Robert Walser’s The Assistant and The Tanners

The Assistant by Robert Walser

In 1905 the Swiss-German writer Robert Walser left his own country and moved to Berlin to start a literary career. By 1907, he was already at work on his second novel (and his third book to be published), called The Assistant. He must have been full of hope and ambition. But literature turned out to be a sort of via crucia for Walser. He remained in poverty and near-obscurity, despite writing some of the most extraordinary fiction of the last hundred years. As time passed, his talent became ever more productive even as the number of his readers dwindled and the circle of newspapers, magazines and book publishers willing to publish his work gradually contracted until it closed down altogether. He spent the last 26 years of his life in a mental asylum although there are grounds for believing he was never really mentally ill, more in need of care and shelter when he entered the asylum voluntarily in 1929.

 The Assistant was the novel in which Walser found his voice as a writer. Since he was basically a monologist who often used the “I” form, and a first-person writer even when he wrote in the third person, finding his voice meant creating a full-fledged fictional persona, an alter ego on the page. Joseph Marti- Marti was the maiden name of Walser’s mother- is the protagonist of The Assistant. Together with the clearly autobiographical narrator of Walser’s first novel, The Tanner Sisters, Marti forms a composite ur-protagonist for all of Walser’s subsequent fiction. One way to read Walser’s work is as a series of variations on or evolutions of the Tanner/Marti character who starts out as a youth without ties or responsibilities living with his sister in The Tanners, then becomes The Assistant, and ends up 20 years later as The Robber.

 Who is Joseph Marti? He’s a young man, in his mid-twenties, single, trying to find his way in the world, like Walser himself at the time. From this description, you might expect Joseph to be fairly footlose and fancy free as young men are supposed to be, but you’d be wrong. For one thing, sex-romance- doesn’t seem to feature in his life at all and hardly at all in his imaginings, which makes him an unusual 20-something. For another, we learn from a woman friend (and she is a friend not a girlfriend) that a few years ago, when Joseph was “scarcely 20 years old”, he was more like one of the crowd: passionate, a bit of a rebel, a fervent believer in socialism like everyone else in their bohemian circle, someone who enjoyed sitting up half the night talking and drinking wine. They’ve all changed since those days, started to become “proper human beings”- their phrase for coming to terms with and accepting the limitations of life. But Jospeh has been left behind. When the novel opens, he is poor almost to the point of being down and out, and we understand this external poverty symbolises a gap or a lack in his character. “Life has neglected you a little” his woman friend tells him, but at the same time she’s too honest not to notice that “life” has taken its cue from Joseph himself. “One feels surprised at how little you have changed, how wonderfully you’ve managed to remain just the same as ever.”

Only it’s not so wonderful. Not to change, to be unable to change, particularly when you’re in your twenties, suggests someone stuck in life. Joseph knows this about himself: he takes exception to his friend’s remark and they part “coldly”. He is trying to grow up. He constantly monitors himself and criticises himself for his “indolence”, his dreaminess, his nerves. In the novel’s opening scene, when his gruff new employer asks him if he’s hungry, Joseph “replied imperturbably that he was. He immediately felt surprised by the serenity of his response. “As recently as half a year ago,” he thought quickly, “the formidableness of such a query would have made me shake in my boots, no doubt about it!”.

 We’re starting to get a different picture of Joseph from the external one of the innocent, slightly shiftless young man. The inner Joseph, it seems, is overly sensitive, highly nervous, timid, undeveloped for his age. But the childish qualities that retard his development have also preserved a child- like purity of heart and vision in him. They’ve made Joseph into sensitive recording machine who sees and registers everything, from the minute seasonal variations in the natural world to the nuances of human behaviour and the society he lives in. Joseph is the only character in the novel who crosses all social boundaries from sharing a park bench with a destitute young migrant to trying to rescue Wirisch, the hopeless drunk who had Joseph’s job before him, to mixing with the pompous bourgeoisie. At the same time, Joseph’s own strategy for dealing with the harsh impressions and clashing egos that make up the adult world is to try to avoid it altogether. To opt out. Or to drop out, as they said in the 1960s.

 Joseph himself has had a bourgeois upbringing, but he’s on the way down the social and economic escalator. He’s been unemployed for a long time and the job he finally lands, as the live-in assistant to an inventor and would-be entrepreneur, may officially be a job as a clerk or business “assistant” but his real role is as a domestic servant with a desk. Walser makes it clear that being declassed in this way is Joseph’s own choice. It’s a choice his character impells him to make. He’s modest and self-effacing to the point of pathology. He gets his satisfaction from repressing his own desires, even erasing his entire personality, in order to serve others.

 For the novelist, a character like Joseph performs two key functions. First, he serves Walser’s broader subject, which is nothing less than the advent of the modern world. Walser is a Modernist, meaning he lived and wrote at the time when people were starting to realise there’d been a sea change in human history-the greatest change since the coming of agriculture. The Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution meant that human beings were now living in a technological-industrial society, for the first time ever. A tremendous change. Tremendous impact on people’s sensibilities. Moreover, the delivery system for this new world, its social placenta, if you like, was capitalism. Whether capitalism is ineluctable or would one day be overthrown as Marx and the socialists- the same socialists Joseph once admired- argued that it should and could be is a different story. For the time being, everyone, at least everyone in the Western world, inhabited a bourgeois society, which was also a money society. 

 The hero of the novel Walser wrote after he finished The Assistant, is named Jakob von Gruten. He’s another ‘J’ character, he has a lot in common with Joseph Marti, although he’s evolved somewhat. Jakob has much the same outsider position in society that Joseph does, except that Jakob is only in his late teens. He’s a pupil at a strange school that trains boys to be a servants rather than already working as a servant/assistant like Joseph. At one point, Jakob tells his Roman History teacher, “for some time past the world has been revolving around money, not around history. All the ancient heroic virtues you unpack have lost their importance long ago.” He tells his Scripture teacher too, “you only waste time teaching scripture. Religion, you see, means nothing today.”

 Things are not so different in our own time, almost a century after Walser wrote. Religion may have made its peace with capitalism in America, at the price of some lurid cultural contortions- otherwise it’s pretty much the same. If you had to choose a character least likely to succeed in the bourgeois commercial world or “the free market”, it would be still someone like Joseph Marti. You don’t find too many Josephs among the top Wall Street bankers of Silicion Valley entrepreneurs. Yet the very character that disqualifies him Joseph from bourgeois success makes him the ideal observer of bourgeois society as well as a human standard against which to judge it. He’s the ideal observer because he’s an outsider and his continual attempts to adjust to bourgeois life, to enter the rat race, are so ludicrously inept they only expose society’s cruelties and distortions and injustices. At the same time, Joseph represents a standard against which to judge those same cruelties, distortions and injustices because he’s kept his purity of heart. His character flaws, the traits that have stopped him growing up, have protected this one precious gift of character that we’re all born with but lose as Wordsworth’s “shades of the prison house” close around the growing child.

Joseph’s heart still vibrates to the “ancient heroic virtues” because its still beats according to the rhythm of universal human sympathies and high ideals that have no place in the world of commodities and exchange values. Of course, things are not so simple as this. Walser is much too subtle and profound an artist to put his finger in the scale. He knows the past had its own problems, whether it was ancient Rome with those heroic virtues or the more recent (in Walser’s time) Romanticism with its would-be heroic emotions- or indeed the ages between those two, which produced their own cultural forms like medieval chivalry and classic fairy tales.

