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Robert Walser: Der Gehülfe (The Assistant)

If you have read other books by Robert Walser, this one will certainly have a certain familiarity about it, telling, as it does, the story of an employee who does not quite fit in. Our hero is Joseph Marti. He has worked in an elastics factory where he was nearly fired but survived and even left on good terms with his employer and his landlady, to join the military. He is now out of the military and has applied to work as a clerk for Mr. Tobler.

Mr. Tobler is an inventor. His business premises and his residential premises are the same. He is married with four children (two of each). Joseph is replacing Wirsich, who was a first-class clerk but, unfortunately, had a drinking habit. The Toblers had forgiven him many times but, eventually, despite their fondness for him and his abilities, they had had enough and he was permanently fired.

Mr. Tobler’s current invention is the Advertising Clock which, as its name applies, is something of a fancy clock which has a personalised advertisement on it for the company. Part of Joseph’s job is to help promote this clock. Unfortunately, there do not seem to be many takers and the Toblers seem to be struggling financially. This does not seem to bother Mr. Tobler who carries on spending with wild abandon, ordering, for example, the cheroots that he and Joseph smoke in quantities of five hundred. Mr. Tobler does have other inventions up his sleeve such as the Marksman’s Vending Machine and the Deep Drilling Machine.

By his own admission, Joseph is not very attentive and he is aware of this. Indeed, he wonders if he is deserving of his good treatment. He is fed well, gets free cheroots to smoke, has a small but pleasant room and is treated well. Mrs. Tobler thinks him odd and Mr. Tobler has to criticise him now again but he does help out, even in household tasks, such as rowing the family round the nearby lake.

Things, however, seem to be getting worse. Bills appear and part of Joseph’s responsibility is to ask for an extension which is usually granted, on the assumption that Tobler is well off and will pay. Mr Fischer arrives when Tobler is away, with a view to investing in the Advertising Clock and seems positive but that does not go well.

At home, Tobler is frequently absent and Mrs. Tobler is struggling. Their youngest, Silvi, is a persistent bed-wetter and Mrs. Tobler and the maid, Pauline, have decided the best way to deal with this is to punish her which naturally, makes her worse. The matter is not helped in that Silvi clearly is not as sweet or pretty as her older sister, Dora. However, Joseph certainly shows his kind heart, as he seems to be the only one who has any concern for the child.

As well as the family issues, the business issues are getting worse. The locals had considered Tobler to be reliable and likely to pay his debts sooner or later. Once they realise that this is not the case, they start getting more aggressive, with debt collectors regular visitors to the house. Tobler, sensibly, has bought a three month travel anywhere railway season ticket, which he takes full advantage of, and is frequently absent, leaving Joseph and his wife to deal with the problems. He does try to drum up money but is not very successful. Despite this, there is still spending at the Tobler house. A new grotto is installed in the garden – the unfortunate builders, of course, do not get paid – and they still eat well.

The story is, at least in part, based on Walser’s own experiences. He worked as the secretary and accountant for a less than successful inventor, Carl Dubler, who was married and had four children with the same names as the Tobler children. They lived in Wadenswil, a town, like Barenswil in this book, on a lake (Lake Zurich in the case of Wadenswil). Moreover, the surname of our hero, Marti, is Walser’s mother’s maiden name.

How much Joseph is Walser is difficult to say but, Joseph, like Walser, liked long walks, has a kind heart (helping not only Silvi but his predecessor, Wirsich, who pops up throughout the book), seems to lack ambition, is self-critical (though not really doing anything about his self-criticism) and easily distracted. (You are certainly quite fond of watering the garden, aren’t you? Shame on you! And have you given even the slightest thought to the patented invalid chair? No? Good Lord above, what a clerk. You deserve to be “neglected by life, Mrs.Tobler comments when Joseph neglects his employer’s invalid chair for the garden.)

Walser apparently wrote this book in six weeks (for a competition) and, to a certain degree, it shows. It could, perhaps have benefited from a bit of editing. However, while not his best book, it is certainly an interesting addition to his oeuvre.

Publishing history

First published in 1908 by Cassirer
First English publication in 2007 by New Directions
Translated by Susan Bernofsky