cover image The Assistant

The Assistant

Robert Walser. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $16.95 (301pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1590-9

Swiss writer Walser (1878-1956) wrote this Kafka-esque novel in 1908. Joseph Marti, a 24-year-old clerk, comes to work and live in the home-office of inventor-entrepreneur Karl Tobler, a boor and practical incompetent. As business prospects dry up and investors lose interest, Joseph's job becomes a surreal parody of itself, his only function to send away creditors, smoke cigars and drink coffee with Tobler's wife. Yet as he awaits the inevitable financial collapse of the family, Joseph remains in thrall of Tobler, subject to nightmares about being berated while he works on, unpaid, in a thankless job that only gets more demeaning. Joseph continually writes letters, ""memoirs"" and journal entries, but always tears up his writing and throws it in the trash. He remains a willing prisoner of Tobler's rages and declining fortunes, for perverse love of the household in spite of his unhappiness-the archetype of a colorless, characterless, purely functional assistant. As intended, this sly, modern-seeming novel is almost unbearable to read.