 Walser also knows that the past is past and there’s a thin dividing line between summoning it to critique the present and falling into nostalgia and daydreaming. An episode in The Assistant dramatizes exactly this point, when Joseph goes for a walk in the country and finds a wooded ravine, “a lovely appropriate setting for a romantic tale”. First, he imagines what it would have been like to live in the Middle Ages rather than the industrial age, asking himself “what did technical enterprises have in common with green wooded ravines, white steeds, noble dear female figures and courageous exploits?” Then, when he realises that’s a dead end, he imagines himself back in childhood when he played in a simlar bucolic spot, his mother was there, and everything was peaceful and full of love. Finally, he tells himself sternly “it is an unforgiveable sin to go on daydreaming when once has left one’s twenty third year”.

There are a lot of these moments in Walser, moments that mix references to fairy tales and medieval romances with the Romantic movement’s penchant for innocent child heroes, vagabonds, wanderings through nature, the joys of the natural world etc. etc. Apart from reporting a personal trait probably shared by their author, these scenes are about are nothing less than Walser critically reconsidering the whole of Western culture and its German division in particular. Walser isn’t an academic: he’s not going to produce some long academic treatise on the subject. He’s working with all the economy and allusive methods of the creative artist. But because he’s not phrasing his arguments in discursive, logical form shouldn’t blind us to the fact that there’s some deep thinking going on. The deepest, in fact.

What has been lost from the world now that those romances and fairy stories and their heroes are no longer living creations but have become, as Joseph realises, nostalgic traps, drugs for the daydreamer? To what extent was the culture that gave rise to those stories flawed in the first place? What about the values that were represented by traditional or Romantic heroes, values that we still incubate among children, who continue to read this kind of story, but that have no real outlet under modern conditions? If would-be heroes nowadays turn out to be rather neurotic, pathetic individuals like Joseph Mastri, isn’t this because the very conditions for heroism no longer exist? And how can we get them back when even thinking about such things leads to a kind of illegitimate wool-gathering, or worse?

 These weren’t mere academic questions in Germany at the time Walser wrote. As we know with the benefit of hindsight, they carried grave political implications. Pseudo-medievalism, even in the hands of a genius like Wagner, together with bland, moralised artworks that harked back to a rural idyll, to the myth of a Germany “before there were problems”, were both hallmarks of the German Righ. Conservatives condemned modernist culture, especially during the Weimar years, and looked forward to the resurgence of a morally and racially purified Reich. On the face of it, you’d be hard put to find a more apolitical writer than Walser (although there are some hints to the contrary, like his confident use of the political murder of democratic leader Walter Rathenau as a motif in The Robber). By and large Walser didn’t deal with contemporary politics or world events in his work. But he was a deep miner both politically and culturally. Indeed, it would be fair to say we still haven’t come to terms with the analysis he made.

The other function Joseph Mastri performs for his creator goes more to the nature of literature itself, and we’ll come back to it later. For the time being, it’s enough to note that Joseph Mastri belongs among the new type of hero. This is the early 1900s, remember, before people had got used to anti-heroes, heroes who are rebels or criminals, heroes who are madmen, comic heroes, comic-book heroes, and so on. Joseph Mastri is one of the new heroes who are “ little men” rather than great romantic or tragic figures.  In the 19th century, the archetypal little man was the clerk. With the coming of modern bureacratised and industrialised society, the first thing you need to operate such a society is an army of clerks. Later on, you get a proletariat, you have the feminization of office work, later still there’s automation, but to start with, the new class are the clerks. In Gogol, in Dostoevsky, in Kafka, and of course in Dickens. By the time you get to Charlie Chaplin, the “little man” becomes the tramp rather than the clerk, which suggests the intriguing possibility that Chaplin was a fan of Robert Walser.

Joseph Mastri is officially a clerk but as we’ve seen his true position at the Toblers is even lower than that: he’s a servant. Pauline, the Toblers’ coarse, brutal maidservant, treats him as someone on the same level as herself. She doesn’t hesitate to abuse one of the Toblers’ children, little Silvi, in front of Joseph for their joint amusement, and when she sees that Joseph disapproves of her conduct she just gets angry with him. A traditional hero stands out by his courage: Joseph’s main distinguishing feature is his lack of courage. Instead of a conventional plot, The Assistant proceeds via a series of scenes when Joseph plucks up the courage to argue with or protest against his employers for one reason or another. He tries to behave like a hero. But on each occasion except the last, when he quits his position and the novel ends, he’s overcome with terror and remorse at what he’s done; he rushes to apologise; he tries to take back everything he  said in case the Toblers fire him. His insecurity trumps his standing up for himself or others, like little Silvi, every time. Frau Tobler, one of several people in the novel who see it as their role to analyse and criticise Joseph (the most prominent being Joseph himself) tells him, “your heart is no doubt in the right place- I assume it is, though I have so often seen you behaving uncourageously.”

 A Joseph who is humble, modest, overly timid, a bit of a clown and a bit of a coward,  but good-hearted and well-meaning underneath would be a cliché. Walser shows his genius by making it clear to us that Joseph gets pleasure from his self-abasement. Walser understands there’s no such thing as an individual without ego or pride, there are  only different kinds of egotism- the egotism of the failure as well as the egotism of the winner- of, the servant as much as the master. Joseph and his master, Engineer Tobler, represent two versions of egotism at the extreme opposite ends of the scale. Joseph is extreme in the extent to which he denies and represses his ego: Carl Tobler is extreme in the free rein he gives to it. Tobler is a sacred monster of pride: in fact his pride is almost all he has going for him. His inventions are all ridiculous but he’s staked his life and his family’s security on them.

 Tobler is domineering, patriarchal, he flies into rages and mistreats everyone around him. At other times, he plays the generous host and protector, often spending money he doesn’t have. Tobler may be an engineer by trade but his inventions make him a sort of artist, although a failed one. On the other hand, Joseph, who pretends to humility, is really touchy and prickly, his feelings are too easily wounded and he reacts by staging inappropriate scenes. He lets himself be mistreated and then he resents it. He won’t ever put himself forward but he sees and feels everything: he’s much more of an artist than Tobler in the extreme sensitivity with which he registers all the changes in the Tobler household and the changes in the seasons and the natural world. But Joseph doesn’t create anything, unlike Tobler, whose creations may be botched but at least they exist. Even Joseph’s attempt to write a “Memoir”- his sole attempt at self-expression apart from a couple of brief letters- is soon abandoned, he is “so poorly suited to diary writing”.

 Engineer Tobler is pure ego as if magnified by a telescope. Joseph is the ego seen through the wrong end of the same telescope. Walser’s discovery here as a novelist is that such a downtrodden and inverted ego can work just as well in registering and responding to experience as a healthier kind: the servant can stand in for the artist. Tobler and Joseph between them make up two halves of a functioning human being, but separated and set at odds. Instead of co-operating fruitfully, Tobler’s conscious will bullies and rides roughshod over the unconscious sensitivity and register of sensations symbolised by Joseph, his assistant- who responds, as he must, by trying to carry out his master’s orders, but never quite succeeds in doing so. Together these two half men, rather than embarking on a creative collaboration that might include, for example, developing some truly useful inventions and putting them into production, prop each other up in a folie a deux. They construct Tobler’s ruin between them as they struggle to market his hopeless products like the Advertising Clock that has metal “wings” to carry advertisements or the Marksman’s Vending Machine, a slot machine that dispenses packets of ammunition for hunters.

