“The Assistant” Book Club Discussion

By The Editors

Post your thoughts on Walser or The Assistant below. Comments are moderated, and will appear after a very short delay, so avoid posting twice if you notice that your post doesn't appear immediately.

Have a thought but need a prompt to put it into words? Take a look at our discussion questions:

—Some reviewers see Tobler as a villain, but Marti seems to view him with sympathy and affection as well as fear. What are we supposed to think of Tobler?

—Compared with Walser works previously available in English, The Assistant is arguably the most conventional. Sam Jones drew comparisons with contemporary works by Mann and Hamsun. What other possible influences do you see in The Assistant?

—In some ways The Assistant is a puzzling sort of bildungsroman, or novel of a young man's progress to adulthood. Instead of instruction in responsibility and morality, 23-year-old Marti finds an adult world of deception, humiliation, and failure. In what other ways does The Assistant confound expectations?

—Starting on page 94, a scene from Marti's childhood "appears before him with great vividness." What's happening in this scene, and how might it help explain Marti's relationship with Frau Tobler?



I’m so glad to see this list of influences. I don’t recall where I read it, but I know Walser liked the Swiss novelist Jeremias Gotthelf and his “Black Spider” (NYRB may commission a new translation of this wonderful book). I heard from a reliable source (Susan Bernofsky!) that Walser admired Stendahl and loved Flaubert. I’m actually reading “Madame Bovary” and “The Assistant” simultaneously.
COMMENT: I don’t know the “Black Spider” connection Will, but I do know that Walser mentions Gotthelf in his conversations with Seelig.

Re Flaubert, I read chapter 2 of Bovary recently as part of the preposterous homework I did for writing my intro, can’t remember why.  Makes sense that Walser loved him though.


Stendhal is an interesting point of comparison in relation to The Assistant.  V.S. Pritchett claimed that no one had surpassed him in his portraits of young men.  “No one has so defined and botanized the fervor, uncertainty, conceit, timidity, and single-mindedness of young men, their dash, their shames, their passion for tactics and gesture.”
COMMENT: I found the reference to Gotthelf on Sam’s site. It comes from Carl Seelig’s memoir:




Favorite line from “The Assistant” so far: “‘Must I be drubbed with humiliations before I can take true pleasure in God’s world?’”
COMMENT: Sam, on the page of Seelig’s memoir you link to, I love Walser’s quote, “Peter Altenberg: A nice, little Vienna sausage.”


I think Walser’s fans would also enjoy Altenberg:




I now realize the “Black Spider” connection is my own invention. I think, though, if the passage Walser quotes means “The pastor’s sermons send a chill down my spine” he was probably referring to this work—“The Black Spider” seems to be unique in Gotthelf’s oeuvre.


This page mentions that Reverend Gotthelf “understood his writings as continuing cure of souls with other means”:




In the case of “The Black Spider,” the “other means” would be psychological terror.


Here’s a link to Gotthelf’s wikipedia page:
COMMENT: “Must I be drubbed with humiliations before I can take true pleasure in God’s world?”


Ah yes, the “black wave” scene, where he gets caught faking the ability to do currency conversions gets “a proper dressing down” from the factory supervisor.


“Oh then, what a thunderous heart-pounding he had felt. It was as if a black wave were devouring his entire being. His own soul, which had always appeared to him anything but wicked, was now constricting him on all sides. He was trembling so violently that the numbers he was writing came out looking monstrously unfamiliar, distorted and huge. But an hour later he was again in such good spirits. He strolled to the
post office, it was lovely weather, and walking along like that, he had the sudden impression that everything was kissing him. The small, sweet leaves all seemed to be fluttering toward him in a caressing, colorful drove. The people walking by, all of them perfectly ordinary, looked so beautiful he would have liked to fling his arms around them. He peered contentedly into all the gardens, and up at the open sky. The fresh white clouds were so beautiful and pure. And then the lush, sweet blue. Joseph hadn’t forgotten the unpleasantness that had just transpired, he carried it with him, still with a sense of shame, but it had been transformed into something both carefree and wretched, both unchanging and touched by fate. He was still trembling a little and thought: “Must I be drubbed with humiliations before I can take true pleasure in God’s world?”


That’s one of my favorites too - this is actually a nice slice of realism worthy of either Stendhal or Flaubert.  Although Stendhal’s Sorel, unlike Walser’s Marti, would have faulted himself for being so cowed by the supervisor.


“Comment tuer cette sensibilité si humiliante?”


Sorel is like a Marti with aspirations.  Although he’s young, Marti seems already reconciled to the fact that life is basically futile, and that the best we can do is snatch some comfort here and there from home, family, nature, etc.  That’s how he seems to me, anyhow.
COMMENT: Michael Andre Bernstein quotes Kafka in his review of The Assistant as likening Walser to Dickens in the “blurring effect of their abstract metaphors.” I won’t go out on a limb and agree with him outright, but the quote did rouse my interest in the weird similarity between the protagonist in “Das Kind” and Dickens’s Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. Sam or anyone else have any thoughts on this?
COMMENT: Bernstein’s piece is excellent, isn’t it?  (It’s in the June 11 issue of The New Republic. Online for subscribers only, sadly.)  I liked the comparison to Warhol.


Das Kind?  Most English readers aren’t familiar with that story since it appeared only once in English, in 1984 in a journal called “Comparative Criticism,” and has never appeared since.  For all its obscurity, it includes a line that is often cited by those who write about Walser:  “Nobody is entitled to treat me as if he knew me.”


