A review of

The Assistant

by Robert Walser

Central question: In the face of grievous circumstances, instead of asking why me, is it better to ask why not me?
Format: 304 pp., paperback; Size: 5" x 7"; Price: $16.95; Publisher: New Directions; Editor: Barbara Epler; Book design: Erik Rieselbach; Cover art: Engraving, Diffusionsbatterie, c. 1900; Typeface: Albertina; Translated by: Susan Bernofsky; Author’s method of writing: pencil microscript, which his executor thought was a diary in secret code; Length of the author’s novel The Robber: 24 sheets of pencil microscript, 141 pp. in print; Representative sentence: “‘Becoming humble,’ the assistant thought, ‘isn’t this where so many find their final refuge in this life?’”

In a brief appreciation of Robert Walser published in the fall of 1929, the German critic Walter Benjamin noted, with customary owlishness, that the bright air of convalescence threads its way through the Swiss writer’s work. When characters in Walser’s second novel, The Assistant (1908), take ill, it’s apparent that sickness is a portal to enhancement. In their convalescent state, nerves are becalmed, countenances beautified, and a respite from hurried lives is temporarily in order. Much of the strain that’s placed on the adults in this book arises from their demand that life be wreathed with finery and dignity while, regrettably, maintaining a toehold in society frequently requires the obverse.

Although Walser satirizes this quintessential predicament of the bourgeoisie, there is a delicacy to his activity. One gathers that the author’s reproof against the foibles of keeping up appearances is offset by his awareness that a reprieve from struggle is merely that. Considering the extraordinary solicitude he displays towards his characters (who retain their humanity, even when their actions are unjust), it’s appropriate that the novel begins with a stroke of serendipity.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Christopher Byrd

Christopher Byrd is a frequent contributor to the Believer.

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