 Neither Tobler nor Joseph can face the whole truth about their situations. Tobler sees himself as a hard-charging entrepreneur but the truth is he has no idea what he’s doing and his business doesn’t really exist. He hires Joseph as his confidential assistant, supposedly to act as his right-hand man in marketing his inventions, but Joseph’s real task is fending off and stonewalling Tobler’s creditors. Tobler presents his happy family, his wife and four children, as the picture of a prosperous, virtuous bourgeois domesticity while just below the surface the family is riven with problems he refuses to recognise. Tobler dumps all his rage and frustration on his wife who in turn favours one of her daughters, the loveable Dora, over the other, the unlovely Silvi. Frau Tobler admits she doesn’t love Silvi: she treats the child terribly and hands her over to the sadistic Pauline for regular punishment. Even the physical fabric of the Tobler household is a fake. The family live in a handsome villa by a lake. The house conveys the image of a successful businessman but three years ago Tobler was a lowly employee in an engineering firm before he inherited a large sum of money. He owes his lifestyle not to his own success but to an inheritance. Since then, he’s gambled everything on his inventions and lost. When his credit runs out, which it will by the end of the novel, the house will have to be sold to pay debts and the Toblers, as Frau Tobler tells Joseph, will “go live in the city, in cheap lodgings somewhere.”

 For his part, Joseph knows, or permits himself to know, much more of the truth than Tobler does. Joseph may be overemotional and oversensitive, and given to idle daydreaming. He may crave to live in a romantic, storybook society that doesn’t exist and constantly have to force himself to adjust to reality. But he makes an effort. He tries to come to terms with the truth about himself. He’s very introspective, always striving to identify his faults, to criticise them and to do better. He sees through the Toblers without trying. It’s from Joseph that we learn what’s really going on at the Villa Tobler. But although Joseph may know the truth, he doesn’t always tell it, either to himself or to other people who need to know it but might be offended to hear it. He’s too desperate to be liked by everyone and too concerned with his own comfort to rock the boat. He’s frightened the truth will offend people, as “home truths” often do. On the one occasion he manages to tackle the Toblers about the way they treat little Silvi, his truth-telling is so mixed up with qualifications and apologies it has no force, and Silvi goes on being abused as badly as ever.

With the men thus hobbled, the truth-tellers in The Assistant are the women. This shouldn’t surprise us. Telling truth to male power is a traditional role for women, centuries of male repression having given them a unique angle on the opposite sex- namely the view from below. The person on the bottom of any relationship, the servant or the wife, always sees more than the person on top. This hierarchy forms the basic architecture of The Assistant, whose principal truth-teller is Frau Tobler. “My faith in my husband’s aptitude for business has begun to falter decisively,” she tells Joseph and goes on to deliver a devastating critique of Tobler’s character as it applies to business. At other times she turns on Joseph himself, calling him a “peculiar person”. She notes his sudden changes of mood and his combination of physical courage, even bravado, with personal timidity and nervousness. She calls him oversensitive, too impressionable: she detects the pride that lies behind his being so quick to take offense, to feel himself insulted or demeaned. Joseph stands on his dignity, reacts aggressively when it’s threatened, demands his rights, then panics and tries to take it back, abasing himself all over again. In other words, his way of functioning in the business world- which is the only world modernity presents us with, however much Joseph may hanker for a different world of courtly love and medieval romance- is just as “disfunctional” as Tobler’s- if not more so since Joseph is a poor man, and “it is always a question of where one is and who one is.”

 Frau Tobler thus acts as The Assistant’s voice of realism. She has the gift of voicing her criticisms generously, balancing them with praise for the person’s strengths. She preaches adjustment to the world as we find it. “What would become of enterprises, households and businesses of all sorts, what would become of homes, indeed what would become of the world itself if its laws were no longer allowed to pinch and shove and wound one a little?” she tells Joseph, who the reader surmises needs this kind of toughening up in order to grow up and “become a man”. Both Frau Tobler’s realism and her emotional generosity are traditional female strengths. Frau Tobler herself bears the brunt of her husband’s rages and swallows her own “fury” because “one has an obligation to forgive one’s master and superior” due the enormous burden of his worries and torments” as leader and provider.

 But “the woman”, as the narrative sometimes calls Frau Tobler, is also deeply flawed. We learn she had to have an operation on her neck, and needs another, symbolising that not everything is right with her head. She’s guilty of the same kind of arrogance, based on an exalted idea of herself, as Joseph is, only her position enables her to get away with being “haughty” and “cold” and treating others as inferiors. She thinks nothing of ordering a new dress she knows she can’t pay for, then bilking the poor seamstress of the bill. There are hints that she flirts with other men, including Joseph, while denying that she does any such thing. Worst of all, in her central role as a mother, she mis-treats one of her children. She admits “even when Silvi was a little child she had begun strangely enough to hate her. Yes, hate, that was the right word, it perfectly described her feelings for the child.” This time it is Joseph’s turn to see and for once to voice his criticism of this “huge injustice”. Frau Tobler has turned Silvi over to the brutal maid Pauline, and the child’s screams regularly wake Joseph in the middle of the night.

 The Tobler family circle consists of psychologically complex individuals but these individuals are also types and more than types- they’re archetypes. This is a typical Modernist move but what Musil leaves unfinished, what Joyce struggles and finally fails to accomplish over 1000 pages, and what Beckett only brings off with the help of the theatre’s technical resources, Walser makes look easy. It’s no wonder he mocked the literary heavyweights of his time as “the imperialists”. The Toblers on their hill above the lake resemble the family on Mount Olympus, the raging imperious patriach who can be comically inept, the shrewd, neglected wife who is nonetheless capricious and self-willed, the Olympians ruling over the human beings who serve them with a mixture of respect and resentment, and jealous of their own amour propre. Nor are Greek myths the only myths that lie behind The Assistant.



The world of The Assistant- Villa Tobler, the lake, the surrounding countryside, the nearby, unnamed city- is Paradise but it’s Paradise Lost. From the moment the downtrodden Joseph arrives on the doorstep of Engineer Tobler’s grand villa, he knows he’s entering Paradise, but this is a Paradise whose inhabitants have already fallen and are trying desperately to cling on, to remain in Eden. For the rest of the novel, Joseph will be our guide to everything about the human condition that ruins Paradise for us and that constitutes the Fall. Walser’s conceit is that if you want to see flawed humanity in bold relief, you don’t expel your characters from Paradise, you keep them in it or, more precisely, you concentrate on the period between the Fall and the expulsion. Accordingly, neither apocalyptic event appears in The Assistant, whose horizon is bounded instead by Joseph’s arrival at and departure from the Tobler house.