Anyhow, re Skimpole - he was based on Leigh Hunt, no?  There was a bio of Hunt a few years ago that seemed worth reading, although I haven’t. 


Perhaps I’m not giving him enough credit, but it seems to me that Skimpole’s “I am a child” act was just a strategy to avoid adult responsibilities, namely, paying for stuff.  (“‘My amiable friend,’ said I, ‘I never have any money.  I don’t understand anything about money.’”)  And of course, Skimpole prove to be a villain in the end.  Walser’s character has little in common with that.  Although he describes himself as “a bad person,” his only fault seems to be that he’s impolite and says provocative things.
COMMENT: “No one has so defined and botanized the fervor, uncertainty, conceit, timidity, and single-mindedness of young men, their dash, their shames, their passion for tactics and gesture.”


Hunger by Knut Hamsun comes to mind, the heroes of Hunger and Mysteries, and the two main characters of his later book Wayfarers (Landstrykere). I see Hamsun was already mentioned earlier here, but I’ve never read Stendhal.


“23-year-old Marti finds an adult world of deception, humiliation, and failure. In what other ways does The Assistant confound expectations?”


My expectations were definitely confounded when I finished the first sentence about how the young daughter was unloved.  It seemed shocking or even transgressive.  A young child, unloved or detested, seems like a taboo I’ve never seen violated, not even in Naked Lunch or Robert Desnos’s Liberte Ou L’Amour.  And it was so blunt.


‘his only fault seems to be that he’s impolite and says provocative things’.  That is so well put that it makes me laugh.


For the love of god I hope Walser’s manuscript for his “Asian adventure” novel is recovered.  If an entire concert recording of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall in 1957 can be discovered and released in 2005, then there’s still hope!
COMMENT: A little off topic, but still Walser related. Does anyone know, (perhaps Susan Bernofsky herself may answer, if she looks in here), if Susans’ translation of “The Tanner Siblings” will include the “outtakes”, i.e. the pieces edited out of the published novel, which were included as an appendix, I believe, in later German editions, that would be good, too good a chance to miss I feel, given that good translations of Walser into English are rare.
COMMENT: Yes, Dali - Re the young daughter, I was struck by the line, “Wherever there are children, there will always be injustice.”


That line strikes a note we hear often in Walser’s works - a bleak attitude toward human nature and human fate that lies just below the surface of even his sunniest pieces.  I think of the line from Frau Wilke (ok, not a sunny piece at all):


“At least we should learn to understand our fellow beings, for we are powerless to stop their misery, their ignominy, their suffering, their weakness, and their death.” 


Does ignominy - that is, a deep disgrace typically prompted by one’s own dishonorable actions - really belong in this list of universal human afflictions?


Anyhow, despair (if that’s the right word) in the works of Robert Walser sounds like a good subject for a paper. 


James, that’s a great question.  She did provide the original ending to The Assistant in the afterword to the new edition, as you know, so perhaps she’ll provide the missing pieces from Tanner too.  I know Walser told his friend Seelig, “Cassirer cut some sections he found too boring.”
COMMENT: Cassirer being the original publisher, of course.
COMMENT: Cassirer didn’t like the book at all, it was apparently the enthusiasm of Christian Morgenstern, who had read the manuscript that influenced him to publish it.
The still extant, (some are lost), sections that had been edited out, were included in vol 4 of Das Gesamtwerk and not in later editions of the book as I erroneously stated above.
COMMENT: I reviewed this book on my website and enjoyed it greatly.




Thanks to Words Without Borders for reminding me about this title
COMMENT: Thanks, Tom - excellent review!  I hadn’t really thought about the theme of “the transformational power of technology” in the book, but it reminds me that the lyrical tributes to technology and business in this book are quite at odds with Walser of “The Walk,” who calls money “the vilest and most detestable thing on earth,” deplores the automobile, and is offended by the ostentatious gold lettering on a bakeshop.
COMMENT: In his review Tom alludes to what I regard as one of the most impressive aspects of this novel which is the utterly convincing way it deals with the implacable expectations and assumptions of Marti and Tobler. Carl Tobler has a moneyed background, therefore he should be able to live as he has always done even if he has squandered his money (and how dare a gardener look for the money due to him even if he has, as we might assume, a family to feed). For Joseph Marti on the other hand, his whole life has led him to understand that he can never expect to partake of the fullest pleasures of life, “For it was inevitable that something a person was fond of, something he felt bound and conjoined to, would cause him distress as well: he would have to struggle with it”.
  His occasional acts of defiance send him into paroxysms of regret but he remains a resilient character, not yet ready to succumb to the despair of the unfortunate Wirsich; though his kindness and empathy towards his friend indicate that he knows that such a fate might one day be his. He has a great degree of self-knowledge and even an ironic understanding of his fate as he shows in his letter to his father when he says, “I am convinced that I am a bad son, but I am equally convinced that I would be the most outstanding of sons if there were any point to writing letters with nothing joyful to report”.Robert Walser may not have had a great deal of joy to report but I am very glad that he realised that there was a point in writing.
COMMENT: Hello, does an english translation exist from ‘Brief eines Mannes an einen Mann’ (something like: ‘Letter from a man to a man’) from the book Aufsätze (ca. ‘Essays’) published by Suhrkamp in 1985 and originally by Kurt Wolff Verlag, Leipzig in 1913.
Thanks a lot! best Jean
DATE: 02/28/2009 4:17:52 PM

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