physical than intellectual development. His education was rather patchy.
Odysseus, hero of so many high modernist masterpieces, is treated with the same sovereign deadpan tone:
Odysseus was said to be really shrewd; some people even thought him sly. In any case, he was a capable person. He earned distinction in the war by erecting a wooden horse, about which the enemy made jokes, thereby deriding, sad to say, their misfortune. With this trick Odysseus unquestionably did great service. When Hector fell and Troy went up in flames, the gentlemen could return home; they did so, probably, with broad grins, and that was fine because nobody doubts that something thoroughly pleasant always accompanies success. However, the homecoming didn't run as smoothly as they'd supposed.
A typical Walser character tends to describe himself as "a person who deems everything small and modest to be beautiful and pleasing and to whom all that is big and exacting is fearsome and horrid." Yet Walser is actually as "difficult" a writer as any of his more obviously ambitious contemporaries, although for entirely different reasons. With him, the challenge is never a question of arcane references or ambiguous syntax, but rather the impossibility of gauging the work's tone, of being confident about what attitude and point of view the text is taking toward its subject. Sometimes, especially late in his writing career, one can detect a veiled note of aggression toward the (increasingly non-existent) reader, a pre-emptive mockery of all those unaware of how much literary craft has gone into his refusal of the conventional literary tones and gestures. At least that is how I hear the opening of the 1928 sketch "Under a Lime-Tree" (awkwardly translated as "Beneath a Linden" by the usually more reliable Bernofsky):
The town was beautiful and empty. How concisely put! Can one call this literary writing?
The finer element could be found, in part, on the banks of lakes and seas, in part on mountain peaks. The railroads thrived, and while they did, people wandered through the deserted one, by which I mean a provincial town.... A provincial town can have more metropoliticality about it than a metropolis. What an essayistic sentence!
Walser tried out numerous voices in his fiction, but the one to which he kept returning was that of the Kommis, the small-time clerk struggling to maintain a precarious position and to make himself useful to his employers before being thrust back into the desperate mass of impoverished job-seekers. Walser's clerks may belong in the long line of their fictional brethren from Gogol and Dostoevsky to Kafka, but they are unmistakable originals in their attitude toward both their work and themselves. From their connoisseur's delight in the food, tobacco, and drink that is sometimes provided as part of their salary to their anxious self-questioning about their worthiness as employees, everything about them seems slightly off-key and febrile, either too manically intense or too indolently indifferent. They can veer from shameful servility to pugnacious insolence in an instant, with scarcely any motivation in the narrative. But for all their unprovoked outbursts of anger, Walser's clerks are hardly titanic figures. They are too mercurial for that, too easily appeased by a walk in the woods or a good cigar and a glass of wine. Their self- mockery never reaches a Dostoevskian pitch of self-laceration, and whenever it approaches an irreversible explosion it switches tacks entirely. No one but a Walser character could describe himself in these terms as part of a job application:
Large and difficult tasks I cannot perform, and obligations of a far-ranging sort are too strenuous for my mind. I am not particularly clever, and first and foremost I do not like to strain my intelligence overmuch. I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp. Assuredly there exists in your extensive institution, which I imagine to be overflowing with main and subsidiary functions and offices, work of the kind that one can do as in a dream?
A short piece such as "The Job Application" shows just how uncategorizable Walser's seemingly whimsical humor can be. It is impossible to read it without suspecting that the joke is less on Wenzel, the tale's unlikely job seeker, than on the social arrangement in which people are required to sell their services by sending out puffed up résumés and demeaning self-advertisements. In Rameau's Nephew, Diderot's great dialogue on the contortions forced on the poor by the need to please their employers, the parasite Jean-François Rameau cries out that "I'm perfectly ready to be abject, but not under duress." By the most unpolemical means imaginable and without any overt signs of resentment, Walser nonetheless makes us see that there is always more than enough duress to make one abject--that the human condition (need, fear, weakness, and mortality) and the human temperament (envy, indolence, and malice) are, in essence, lessons in duress. But what distinguishes both Walser and Rameau from politically minded writers is that their valet's-eye view also has no place for the idealization of one's own kind, no faith that a different class would behave otherwise. Resistance in Walser is always solitary, always a matter of simple refusal and outbursts of rudeness rather than sustained rebellion. It is Bartleby the Scrivener's "I would prefer not to" that Walser's heroes evoke more than any of the other clerks in modern writing.