 He arrives when this Paradise has already been lost- although nobody has realised it as yet (one of his first acts as The Assistant is to write to creditors whose bills can’t be paid). When he leaves, after a row over his own salary, which has also never been paid (and never will be), everyone understands that his departure heralds a general expulsion of the Toblers from Eden: “This house is lost.” Walser’s original manuscript has a slightly different ending from the published version. Apparently a careless or excessively frugal editor omitted the last couple of paragraphs. In his original ending, Walser seems to suggest that the expulsion is not the disaster it is in, say, the Biblical version of the story. Since the Paradise the characters are leaving is already a Paradise Lost, having to leave it may be more like losing a job or a indeed house, major events in anyone’s life but not, after all, the end of the world. In other words, the mood in this expulsion is sober, thoughtful, bittersweet rather than apocalyptic. Its meaning isn’t clear, perhaps because the story isn’t over yet, any more than the meaning of history or of life in general is clear to those of us who must live in the midst of them and never get to see them in their entirety.

 “When they had reached the road down below, Joseph stopped, took one of Tobler’s cheroots out of his pocket, lit it, and then turned around to look at the house one last time. There it lay above him, silent in a wintry isolation, as if it felt cold. From the neighboring chimneys, delicate columns of blue-tinged smoke rose up, dispersing in the grey air. The landscape appeared to have eyes, and it appeared to be closing them, filled utterly with peace, in order to reflect. Yes, everything appeared a bit pensive….”

 If the expulsion is not the ultimate catastrophe, then where does that leave The Fall? In Walser’s version, The Fall doesn’t put an end to Paradise so much as it begins or creates Paradise Lost, which is no more nor less than the world we have- flawed, fallen, but containing paradisal elements, as Walser’s original ending to the Assistant goes on to describe:

 “All the surrounding colors appeared to be gently and sweetly dreaming. The houses resembled slumbering children and the sky lay friendly and weary upon all things. Joseph sat down on a rock beside the road and gazed back at it all for a long time. Fleetingly he thought once more of the woman, the children, the garden and all those mornings, noons, evenings and nights, the voices that for so long he had found so familiar, Tobler’s voice, the smells wafting from the kitchen that had given him such pleasure, all this he now saluted in his thoughts, and then the two of them walked on.”

With all its difficulties and drawbacks, we don’t want to leave life, which can be sweet, even in a Paradise Lost. But who was the tempter, the agent responsible for deconstructing this demi-or semi-Paradise in the first place? In Walser’s version, it was not the knowledge of good and evil: it was money.

 Money created the bourgeois world of the Villa Tobler and lack of money brings it to an end. Tobler’s inheritance is the motor that gets the plot moving and his spending keeps it going until the money runs out, at which point the novel runs out with it. But The Assistant is not a bourgeois parable peddling some trite pseudo-moral like “live within your means”. The novel doesn’t teach a lesson so much as state a problem- in that sense it’s more like Henry James’ comparison of fiction with a carpet whose design conveys its meaning as a figure in the carpet. Except that for Walser the figure is a question mark. Not just one question mark either but a whole series. Walser is a tremendously dynamic artist. In his mature work, he constantly takes apart and reassembles the same elements into new patterns, looking for an answer, until in his last full-length work The Robber the fragmentation of the characters and the proliferation of the questions reaches right down to the level of individual sentences.

  The question Walser concerns himself with in all his work is the familiar age-old question of how should one live? More properly, it’s that question in the acute form posed by the coming of modernity- how can we live in the new historical dispensation, in the Paradise Lost of industrial society? Walser’s answer in The Assistant is, “only in opposition or at an angle to the prevailing forces”. The Assistant’s plot, a negation of a negation, moves in two opposing directions. As the money flows out, Joseph moves in. His job is to stem the tide, literally so since his main task as Tobler’s assistant is to stonewall the creditors, but more importantly in the broader, human sense he tries to keep the Tobler household together. Because the threat to the Villa Tobler is not just, or even mainly, financial: it’s also the threat of the Tobler family falling apart when it needs to be a harmonious whole. Walser is working a familiar literary trope here along the lines of World=House=Family, and he makes the identity of the three elements quite clear. As well as Herr Tobler’s abortive inventions, the Villa Tobler contains one genuinely precious possession, the World Ball. “The ball was suspended by narrow chains and hingers within a delicate iron frame and was parti-colored, so that all the images of the world reflected in it- in a perspective that appeared round and, as it were, stacked one thing atop the other- shone green, blue, brown, yellow and red.”

The ball is “the pride of the Villa Tobler.” As the site where it’s located, the Villa Tobler thus becomes the world-centre or world-axis, which in turn makes the Tobler Family the ur-Family, the primal group. Their disharmony contrasts with the ball’s perfection. Tobler neglects his children and mistreats his wife.  Frau Tobler mistreats Silvi and is given to haughty hysterics. The children fight with one another. And this disharmony, which gets worse as the novel proceeds until we find Joseph asking himself “does there have to be some sort of tempestuous scene every single evening or nearly?” may be insoluble. It may be in the nature of things. When he contemplates the Tobler children, Joseph comes close to concluding exactly that. “Wherever there are children there will always be injustice. The Tobler children formed a highly irregular quadrilateral. …Where was regularity to be found here? How could one be fair to each little mind, each little heart?”

Wherever there are children there will be injustice.” Not our normal view of childhood. Nothing sentimental about it. Nothing sentimental either about Walser’s conclusion that the only answer to disharmony, the only antidote we have to splitting apart (the ultimate opposite to the family being the war of all against all) is love. Love is what we have because we’re not in Paradise: it’s not so much a consolation prize as the necessary technology for living in and with Paradise Lost, which is to say for living with each other. But love itself is a victim of the Fall. Under the bourgeois dispensation, love has been artificially restricted, parcelled out, reduced to a household task left to the women and split off from its natural partner, responsibility. “Responsibility was the domain of men so it was certainly quite reasonable to leave the love and everyday toil up to the wives.”

As the novel’s would-be hero, Joseph Marti is the would-be Savior figure. Salvation here means rescuing and reinstating love as the universal principle. Joseph’s poverty has placed him outside society. Unlike the others, he’s not locked into a social role with its accrued defences and resentments. He even loves the tyrannical Herr Tobler- “he loved this man with all his heart”. But Joseph’s own flaws and insecurities mean he’s ineffective when it comes spreading the gospel of love among the Toblers. He tries and fails to save Silvi from her tormentors. He tries and fails to re-introduce Wirsich, his alcoholic predecessor whom Tobler fired, to the household. Finally, he tries and fails to integrate himself into the family circle. When, after six months, he asks to be paid his salary- ie for his position to be regularised and put on a proper footing- Tobler turns on him and throws him out too. “Get out of this house at once! Go! To my enemies with you! I no longer need you!”

This final confrontation follows on from and is triggered by a final humiliation. Joseph has been bullied and humiliated by Tobler yet again, and this time he’s mad and he’s not going to take it any more. His failure to accept being humiliated makes him human- most of us wouldn’t call it a failure- but Walser leaves us in no doubt that it disqualifies Joseph as a hero or savior. For the last third or so of The Assistant, the novel proceeds as a series of feints and reversals. Something happens in the Tobler household that outrages Joseph and causes him to protest, either on his own behalf or on behalf of someone else. Each time he opens his mouth he thinks better of it, he panics, he’s terrified he’ll be expelled from this house and this family that he’s come to treat as his only home, he goes grovelling and trying to take back everything he’s said. Each time, Joseph’s attempt to act on principle or out of his finer feelings gets tainted and crippled by his personal neurosis, and that makes him representative of all of us who want to do the right thing but frequently end up undermining our own best efforts.

