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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Walser's strange world, 5 Mar. 2012
By 
J. H. Bretts "jerard1" - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
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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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humorous, but also with depth, a rewarding read, 27 Jun. 2008
By 
Thomas Cunliffe "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
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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. Joseph spends more time with Tobler's wife, whose aloofness with the assistant gradually thaws until she is sharing her worries and problems with the young man.

Walser writes in a humorous and readable style, and draws the reader on through the increasingly dire financial situation that develops.

A fine book, rightly published by Penguin under the Modern Classics range.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting journey, 7 Aug. 2011
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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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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ice-cold streams rising to touch you, 9 Sept. 2010
By 
Lost John (Devon, England) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
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." 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. Be prepared, though, for those ice-cold streams.
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