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The Assistant (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 6 Mar 2008


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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (6 Mar 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141189282
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141189284
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.7 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 559,773 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Review

Essential, exquisitely poised absurdity. --Christian Carly

About the Author

Robert Walser was born in Switzerland in 1878 and worked as a bank clerk before becoming a writer. In 1929 he was diagnosed as ‘schizophrenic’ and lived the last twenty years of his life in hospital. His novels include Jakob von Gunten and The Assistant. Robert Walser died in 1956.

'A truly wonderful, heart-breaking writer' -- Susan Sontag

Susan Bernofsky is the translator of books by Robert Walser, Gregor von Rezzori, Yoko Tawada, and others. Her translations have appeared in numerous literary journals. She is the author of Foreign Words: Translator-Authors in the Age of Goethe, and is the recipient of a PEN Translation grant and a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. She is also the recipient of the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize for Outstanding Translation for her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck's The Old Child & Other Stories. She lives with her husband in Boiceville, New York.


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ONE MORNING AT EIGHT O'CLOCK a young man stood at the door of a solitary and, it appeared, attractive house. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Common Reader TOP 50 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 27 Jun 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Robert Walser wrote The Assistant in 1908,soon after attending a course in becoming a servant, and while occasionally working as a secretary in Berlin. The book is about a young man, Joseph Marti, who secures a position as live-in personal assistant to an inventor and entrepeneur, Carl Tobler, who lives with his wife and four children in an elegant lake-side house beautiful mountainous country. Tobler has invested all his money in buying the house and supporting himself while trying to obtain financial backing for his inventions, including the ill-fated Advertising Clock.

Young Joseph has had a difficult time in finding work, and can hardly believe his good fortune in finding employment in such a luxurious setting (his room, a tower room, a "noble, romantic location), while also being invited to take-part in every part of family life, from sharing morning coffee with Tobler's wife in the summer-house, to watering the garden in the evening. The food is excellent, the wine and fine cheroots abundant. He has to deal with the capricious moods of his master, but he sees this as the inevitable lot of the clerk, and something which can only spur him on to greater achievements in his career.

Tobler makes great efforts to raise investment for his projects, but he has been living on his inheritance, and slowly the debts being to build up and increasinly more of the assistant's time is spent fending off creditors than writing advertisements and letters of introduction. He becomes adept at running the business side of the enterprise and Tobler becomes increasingly reliant on his services.

Tobler travels the country, finding that travel and business lunches are his natural occupation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By surfer009 on 7 Aug 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Robert Walser managed to write a novel where just about nothing happens but still make it interesting. His turn of phrase is mischievous or childlike in places. Here, Joseph, the titular assistant arrives at the house of his new master an Inventor called Tobler. His inventions are ridiculous. His business is a slowly unwinding disaster. The family loses money. They get drunk on wine they cant afford. Everything is described with a lop-sided optimism. A strange little book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By J. H. Bretts VINE VOICE on 5 Mar 2012
Format: Paperback
I started this book without any expectations - just curiosity because Robert Walser isn't exactly world famous yet seems to be classed by some critics alongside Kafka, Joyce and other modernists. However, after a few pages I began to realise I was in the hands of a rather special writer, one with a unique vision and enthralling prose style. In the tale of Joseph Marti's time with the Tobler household as assistant to a failing inventor he has woven a very funny, droll, dark and psychologically acute story of work and the search for meaning in life. Walser may have influenced Kafka but he is far more readable and just as good in his own way. A highly recommended translation from the German, which has stimulated me to read more of this strangely neglected but brilliant artist.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Lost John TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 9 Sep 2010
Format: Paperback
In 1903 a young man takes a job as clerk and accountant to an inventor. The inventor's office and workshop is in the basement of his imposing villa, close to the shore of Lake Zurich. The inventor has a wife and four children. The Assistant (we will capitalise his job title) is given a room at the top of the house and he dines with the family. They live well. Four years later, the young man, who has by now followed his brother, an illustrator and theatrical designer, to Berlin, enters a literary competition with a novel which he later said was written in just six weeks. The novel is about a young man who takes a job as Assistant to an inventor. The first name of the inventor and those of all four of his children are the same as those of the real-life originals. The "fictional" villa and its location are exactly as in life; the lakeside village has just two letters of its name changed; and the Assistant in the novel is given the author's mother's maiden name.