To contemporary readers, Joseph may seem like a poor sort of hero for the exact opposite reason, namely that he doesn’t assert his own needs and desires strongly enough. We view demanding our rights, which really means standing up for Number One, as a prime moral duty. Apart from its historical novelty, this position it doesn’t fit either the psychological or the aesthetic economy of The Assistant. Psychologically, we can see how a character like Joseph’s would swing between silent self-abasement and bursting out with his long-repressed resentments, only to panic at his own boldness and rush for safety. It’s also apt that he’d regard the Toblers as a substitute family, the solution to his insecurity and loneliness, and be willing to do anything to have them accept him. “How the consciousness of not being at home anywhere had strangled him, paralysed him from within.” To Joseph, his job at the Villa Tobler is worth all the humiliations and injustices, including that most basic injustice of all, not being paid for his work. When he finally snaps, confront Tobler and is expelled from the house, it’s a sign he’s growing up, though, as we shall see, this denouement is developed more richly by Walser at the end of his next novel, Jakob von Gruten.

On a symbolic level, Joseph’s situation at the Toblers equates to the situation of the subconscious in the psyche, constantly humiliated and “not paid”- not valued- by the ego but unable ever to break away since the psyche is its “home”. And as a result bursting out in all sorts of inappropriate and disconcerting protests from time to time such as compulsions, obsessions, depressions etc.. Since the subconscious is traditionally associated with the female and the conscious ego with the male, it’s not surprising to find Frau Tobler is its spokeswoman. What’s more surprising perhaps is that she argues for such subservience as the natural order of things:

“He (Tobler) is head of the house, that’s all there is to it, a position of responsibility which demands forbearance and respect from the other occupants of the household. Certainly he ought not to insult others but is he always in a position to rein himself in?..And we others who enjoy the quite obvious advantage of being permitted to obey the orders that cost him so much effort to conceive and plan  and to follow his suggestions the wisdom of which is almost always clear to us- should we not, in times of uneasiness and resentment, simply make it our business to keep out of his way a little? …What would become of enterprises, households and businesses of all sorts, what would become of homes, indeed what would become of the world itself if suddenly its laws were no longer allowed to pinch and shove and wound one a little? Has one enjoyed the benefits of obeying and imitating all year round only so that one might, one day or evening, come and puff oneself up and say, Do not insult me?”

What are we to make of this? Walser gives Frau Tobler a long and eloquent defense of a system whose tyrannies, injustices and sheer follies he has mercilessly exposed throughout the rest of the text. Now he seems to be endorsing that same system as essential to the order of the world. Isn’t this a contradiction? Absolutely it is. Irreconcilable contradictions, paradoxes, conflicts of opposites are what distinguish life sub specie aeternae, down here in Paradise Lost. The Assistant is about its characters’ failure to resolve those contradictions, not least because they carry them within themselves.

Does that mean the contradictions can never be resolved? If so, that would make The Assistant a post-modern rather than a modern work, an example of the so-called European nihilism that American writers like Saul Bellow rejected in later years. Walser does offer suggestions as to how and where reconciliation could take place. It even takes place fleetingly from time to time in the Villa Tobler itself when, in the author’s lovely sentence, “the virtues and vices of the Tobler household appeared to have settled their scores and wordlessly forged a bond of friendship”. But as we’ve seen, it doesn’t last. The centre cannot hold. One place it used to hold was in Joseph’s beloved past, but the fairytale past, not the real one. Hence his nostalgia for medieval romance or even for his own childhood in its dream version when the bond between mother and child represented the whole world, undivided and unconflicted.

Joseph himself knows you can’t go back. “It is an unforgiveable sin to go on daydreaming when a person has left his twenty third year behind him.” So where can you go? Well, you might go for a walk. The other place where contradictions can be resolved is in nature, which is to say, in the non-human world. Nature haunts The Assistant as it does modernist art in general because it’s both the world that modernity is destroying and replacing with an artificial, industrial world, and it’s also the still- extant antidote to industrialism, the refuge of the original and the authentic. Nature can play both these parts because at the time we’re talking about, the early 1900s, it was still very much a presence in most people’s lives. People hadn’t moved off the land long before, and the land was still accessible to most people. You could live in the city, as Walser did in German and Swiss cities or DH Lawrence did in Nottingham, and using only your own two feet you could walk out of town and in a few minutes find yourself in the country. We’re talking about a century ago. At some point in that century, it doesn’t really matter when but we might pick between the two wars in Europe and maybe a bit later in the US, nature ceased to have an independent existence and became Second Nature. The Nature we have to access to nowadays is a man-made construction, both physically and perceptually, Kantian alienation having reached the level of the landscape. As a result, Nature is no longer available as all-purpose metaphor, a role it occupied at least since the Renaissance when Nature replaced the old gods and the old spiritual law,, “as above so below” with its own, less elegant but equally effective formula, “as outside, so inside”.

As a Modernist, Walser can still use Nature but he uses it in a different way from his predecessors. The natural world in The Assistant doesn’t reflect the characters internal states, like the storm reflected Lear’s madness. On the contrary, nature remains a separate realm, over against them. We follow the progress of the seasons from summer to winter running alongside the collapse of the Tobler household under its weight of debts, but Walser makes no attempt to relate the two as symbol or metaphor, for example by having the natural world’s Fall reflect Engineer Tobler’s downfall. “Joseph fled ‘into nature’” he writes at one point, the quotes making it clear that Nature is another country, a different jurisdiction. As The Assistant’s translator Susan Berkofsky notes, Nature is like a character in the novel in its own right, with its own “powers of expression”. The words Joseph uses most often to describe Nature are words like “calm”, “peaceful”, “tender”. There are no contradictions in Nature: it’s a place of harmony where contradictions are dissolved, where “everything appeared to have partaken of a strange contentment, gratification and meaning.” Nature cannot be Paradise for us since by definition it’s become separated from human beings, who no longer live in it, but it does retain paradisal elements such as its expressive powers, like an echo left over from the time when Nature was the voice of God.  Joseph goes “into nature” repeatedly throughout The Assistant. He’s not always fleeing; sometimes he’s just going for a walk, going for a swim, spending his time off relaxing. Engineer Tobler travels- he goes by train, that key technology of the early modernity, and his travels are not to see other places but to be with other people: he’s a travelling salesman who enjoys nothing more than drinking and socialising with people (in fact he enjoys himself too much. He doesn’t really care whether the people he treats are potential customers or not). Joseph, by contrast, walks, and walks alone, in the countryside. There are frequent, long descriptions of the natural world in The Assistant, always in terms of its beauty and harmony. This is not a Nature red in tooth and claw nor a Nature that threatens human life in any way but a Nature that embodies calm and peace, the very qualities lacking at the Villa Tobler. Nature in The Assistant is the reified Nature of the Romantic Movement but shadowed by a Modernist sense of loss under the impact of industrialisation and mechanisation. Rather than a forum for the activities of the World Spirit, as it appeared to Schelling or Coleridge, Nature is now a mere character, a friendly stranger, slightly melancholy, given to the occasional spasm of grief or anger, but for the most part with all passion spent. What Joseph finds in nature is solace from the sturm und drang of life in the human world, but by the same token nature sets a critical standard for that world.

