The mixed pleasures of introspection and tensions between solitude and society are wryly considered in the great, eccentric Swiss author’s previously untranslated 1908 novel.
Walser (1878–1956), best known for his autobiographical novel Jakob von Gunten and his virtually unclassifiable semi-fictional short stories, was a master of bemused self-deprecation whose directionless characters echo his own sad personal history of rootlessness and passivity (he spent the last 20 years of his life in an insane asylum). This novel’s feckless antihero Joseph Marti, whose early life has been “devoted” to entry-level jobs and oppressive compulsory military service, believes his fortunes have improved when he becomes an “assistant” to flamboyant inventor Carl Tobler, who lives with his wife and children in a comfortable villa overlooking Lake Zurich in the placid village of Bärenswil. A former machine factory worker, Tobler has received a generous inheritance that permits the indulgence of his engineering skills in the creation of such innovative wonders as an Advertising Clock, an Invalid Chair and a vending machine that dispenses live ammunition. But all is not perfect. Tobler has overspent unwisely, and Joseph’s primary tasks are attempts to keep the seemingly mad inventor’s numerous creditors at bay. The fetching Frau Tobler (to whom Joseph is helplessly attracted) is obliged to expend her beauty and dignity in fruitless appeals for further support from her imperious mother-in-law. And, as the Tobler children endure both abuse and neglect, Joseph—increasingly “tormented by the impossibility of thinking”—withdraws further from the collapsing world of his employers into gloomy memories of unrequited love and unfulfilled ambitions, and a bizarre friendship with his predecessor Wirsich, the drunken incompetent whose failed tenure with the Toblers has preceded, and prefigured, Joseph’s own.
One understands why Kafka acknowledged Walser’s influence. He’s one of the most underrated, and accomplished, of all the great European modernist writers.