Outside, everything lay beneath an opaque fog. How beautiful it was that one couldn’t see anything at all.”
It’s a world that opens like so many others – with the pressing of a doorbell. Joseph, the newly hired assistant has arrived “from the lower depths of society, from the shadowy, barren, still crannies of the metropolis” to work for Herr Tobler, a bourgeois businessman whose unrealistic expectations for his own inventions and ineptitude at business are painfully clear to the reader from the outset. As Joseph unpacks the sum of his worldly possessions, one item stands out, a ball made of “old threads, bits of string, neckties, buttons, needles and scraps of torn linen.”
Hapless Joseph thinks and speaks in a language that is pompous, comic, and oddly quaint. Joseph, however, is not a simple character but an extremely complex one, capable of great flights of imagination and moments of pure paranoia, and Walser lets us skate across his consciousness like a stone skipping across the surface of a deep lake. He views himself oddly from the exterior. “He and his entire person appeared to constitute merely a sort of frill, an ephemeral appendage, a knot tied for the nonce…” Affecting a cheery ordinariness, Joseph is delighted in his own modest homilies and observations, and he’s a clear descendant of so many of Flaubert’s characters and a precursor to those of Svevo and Musil. “I merely wish to do my best to shed some light on the question of what is going on with my person and with the particular zone of the world charged with the task of enduring my presence,” Joseph muses.
But as much as he likes to occasionally dabble in philosophy, Joseph’s abiding strength is his ability to remain ordinary, to avoid conflict – to survive as an assistant, not an instigator. He longs for “a single, general thought [that would] suffice to keep one’s life progressing along a good smooth path.” In a way, Joseph finds this law – or, if not a law, at least a passable parable for life – when he is sent to jail for two days for missing his compulsory military service. There, he and his fellow prisoners gleefully pass the time in a game called Slap the Ham, in which one prisoner is sequentially slapped on the buttocks by his compatriots until he can successfully guess which one was responsible for the last slap, at which time the prisoner who is outed becomes the next ham. The hours pass quickly in this fashion.
Walser is especially astute about the self-deception of bourgeois logic, which can so easily fall into “the illusion of the extraordinary.” Frau Tobler, for example, “had no eye for color or anything of the sort, she knew nothing of the laws of beauty, but precisely for this reason she was able to feel what was beautiful.” As the Toblers sink further into debt they manage to convince themselves they are entitled to live life even more extravagantly than before.
Amazingly translated into English for the first time only last year, Robert Walser’s 1908 novel The Assistant is quaintly ahistoric, as if the reader has entered a world completely contained within a snow globe. W.G. Sebald admired Walser for obvious reasons, starting with the role that nature plays in Walser’s world. Joseph flees into nature whenever the social world become too puzzling. Nature is a place of memory and boundless imaginative possibilities. “Earth was subject to beautiful, rigorous laws.” But I really think it was the endless odd, delightful details in Walser that Sebald admired, the ball made of “old threads, bits of string, neckties, buttons, needles and scraps of torn linen.”
Walser spent the last two and a half decades of his life in mental institutions. In the All-estero section of Vertigo, when Sebald visits his friend the schizophrenic Austrian poet Ernst Herbeck in a mental hospital, the image that stands in for Herbeck is most likely a cropped portrait of Walser.