Saturday, April 30, 2011

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Robert Walser

Robert Walser, The Assistant
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
Penguin, 2007

“Wherever there are children there will be injustice,” writes Robert Walser, who was himself one of eight. For me, the most powerful part of The Assistant is the way Walser delineates the status of the four children in the house where the protagonist, Joseph Marti, has gone to work as the assistant to a doomed inventor.

Boys are always ranked higher than girls. Silvi, the less charming and pretty of the daughters, is tyrannized and reprimanded in a way that makes her even more peevish. Marti attempts to intervene, and accomplishes nothing, and the reader seethes along with him – at least until the next scene floats along, in the peculiar and addictive day-dreaming style of Robert Walser.

Like much of Walser’s writing, The Assistant spends a lot of time contemplating the varieties of failure. Failure is shown to be ordinary and grinding, but it can also be seen – at least while it is still underway and not yet complete – as a peculiar kind of luck.

Joseph Marti is offended when he is told he has been “a little neglected by life” – and yet much of the beauty he so abundantly perceives seems inseparable from his status as a person overlooked and left out. What important person would ever have the time or impetus to wander as Marti does, both in nature and in the mind?

When Marti’s pretentious boss, a masterpiece of bluster, has fallen apart, his unimportant and unattached assistant is free and unharmed, no worse off than he had been before, with “genuine faith in my little bit of strength.”

In my opinion, readers new to Walser should start with one of the volumes of short fiction, followed by Walser’s first novel, The Tanners, but The Assistant, too, is well worth reading, full of the pleasure in so many small, real, passing things. It is a good and quiet book, which follows the parting advice of the lady of the house: “Always be a little humble, but not too much.”

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