The Assistant by Robert Walser 1 Comment

The Assistant by Robert Walser

Robert Walser, a Swiss-German writer from the Modernist period, is something of an enigma. Initially prolific, his work was readily published before World War I and it is even said that Kafka would read aloud Walser’s stories to his friends. He faded rapidly into obscurity after this, passing from writing stories and novels to micrograms (short texts written in minute print on tiny cards, and in pencil, so as to be even closer to disappearing) before checking himself into a mental asylum high in the Swiss alps in 1929. Apparently, the last thing he wrote, upon his entry into the asylum was “I’m not here to write, but to go crazy.” And so he never write again, and on Christmas day in 1956 he went for a walk in the snow, where he was later found, dead.

The Assistant is an odd little novel, a piece from early on in Walser’s ouevre. The protagonist is an assistant to an inventor, a gentleman from rural Switzerland whose machinations never quite work out. The book is essentially composed of the impressions of the Assistant as he flits through his own life, failing to engage with it but observing the lives of others with addled detachment. We can see here Walser’s protagonist as a precursor to some of Kafka’s main actors, and there are even links to Watt, Molloy or Malone from the novels of Samuel Beckett. The prose is characterised by a frivolous veneer that attempts to screen the bewilderment and even terror occasioned by the onset of modernity, and colour is used throughout the novel as an important descriptor of mood and place.

Walser’s work has only increased in stature since it was re-discovered in the 1970’s, after being championed by critics such as Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, and celebrated by important German-language writers such as W.G. Sebald and Peter Handke. This edition is a new translation from Susan Bernofsky, and aside from a few typographical errors serves as a good introduction into the work of a fascinating writer.

Robert Walser, The Assistant, 1908. (trans. Susan Bernofsky, Penguin 2007)

  • Sam

    I realise I’m commenting my own review here, but this month New York publisher New Directions, who do some fantastic fantastic work, are publishing The Microscripts by Robert Walser.

    These are from much later in Walser’s career, where his sanity was a lot more dubious. The book is a reproduction of the short stories and vignettes that Walser would write in miniscule lettering on scraps of paper, sometimes as small as business cards. He would write them in pencil, to bring them one degree closer to “vanishing…”

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