None of the important figures in a Walser tale lasts more than a few months at his job. Walser himself was similarly restless, constantly changing jobs and residences. In Zurich alone, scholars have located at least seventeen different addresses for him. In his fiction, though the setting is often stable, time is a crucially disruptive force. There are relatively few temporal markers even in his longer works, but when they occur they are almost always decisive. Every situation is shot through with transience and instability. The most seemingly solid structures--the castle in "Tobald (II)," the boarding school in Jakob von Gunten, or Engineer Karl Tobler's splendid villa overlooking the lake in The Assistant--rarely shelter the Walser hero for more than a season. Time puts an end to servility and rebellion, and arrests, sometimes in mid-motion, what Diderot called the pantomime of the needy. With these stories, Walser has reconfigured the nineteenth-century flâneur from an idle dandy with aristocratic pretensions into an incompetent clerk and hapless Kommis, in principle eager to serve but in practice unable to focus on any work except "the kind that one can do as in a dream." In an epoch overripe with artists uttering their conventionally defiant Non Serviam, the figure of the writer as subversive was never presented with less self-aggrandizement or with such cunning effectiveness.
The Assistant could not have been translated into English at a more suitable moment. Although probably not Walser's best novel, it may well be his most pertinent one for contemporary readers. Assistants are the new aristocrats of the servant class, and in one form or another they have become seemingly ubiquitous. It sometimes seems that everyone is or has been an assistant. Assistant professors, assistant editors, assistant buyers, assistant managers--all are all familiar titles, and parents, too, are often made to serve as mandatory classroom assistants. And if one cannot afford to hire an actual human being, there is always the electronic PDA, or personal digital assistant. From bankable painters and musicians to businessmen and socialites, having at least one full-time assistant is virtually obligatory in order to signal membership among the elite of one's peer group.
To the old adage that no man is a hero to his valet, Hegel is supposed to have answered that this was not because the man was not a hero but because the valet was a valet. Both sentiments, though, ignore the equally prevalent instance of the valet who strongly wants to believe in his master's outstanding abilities, who longs for nothing so much as a brilliantly successful employer whose ventures all culminate in proof of his extraordinary gifts. It is, after all, considerably more gratifying to one's own vanity to be at the beck and call of a genius or hero than of a buffoon. Hence the self-protective, mutually confirming esteem of master and assistant, at least for as long as it can be sustained. Problems begin to arise less from the grudging valet's-eye view than from the collision with an external reality harsh enough to make continued idealization impossible. When the employer is revealed as a self-deluded incompetent, the assistant's position becomes correspondingly unsupportable.
That is no doubt why, last year in the TLS, Michael Greenberg described giving a young friend a copy of Walser's novel to help him cope with his job as assistant to a painter about whose work his friend couldn't help feeling ambivalent. It was an inspired choice. In The Assistant, it is not an evil employer who brings disaster to everyone in his circle, but a woefully inept one. Although he fancies himself a great inventor and frequently throws himself into his work in bouts of frenetic industriousness, Engineer Karl Tobler is actually another kind of fantasist, a man whose beclouded sense of reality is not all that dissimilar from Wenzel's, the clerk of "The Job Application."
The novel is narrated in the third person, but we experience the ruin of the Tobler household entirely through the eyes of the inventor's newly hired assistant, Joseph Marti (the maiden name of Walser's mother). Long stretches are presented simply as Marti's inner thoughts. At first Marti chastises himself for enjoying his employer's generous provisions of food and drink without dedicating himself sufficiently to Tobler's needs:
But what is it that I am giving in return for these things? Is it something real, something of substance, that I am able to offer? Am I intelligent, and am I truly offering up the full measure of my intelligence? What services have I provided to Herr Tobler to date? With all due consideration, I am firmly convinced that my lord and master hasn't yet derived much benefit from me. Could I be lacking initiative, enthusiasm, flair?... Tobler's enterprises require the most passionate engagement.... The fate of the Advertising Clock, for example--has it truly taken hold of all the fibers of my being? Am I consumed by it?
There is no indication whatsoever that any of this is ironic, and yet the language is Walser's characteristic mockery by excessive fidelity to the platitudes with which the Employment Referral Office sends its recruits into the world. The technique is reminiscent of "Tobald (II)" with its parody of the faithful servant's attitude. What makes this passage even more problematic, though, is that we quickly deduce that no amount of "passionate engagement" could be of any help. The only possible fate of the Advertising Clock, as of all Tobler's inventions, is a speedy demise the moment the money he inherited and uses to fund his schemes has run out. Unsurprisingly, no investors come forward to finance putting Tobler's contraptions into production, and with every day Tobler sinks further toward the inevitable bankruptcy. Marti's real work consists of writing letters to keep creditors at bay, and sending out futile solicitations for customers and potential patrons. Mostly, he smokes Tobler's cheroots, keeps Frau Tobler and her children company, and daydreams about the tasks he thinks he should be accomplishing.
Tobler's inventions--which include the Advertising Clock, the Marksman's Vending Machine (a particularly bizarre device which, instead of the usual "little slab of chocolate, peppermint or the like," spits out "a pack of live ammunition"), the Invalid Chair, and the Deep-Hole Drilling Machine--all belong in a comic film about mad but harmless scientists. But here their effects are anything but comic. Along with Marti, we witness the rapidly accelerating decline of the Tobler family from the height of prosperity at the book's opening to debt-ridden penury at its close. In the novel, the ultimate ruin, though imminent, is never directly narrated, since it will occur shortly after Marti quits his job (which is by now unpaid) and begins his wandering again.
