It caught my eye when I saw a reference to Kafka in a blurb about the novel. Apparently Kafka admired Robert Walser, and looked forward to his writings each week. After a spate of novels and short stories, Walser’s writing career ended quite grotesquely when in 1928, he was admitted to a mental asylum, where he was confined till his death in 1956. He is supposed to have remarked to one of his visitors that ‘I am not here to write, but to be mad’, a statement that to my mind makes his madness suspect. As in the case of all those who blossom early but are then ill fated, he leaves behind a sea of mournful conjectures of smothered possibilities.The Assistant is marked by a minimalist plot. Josef Marti- an alter ego of Walser when Walser himself worked a similar job once- joins an entrepreneur to work as his assistant. A veritable Man Friday, he helps out in the household chores as well. The novel follows Marti’s days as the entrepreneur falls into decrepitude, and his enterprise fails to take off. Marti is not paid for months but lives with the family and shares their bourgeois lifestyle, even if it is lived on borrowed money.The novel is an ode to the little man, the minor character of the everyday wage worker, a clerk in Walser’s time but could be anyone who works for a living and has someone or the other for an often domineering boss.
If the plot is minimalist, the action is still more so. Indeed, the lack of action in the novel might have been nauseating were it not for Walser’s exquisite prose peppered with insights into human behavior that transcend a century between when it was first published and now. I was constantly reminded of Anton Chekhov’s deep humanism while reading the book, especially of a story called The Clerk, though there are obvious differences between Chekhov’s short story and Walser’s novel. Chekhov’s clerk Ivan Tchervyakov is a self- effacing and apologetic character who tragically dies when he is unable to get a forgiveness from a general on whom Ivan had inadvertently sneezed in a theater. Marti, on the other hand, has a series of intermittent and hesitant bouts of rebelliousness, ending in his parting of ways with his financially ruined employer.
Yet, the concern for the small man and the travails of everyday life are the same in both the stories. Vasiliy Grossman, in one of the more unworthily obscure novels of the last century, Life and Fate, had remarked that Chekhov was the most democratic writer among the Russian classic writers. Walser, at least in this work, certainly shares a similar honor.
“Wherever there are children, there will always be injustice”, Walser observes at one point when describing the children in his employer’s household. Elsewhere, when Marti’s employer Tobler is presented with yet another bill that he cannot pay, Walser describes it quite imaginatively thus:
The steep amount presented in this bill was so clearly expressed in the furrows on Tobler’s brow, expressed with almost mathematical precision, that one might have been asked to read the exact figure presented there.