The above is not the plot of The Assistant; it's the real story behind a novel that clearly has significant autobiographical elements. Walser as a young man was able to obtain jobs (if not to hold them down), serve as required in the Swiss militia, and lead an unexceptionable life, but he felt himself a social misfit and spent the last 27 of his 73 years in mental institutions, more or less voluntarily. He died in 1956. Latter-day psychiatrists think he may have suffered from Asperger's syndrome. The heightened sensitivity of his writing and the introspective and sometimes unusually detached perspective that his characters have on themselves may be attributable to that condition. Walser wrote "I would wish it on no-one to be me.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 6 reviews
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
"Curse those bacon-and-sausage eaters!" 18 Aug 2007
By Dan Mash - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Joseph Marti, a young man between jobs, gains the position of Assistant at the villa and workplace of Carl Tobler, a struggling and possibly-cockamamie inventor. Despite Tobler's unpromising professional struggle and his lack of investors, he puts no brakes on his expensive joie de vivre. Joseph ends up smoking cheroots, sending away creditors, taking hilarious dictations, alternately entertaining and vexing Tobler's wife, and enjoying the Tobler's bountiful lunches and dinners:

"Sit down. Wherever you like, it doesn't matter. And eat until you've had your fill. Here's the bread. Cut yourself as much as you'd like. There's no need to hold back. Go ahead and pour yourself several cups--there's plenty of coffee. And here is butter. The butter, as you see, is here to be eaten. And here's some jam, should you happen to be a jam-lover. Would you like some fried potatoes as well?"

Hospitality is practically stuffed in Joseph's face, though he refuses to believe that he ever earns it. A good stuffing of hospitality at the dinner table is a recurring theme in Walser's work.

The Tobler family slides into dispossession. Walser captures the impendingness of the situation by describing the characters and their interactions over the course of about a year. A letter from Tobler's mother coldly punctuates the end of the story with a vicious moral, though that isn't the end of the book.

What shines to me isn't the plot (does anyone read for plot?) but the details of Joseph's inner turmoil, its occasional outlets, plus the THEATRICAL MOOD SWINGS OF TOBLER, and Walser's unbelievably fresh and insightful descriptions of simple events like going for a swim in a lake or waking up in bed on a Sunday morning. His pre-kafkaesque description of a credit auditor's lurking around the villa is a classic passage here, too. (It rivals or surpasses the supernatural domestic fantasy of Marquez's Solitude and the bureacratic goons of Kafka, and pre-dates both of them).

The sudden appearance of a military prison episode forms one of Walser's best and only ensemble scenes. ("Slap the Ham")

Joseph is the usual Walserian hero: he's timid, he's doubtful of his own importance and abilities, he privately rags on himself out loud in high-style, yet he will burst out with an impudent speech to his masters. I still don't fully understand whether these impassioned officially-worded outbursts are a piece of comedy, a projection of Walser's mental state, or have some basis in the reality of actual conversations in Switzerland/Germany in the 1900's.

If you're new to Walser I recommend Jakob Von Gunten, his most accessible and probably famous work, which is made so breezy by its young schoolboy narrator. Everyone should start there. If you're not new to Walser then you'll obviously want this book, there's nothing to say so I've done you no favors, unless you are a stick in the mud.

Did I forget to say this is an extremely enjoyable book?
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
An Antidote for Notes from Underground 28 Sep 2007
By Brian Verigan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Hermann Hesse famously remarked "If (Walser) had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place." The Assistant does more to explain that opinion than any of Walser's other books. He was always trying to give a voice to the humble, the self-effacing, the marginalized. But as he aged he came to focus more and more on vignettes, and these seem to have gotten odder and odder. In this early work, he gives a full-length portrait of people on the edge, of society and of financial ruin.

I approached the novel with some uneasiness, wondering whether the delicate, fragile magic his briefer pieces demonstrate could sustain such a long (for him) work (295 pages). I'm happy to report that it does, and beautifully. There are short sections, like the hero's recollection of a childhood outing, that could very well have stood alone but are woven into the texture of the narrative flawlessly.

The outing he recalls was a perfectly beautiful and happy experience, and some fleeting references make it clear that this was far from normal for his home life. It's a delicate moment that brings the hero's life into sharp, individual relief, but also makes clear that his life is part of the same heartbreaking continuum as that of the doomed family he's temporarily become a part of.

I recently tried to re-read Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground (Notes from a Hole in the Floor, really; excuse the picked nit) and found I no longer have a taste for it. Dostoyevsky's satire is fiercely focused on the vile and pathological. Walser's hero is a far sadder figure, a nobody with drastically limited prospects. He not only knows that and has accepted it, he embraces it. He has his occasional bursts of meanness or ill-temper, but so do we all.