In real life, Carl Dubler, the inventor for whom Walser worked in 1903, suffered an even grimmer fate than Tobler. Bernhard Echte, the purchaser of Dubler's villa, tells how four weeks after Walser left his employ Dubler was declared bankrupt, his house was sold off, the couple divorced, and the children were taken in by an orphanage. By deliberately confining itself to Marti's perspective, Walser's novel avoids the drama of a final reckoning, and instead ends on an oddly idyllic moment, in which Marti and Wirsich, his predecessor as Tobler's assistant who had been fired for congenital drunkenness, head out together into a miraculously peaceful landscape and unspecified future. Nothing was learned in this apprenticeship except that good intentions, vaunting ambitions, or idle dreams stand an equal chance of coming to ruin. The industriousness, the instrumental reasoning, and the bourgeois self-reliance so highly valued by Walser's countrymen seem not so much mocked as emptied of all meaning. And since those same values also underlie both the logic and ethos of the Bildungsroman, the novel form that traces the education and moral growth of its protagonist, it too is implicitly dismissed, its perspective shown as unworthy of being taken seriously.
Still, any straightforward description of its plot risks making the novel sound far more unified than it is. In the afterword to her fine translation, Susan Bernofsky mentions Walser's claim to have written the book in six weeks as an entry for a competition sponsored by the Scherl publishing house. Since the manuscript was accompanied by a letter demanding an 8,000-mark advance, it was immediately rejected, although Bruno Cassirer, who had published earlier work by Walser, accepted it shortly thereafter. The resulting text is radically uneven and digressive, and contains whole episodes inserted without any concern for either tonal or narrative coherence. The wrenching scenes of mistreatment to which Tobler's daughter Silvi is subjected by the maid, with the tacit consent and sometimes even participation of the child's mother, who is otherwise portrayed with a great deal of sympathy and understanding, seem to have been inserted from a different book altogether. There are sudden inexplicable direct addresses by the third-person narrator to one of the characters or to the reader over the heads of all the characters, as well as frequent abrupt changes of vocabulary and tone by both the narrator and the characters. The language moves inexplicably from traditional literary High German to locutions in Schwitzerdeutsch that are incomprehensible to German readers. Even the title is clearly marked as Swiss, since the German word for an assistant is Gehilfe. A native German speaker would need a moment or two for the mental transposition required to make sense of Der Gehülfe as anything other than a misprint. Yet the currency used throughout the novel is, as Bernofsky also notes, the German mark rather than the Swiss franc.
I am not at all certain, though, that the issue is merely one of haste in the writing. Had Walser worked on the manuscript longer, it is unlikely that he would have bothered to integrate the disparate elements. Traditional novelistic coherence was never something that he prized. Instead The Assistant seems to be reaching toward a form that one might call, paradoxically, the stationary picaresque, framed at either end by the arrival and the departure of its protagonist, whose sensibility provides the link connecting a set of disparate scenes. We are ready to follow the character's experiences and observations in part because of the textual heterogeneity and rapid tonal swings that make the figure as inexplicable to us as he is to himself.
It is hard, though, to reshape the novel form on the run. In the end, for all its inspired passages, the book's frequently unmotivated shifts in style and lexical register, inconsistencies in narrative structure, and meandering digressions risk wearying the reader, not least because it is maddeningly difficult to separate the moments of form-mocking innovation from the suspicion of technical indifference and clumsiness. Walser himself seems to have worried that the novel never really suited him as well as more compact forms such as the short narrative and impressionistic sketch. In those smaller genres, he could set loose a faux naivete that teases the reader with the suspicion that the writing might really be as clunky and maladroit as it sounds, only to have the very next paragraph make that suspicion itself the object of its subtly poised irony. There is no dialectic in the dizzying back-and-forth of Walser's texts, no resolution of the inner contradictions. On the contrary, the tonal unresolvability of his writing only increased throughout his career. In his refusal to provide either syntheses or guidelines, and in the sheer, perverse pleasure in the uncertainty that he has sown, Walser succeeded in pushing the whole idea of a writerly text into a radically new direction.
"Can one call this literary writing?" he asked in "Under a Lime-Tree." Not always. But that is precisely one of the strengths of his prose. In the end, Walser's indifference to the literary assumptions and strategies that even the most experimental of his great contemporaries accepted helped him to attain something just as elusive and difficult as their modernist masterpieces: a body of work whose utter strangeness and originality, of purpose and of design, sounds like no one but him. A single page of Walser, taken from anywhere in his work, is instantly recognizable as his. And that, surely, is the one reliable sign of a writer who continues to matter.
Michael Andre Bernstein teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author, most recently, of Conspirators: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).