I have read two excellent books in the past week. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (I’m still gathering my thoughts on this one) and The Assistant by the Swiss author Robert Walser. I picked up The Assistant thinking I recognised it from the Guardian newspaper’s 1000 novels everybody should read list. As it turns out it doesn’t feature on that list although another of Walser’s books Institute Benjamenta does.
The assistant is Joseph Marti, a 24 year old assigned by the employment bureau to work as clerk to the inventor Carl Tobler. The book opens as Marti arrives at the Evening Star, the apparently grand house of his new employer to take up his live in post. It is the early 1900’s in Switzerland.
The story focuses on Marti’s position within the Tobler household and his assessment of that position. A sensitive and introspective character, Marti is compared to his predecessor and feels he comes up short. It is important to him to provide value, he doesn’t feel worthy of the roof over his head, the abundant food and unlimited supply of cigars. He has come from a background of lack and the threat of having to return to that way of life lurks constantly throughout the book. His employer is unpredictable and a rather harsh task master. As it becomes apparent that his numerous inventions are not going to secure financial backing, denial sets in and disaster looms.
I found Joseph to be an honest and endearing character. His musings, his desire to find the good in every situation, his lack of confidence on the one hand and his boldness on the other and his ability to find the beauty in simple things I found appealing.
If I had been reading this as a pure piece of fiction I think the narrative style could have been quite offputting especially at the beginning.The writing is formal and the authors voice through his character and sometimes directly is prominent. There is some humour to lighten the tone though and taking into consideration the time period it was written in and knowing it has a strong autobiographical content, it for me was a fascinating insight into a different era and an author I would like to read more of and about.
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
304 pages, 1908 (Penguin modern classic 2008)