 “A wintry image could impose itself upon the world of summer, winter could give way to spring, but the face of the earth remained the same. It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge, beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry but remained always the same….everything in and upon the earth was subject to beautiful rigorous laws, just like human beings.” At the beginning of this paragraph Joseph remembers Klara telling him he didn’t change. He agrees: he “changed little”. But then neither does “the earth”. So is what is right for the earth wrong for individuals? Rather than place where contradictions are resolved, is Nature a contradiction in itself? These are deep matters and it’s fair to say Walser hasn’t reached any conclusions at this point in his career. You need to look at his whole body of work to find his answer, whose crude, basic formula might read: the unchanging law of nature is in fact a law of constant change.



Paradise has no boundaries by definition. Either Paradise is everywhere or it wouldn’t be Paradise. Only with the Fall does the Garden of Eden become a regular garden in the sense that we can imagine it having fences or perhaps a wall. Notoriously it has an entrance guarded by angels with flaming swords. Paradise Lost has its own geography- it’s where Paradise isn’t- so it also has its own boundaries and its own guardians, but they’re there to stop people leaving rather than entering. Paradise Lost being the world we live in, its existence defines, and is defined by, our possibilities for good and evil, knowledge of which played such a crucial role in its construction in the first place.

In The Assistant, these border guards are Silvi and an unnamed young man, known as “the milkman” whom Joseph meets when he’s (briefly) put in prison for failing to complete his military service. Silvi suffers, and her very suffering is held against her. She’s Wednesday’s child: everything about her is ill-favoured while everything about her sister Dora is attractive and adorable. “A beaten down slovenly little creature like Silvi can easily become more disagreeable to endure and more unsightly to behold with each passing day.” How well Walser understands the process of victimisation whether of individuals or groups or whole peoples, for which the last century provided such rich material. At one point, the maid shouts at Silvi “I’ll teach you to scream you filthy little thing!” and we have only to close our eyes to put the same words in the mouths of a legion of camp guards, interrogators, militiamen, race haters, ethnic cleansers and the like.

If nature surrounds the action of The Assistant with its peaceful beauty, human nature surrounds it with a darker penumbra. Spending his day off in the city, Joseph observes “a web of misery”. On one visit he meets a “poor and unhappy” destitute girl; on another he encounters the alcoholic clerk Wirsich, now truly down and out and contemplating suicide. Passing an old police station he remembers hearing the screams (more screaming) of a suspect being beaten by his captors. The prosperous village of Barenswil, where the Toblers live, provides a refuge from all this human misery but only because the locals have developed a hard-headed, bourgeois attitude. Describing the Barenswilers, Joseph describes them in terms of their approach to business, as if they’ve internalised the attitudes of businessmen, and business has become their only concern. The Barenswilers are determined to come out on top and never to be taken advantage of and this drive trumps all their better qualities like honesty or decency. They are “a good-natured but at the same time somewhat treacherous race….all more or less shifty and crafty…a race apparently made to conduct business in a modest but safe manner.”

A world in which a Silvi and the suspects in the police station scream is a fallen world, a Paradise Lost. But “Paradise Lost” is a phrase with two terms in it, both “lost” and “Paradise”. While Silvi stands for human suffering, the young milkman stands for human potential. The distance between them represents the limits, or farthest extension, of the world on a horizontal plane even as Nature occupies the vertical plane (and according to an old belief, clouds form the boundary between the sublunar world and the realm ruled by Satan). The young milkman has all the fearless heroic qualities Jospeh aspires to but lacks. The young milkman is an old-fashioned storybook hero, or a contemporary Hollywood one. He’s bold, handsome, young, open-hearted, free-spirited, a veritable laughing cavalier. He’s also in jail. The milkman’s fate is the fate of the traditional hero in the modern world, which talks more and more about the importance of the individual but in reality has less and less tolerance of individual freedom in highly organised, bureaucratised societies characterised by sophisticated forms of social control, not to mention the capitalist system of production which extinguishes individuality among interchangeable statistical units while resurrecting its ghost as the subject of mass advertising. Under these conditions, the traditional hero’s battle against oppression and injustice becomes a selfish quest for his personal freedom of action, as the young milkman demonstrates. Rather than rescuing maidens in distress like Silvi, the milkman spends his time resisting authority and tweaking, or punching, the noses of petty officials and “persons of rank”. He’s the hero as rebel, which may be the only outlet for heroism in modern conditions. But the milkman’s fate demonstrates the limitations of individual rebellion in the modern world, the principal one being that you start out as a free-spirited wanderer and vagabond and end up behind bars labelled as an antisocial element and criminal.

 In the old days, heroes were able to embody or enact their poetic inspiration in their own lives. But when the milkman tries to act it out, his attempt is revealed as anachronistic and self-destructively antisocial, foreshadowing the fate of rebels under modern conditions. The historical descendant of the young milkman is the “traveller”, and in the lives of actual travellers with their poverty, their material ugliness and hand-to-mouth existence, the way they are treated as outcasts and scapegoats and frequently persecuted by mainstream bourgeois society, the characters of the milkman/hero/rebel and little Silvi meet and meld.

Wirsich, Joseph’s predecessor in the assistant’s job, is the third important figure in the novel’s supporting cast. Wirisch appears in person only three times in the novel; and his appearances are carefully situated at the beginning, the end and half way through the narrative. We don’t learn much about him except that he’s older than Joseph, he has a widowed mother who dotes on him and is heartbroken because of him, and he’s a hopeless alcoholic. Wirsich is a shadowy figure yet he’s crucial to the action. In so far as The Assistant has a plot, Wirsich is its instigator. The Assistant begins with Joseph being hired to replace Wirsich after Tobler fires him for drunkenness. It ends with Wirsich’s return to the Villa Tobler with Joseph on New Year’s Eve. The next day Joseph quits his job and the two men set out together as some kind of companions or brothers. Half way, or more like two thirds of the way through the story, Joseph finds Wirsich destitute, sleeping on a park bench in “the capital” city and considering suicide. He shares a night’s lodgings with Wirsich and convinces him to reform and to look for work. Haranguing the downtrodden Wirsich, Joseph advises him to do exactly the same things that he, Joseph, did, down to applying to the same copyists’ bureau for the unemployed where an agent recruited him, Joseph, to fill Wirisch’s old job. “We at the Evening Star were one day open-minded enough to visit this very office and there procure for ourselves a young man who was perhaps in fact not entirely capable but at any rate certainly useful and pliant, Joseph Marti by name, for Herr Wirsich was no longer willing to trod the straight and narrow path.”

There’s a deep connection between the two men that the narrative doesn’t make entirely clear. Joseph is right when he implies that Wirsich was a better assistant for Tobler than Joseph himself. Wirsich is like Joseph’s shadow or double. He’s both a better man and a worse one. At one point, Frau Tobler’s sings Wirsich’s praises to such an extent that an offended Joseph cries out “This eternal Wirsich! It’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that the man’s a peerless genius.” But Joseph himself acknowledges that Wirsich is both more capable and clever than Joseph as well as being also a more attractive personality when he’s sober. On the night that Joseph brings Wirsich home with him, the Tobler children are thrilled to see Wirsich again. “He had to shake hands with each of them and all who witnessed this had the peculiar feeling that Wirsich was once more being integrated into the Tobler household.” Yet Wirsich is also a hopeless, helpless alcoholic who drank himself out of his post as The Assistant, after numerous warnings. When he pulls himself together on Joseph’s advice and manages to get a new job, he promptly drinks himself out of that too. “He is a drunkard, a person most likely beyond saving,” Joseph concludes even as he saves Wirisch once again. Not only does he bring Wirsich to stay at the Toblers,  Jospeh and Wirsich also go out and get drunk together to celebrate the New Year.