Jakob von Gunten is a shorter book, and perhaps more representative of Walser's irreduceable and irreplaceable oddness. But The Assistant is the book I'd recommend someone new to Walser to start with.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
"be a little humble" 12 May 2011
By Guttersnipe Das - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"Wherever there are children there will be injustice," writes Robert Walser, who was himself one of eight. For me, the most powerful part of The Assistant is the way Walser delineates the status of the four children in the house where the protagonist, Joseph Marti, has gone to work as the assistant to a doomed inventor.

Boys are always ranked higher than girls. Silvi, the less charming and pretty of the daughters, is tyrannized and reprimanded in a way that makes her even more peevish. Marti attempts to intervene, and accomplishes nothing, and the reader seethes along with him - at least until the next scene floats along, in the peculiar and addictive day-dreaming style of Robert Walser.

Like much of Walser's writing, The Assistant spends a lot of time contemplating the varieties of failure. Failure is shown to be ordinary and grinding, but it can also be seen - at least while it is still underway and not yet complete - as a peculiar kind of luck.

Joseph Marti is offended when he is told he has been "a little neglected by life" - and yet much of the beauty he so abundantly perceives seems inseparable from his status as a person overlooked and left out. What important person would ever have the time or impetus to wander as Marti does, both in nature and in the mind?
When Marti's pretentious boss, a masterpiece of bluster, has fallen apart, his unimportant and unattached assistant is free and unharmed, no worse off than he had been before, with "genuine faith in my little bit of strength."

In my opinion, readers new to Walser should start with one of the volumes of short fiction, followed by Walser's first novel, The Tanners, but The Assistant, too, is well worth reading, full of the pleasure in so many small, real, passing things. It is a good and quiet book, which follows the parting advice of the lady of the house: "Always be a little humble, but not too much."
An Extraordinary Book 7 May 2010
By A Common Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I haven't read anything like Walser's writing before and was engrossed completely from the first pages. This is one of those rare books in which honesty doesn't come at the expense of beauty, nor beauty at the expense of honesty. It was a great pleasure to be in the company of this novel's narrator, a "peculiar" character by his own description, but peculiar in the best sense of the word. He has made me see the world, ordinary life, nature, the complexities of the human mind and heart in an entirely new light. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
Ice-cold streams rising to touch you 28 Nov 2011
By Lost John - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
In 1903 a young man takes a job as clerk and accountant to an inventor. The inventor's office and workshop is in the basement of his imposing villa, close to the shore of Lake Zurich. The inventor has a wife and four children. The Assistant (we will capitalize his job title) is given a room at the top of the house and he dines with the family. They live well. Four years later, the young man, who has by now followed his brother, an illustrator and theatrical designer, to Berlin, enters a literary competition with a novel which he later said was written in just six weeks. The novel is about a young man who takes a job as Assistant to an inventor. The first name of the inventor and those of all four of his children are the same as those of the real-life originals. The "fictional" villa and its location are exactly as in life; the lakeside village has just two letters of its name changed; and the Assistant in the novel is given the author's mother's maiden name.

The above is not the plot of The Assistant; it's the real story behind a novel that clearly has significant autobiographical elements. Walser as a young man was able to obtain jobs (if not to hold them down), serve as required in the Swiss militia, and lead an unexceptionable life, but he felt himself a social misfit and spent the last 27 of his 73 years in mental institutions, more or less voluntarily. He died in 1956. Latter-day psychiatrists think he may have suffered from Asperger's syndrome. The heightened sensitivity of his writing and the introspective and sometimes unusually detached perspective that his characters have on themselves may be attributable to that condition. Walser wrote "I would wish it on no-one to be me." As readers, we can be grateful that through his writing he was able to redeem at least some small part of the pain he felt.

The Assistant exposes the dilemmas and insecurities of anyone who finds themselves in a situation that provides material advantages but cannot possibly last. As the moment approaches when the metaphorical ship must surely sink, should one jump or hang-on? If to jump, when? Should you try to take other passengers with you? Walser takes the Assistant, and us, out on the lake. "From the depths of the lake, he felt ice-cold streams rising to touch him". Professional reviewers of this book have tended to remain detached from the action, or to pay disproportionate attention to its humour - which indeed is there - but be prepared for those ice-cold streams.
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