Like the young milkman, whom Joseph encounters at the same time (“one week later”) that he meets Wirsich on the park bench, Wirsich is not a fully rounded character. Joseph, the various Toblers, even Joseph’s woman friend Klara  are given their full psychological individuality, but Wirsich and the milkman, though they are more than mere types, have a somewhat sketchy, symbolic reality: their real importance is in their connection to Joseph. “The milkman from the beginning had felt a certain tenderness towards Joseph”.  There’s a hidden link between Joseph and these other two characters who represent alternative lives or destinies for the original Joseph. Joseph’s twin experiences in the capital- his night with Wirsich and his two nights in prison with the young milkman- are a kind of nekia or descent into the underworld, where Joseph has the chance to review and reconsider his life and measure it against the examples of Wirsich and the milkman. Joseph moves outside of society meeting Wirsich on a desolate park bench at night, where Wirsich complains, “I’ll become a thief and they’ll send me to prison”. But then it’s Joseph, not Wirsich, who must descend another level and find himself behind bars, if only for two nights. Prison, Joseph realises, gives him “the most splendid opportunity to think over all sorts of things” , which he worries he will waste. “What was the point of thinking? Wasn’t it most crucial to foster thoughts about sharing in the lives of others and experiencing things?…but you couldn’t just think it, thoughts like these melded into sentiment.”

The exact sentiment involved here is the poet’s or artist’s connection to life and its creative wellsprings. This is what Jospeh seeks and can’t find in the modern world, where it has no place, crowded out by science and industry, represented in the burlesque of Tobler’s cackhanded inventions, and by the money power which is what Tobler really worships (and, we might surmise, the reason why his inventions are so ludicrous. He invents not out of genuine inspiration but out of his desire to become rich and famous).            Once Joseph is released from jail and returns to the Villa Tobler, the novel picks up speed.  Tobler’s business accelerates towards bankruptcy. But the collapse of the Tobler household must inevitably bring with it the dis-integration of Joseph himself whose position as The Assistant is not just a job: its his identity. We know Joseph is unstable, a “peculiar” person according to Frau Tobler, with “a curious mix of cowardice and boldness”- not the ideal personality for a servant. Joseph only just manages to hold together the character traits belonging to the traditional servant that are always on the verge of splitting apart and going off in opposite direction. One way leads to the cheeky, rebellious Figaro type who outwits his master or even, like the young milkman, will have “no masters and no men”. The other way, in which the elan vital negates itself in nihilism- or despair drowns itself in drink- leads to Wirsich.

As a symbolic character Wirsich, like all symbols, is irreducible to a single referent, but open to multiple interpretations. As much as he is Joseph’s shadow or double, he is also the artist, the Prospero figure, who draws Joseph into and through the narrative and at the end takes him off down the road, out of the world of The Assistant and towards new adventures. Drunkenness in this mode- and Joseph also drinks heavily at times- represents fluidity, the creative flux, dissolving reality’s sharp distinctions and entrenched opposites. Walser’s own art proceeds under the sign of disintegration and fragmentation through his four novels (at least two others were lost) and the well over a thousand short prose pieces that he wrote after his career as a novelist stalled, feuilletons that Walser himself saw as “nothing more nor less than parts of a long, plotless, realistic story…shorter or lengthier chapters of a novel.”

Having cleared the fictional ground in The Assistant and found the modern world to be Paradise Lost, rather than try to resolve that world’s contradictions Walser will multiply them in his future works. Rather than try to create a character who is a hero for our time, someone who has resolved its contradictions within him or herself and is therefore able answer the question, how should I live? Walser will fragment his central character, disassemble and reassemble him over and over again.

As an artistic strategy, Walser’s has the benefit of avoiding treating Paradise Lost as the Wasteland or the modern hero as postmodern, decentred subject- avoiding, in other words, the dead end of nihilism. Thanks to this strategy, he was able to retain a poet’s original inspiration, that direct connection to the living world which is the wellspring of art as well as its only ultimate ”message”, the way “the simple awareness of existence enchant(ed) me…(and) the flashing days were like shimmering fruit.”  An artistic sensibility is sometimes seen as childlike or naïve and that was certainly true of Walser. Editors and readers labelled him a provincial simpleton with, in his own phrase, a “shepherd-boyish” style. But he knew exactly what he was doing and the effects he wanted to produce. “My vocation, my mission consists mainly in making every effort to keep my audience believing I am truly simple. I give them the illusion that unspoiledness and naiveté still exist “Unspoiledness and naivety” were Walser’s shield enabling him, until the effort finally became too much for him, to smuggle optimism across historical borders and preserve it through the heart of Europe’s most appalling century.

Behind that shield, Walser went on progressively refining out the realistic elements from his fiction and compressing his cast of characters. To see this process in action, compare and contrast the end of The Assistant with the end of Walser’s next novel, Jakob von Gruten. Superificially, it’s the same ending. The young leading man sets off into the unknown with an older male companion. This time our hero is Jakob von Gruten, who combines Joseph Marti’s desire for self-effacement and his insecurity with some of the more energetic, high-spirited traits of the young milkman. To put it another way, Jakob is half way between a servant and a vagabond. Instead of a Wirsich, his companion is Herr Bejamenta, a Tobler figure and a more elegant solution to the problem of the double (as we saw, Jospeh and Engineer Tobler were like two halves of a complete man). Instead of the Tobler household collapsing under its weight of debt, this time around the odd couple are fleeing a strange school for servants where Herr Benjamenta was the Principal and Jakob one of the pupils. The school is being disbanded because its guiding spirit, Herr Benjamenta’s sister, has died “for lack of love”-again a deeper and more focused criticism of the bourgeois world based on money and exchange value. Finally, while in The Assistant we’re never clear where Joseph and Wirsich are going- they just wander off-  at the end of Jakob von Gruten it’s made explicit that Jakob and the Principal are walking out of Western culture and history as a whole into an ahistorical desert where they ride camels, treat with nomads, and “it looked as if we had escaped forever, or at least for a very long time, from what people call European culture”.   Walser’s next two novels after Jakob von Gruten were never published and are lost. Facing commercial failure as a novelist Walser turned to writing short prose pieces for newspapers and magazines. There are around 1100 or 1200 of them, many of which only exist in the miniscule micro-script Walser used for his drafts. His next and final full-length work The Robber is so advanced there was nothing like it in modern literature, but  it didn’t appear in print until the manuscript was discovered in 1972, 21 years after Walser’s death. The only possible comparisons are with Finnegan’s Wake and parts of Beckett, and Walser is superior to both. In The Robber, the cast has been stripped back to its essence, to one man and one woman, Adam and Eve (Western culture has been tracked back to its source), then those characters have been fragmented, literally blown to pieces, in a final, no-holds-barred attempt to find out what’s wrong with them. According to the biblical story of the Fall the flaw is in our selves. To find it, therefore, art has to turn into autopsy but an autopsy carried out on living individuals not on dead bodies.

Hence the need for two characters rather than one, since humanity requires communication, even if the person you’re talking to is yourself in the form of your sister-soul, muse, love object, personified desire or Eternal Woman. (It could be the Eternal Man, of course, but there are conventions in these things and besides our author is masculine, even if he apparently never had sex). So the hero becomes the Robber, the vagabond, the young milkman, but he’s also kept Jospeh Marti’s introspection- not what we think of as a vagabondish quality- and at the same time he’s the narrator, who is also the writer. All the women in the story have also merged into one who is also many: the Rousseau woman, Edith, Wanda. As for the story, it’s all about the relationship of the Robber and his putative girlfriend or girlfriends. Jung once wrote a book with the title ‘Modern Man In Search of A Soul’ and that’s the territory Walser traverses here. You search for your soul, unite with your soul. There’s a mystical marriage involved as well as, or more importantly than, a physical one. The marriage of Adam and Eve equates in some sense to a Paradisal condition, a return to the Garden of Eden, or maybe to the Garden of Eden itself. But The Robber doesn’t end in a marriage. On the contrary, the Robber’s girlfriend gets so mad at him she takes out a revolver and shoots him. Not only does no one blame her, The Robber himself is shocked into reforming- which is probably the best, partial resolution possible in this Fallen World.

So who is the Robber- or Joseph Marti or Jakob von Gruten or any of the other variations on the hero of what Walser called “the book of myself”? Obviously, as Walser said, they are all alter egos for Walser himself. Which doesn’t mean he wrote autobiography. Does that make him a modernist? Not as such. Conflating the author and the hero of the tale is not a specifically modernist approach. However, making it clear to the reader that’s what you’re doing, turning the resulting hero/protagonist into the subject of his own autopsy, is a signature trope of artistic Modernism. The reason this is so, as Joseph Brodsky pointed out, is because “it can be argued….that stylistically at least, art has outlived tragedy and with it so has the artist. That the issue to an artist is to tell the story not on its own but on his own terms. Because an artist stands for an individual, a hero of his own time: not of time past. His sensibility owes more to the aforesaid dynamics, logic and laws of his artifice than to his actual historical experience, which is nearly always redundant. The artist’s job vis a vis his society is to project, to offer this sensibility to his audience as perhaps the only available route of departure from the known, captive self. If art teaches men anything, it is to become like art: not like other men. Indeed, if there is a chance for men to become anything but victims or villains of their time, it lies in their prompt response to those last two lines from Rilke’s ‘Torso of Apollo’ that say:

‘....this torso shouts at you with its every muscle:

Do change your life!”

Rilke shouted. Walser murmured. Otherwise, for Rilke read Walser. QED.



The Tanners by Robert Walser

The Tanners, Walser’s first novel, has the same story as The Robber, his last, except that in The Robber the material is more wrought, less autobiographical, put at a mature creative remove. Walser’s central theme in both novels is the relationship between man and woman. His great advantage as an artist was the psychological defect that made a sexual relationship impossible for him. His version of boy meets girl- or man loves woman- therefore was an artist and his Muse or, in Jungian terms, the shadow and the anima- asexual, romantic, spiritual, having as its form the obedience of the artist to his (female) inspiration or imagination made concrete in the series of women the typical Walser hero meets, all of whom are at bottom the same woman. Though total strangers in many cases, these women often go out of their way to help, befriend and inspire our hero while keeping a sharp eye open for his faults which they don’t hesitate to point out to him. Walser’s “mistresses” sometimes are the hero’s employers, sometimes capricious flirts, sometimes objects of highly romantic worship like the heroines of medieval chivalry, sometimes mysterious strangers who have an hypnotic effect on the hero (the Hegelian woman or the woman in brown), sometimes simply the kind of women Walser himself met in his lonely and peripatetic life- waitresses, barmaids, chambermaids.

Why so many women? Why does the main female character, along with the main male character, in Walser’s work fragment and multiply? In The Tanners with its strong autobiographical element the fragmentation is done for him- the hero has a real sister and real brothers- but in his later writing Walser fragments deliberately. Why? Basically because that’s how we are- we all recognise a common humanity but we are multitudes, we’re all different. Technically, too, fragmentation is typical of dreams and Walser is closer to his subconscious than most writers. Walter Benjamin remarked that Walser’s characters are like the characters from fairy tales who have been healed, who have recovered from their imprisonment in myth (“Walser begins where the fairy tale leaves off...(his characters) come out of the night, where it is darkest… ..from madness, that is, and from nowhere else. These are figures who have put madness behind them and can thus remain so laceratingly, inhumanly and unfailingly superficial. If we wish to find one word to describe what is pleasing and uncanny about them we may say: they are all cured.”). It’s true that Walser’s people are realised individuals but only just. They are like mythical (or fairy tale) figures who have risen out of the subconscious realm where myths coalesce, who are no longer mere symbols or types. They have achieved individual consciousness, but only barely. They keep a foot in both worlds. They have a dreamlike quality, they move between past and present, conscious and unconscious, the mythical and the material.

Walser works at the very roots of art but more than that, his work is about those roots, about the dimension between nature, inspiration and work of art. In other words, Walser operates in an area that is prior to the work of most artists and generally shrouded in mystery. One of the interesting things that Walser finds there is that this creative wellspring, if you like, is under severe threat in the modern world, on the one hand from business and the money power and on the other hand from the dominance of logic and scientific reason.

The end of The Tanners is really the beginning of The Robber. In the last scene of The Tanners Simon Tanner has spent the summer walking and dreaming, partly living with (and off) his sister, partly working as a touchy and unsuccessful servant to a rich woman. His sister has described him as a “curiously unresisting and unscrupulous person” whose trousers are “all ragged at the bottom” and whose soul must be a bit ragged too- a virtual character portrait of The Robber as a young man. Now Simon finds himself poor and alone, it’s bitterly cold, he walks up into the mountains where he comes across a new health resort and restaurant. Craving the lights and the warmth he goes in and sits down although he can’t afford to order anything. A “slender, tall lady”, “the director of the establishment” spots him, comes to his table and sits down, telling him he can have whatever he wants to eat and drink, on the house. She’s attracted to him, she gets him to tell her his life story and eventually declares she has fallen for him and from now on they will be together. “Come with me. We shall go out into the winter’s night. Into the blustery forest. There ‘s so much I want to say to you.”

Eighteen years later (or thereabouts) Walser began The Robber with the sentence “Edith loves him” (the second sentence, which announces the novel’s mature and radical construction is, “More on this later”!).  Like the health resort woman, Edith is- or so it seems- a waitress and the “presiding beauty” in a little restaurant. While The Robber is like an older Simon “an impossible person”, a “good for nothing who has no money” but has many redeeming qualities. As Simon’s sister said of him “what people are more likely to see in you is love and you know pretty well how that’s received.” The Robber’s journey is to change from someone who treats love as his possession and grasps at every opportunity to collect new loves- his emotional “robbing”- to learn humility and the true meaning of love, as epitomised by Edith’s love for him.

The novels, the more than 1000 short pieces, the plays with their brilliant deconstructions of famous fairy tales, these unique and beautiful works put Robert Walser in the foremost rank of Modern masters.





 All contents © mike bygrave 2014