One understands why Kafka acknowledged Walser’s influence. He’s one of the most underrated, and accomplished, of all the...

THE ASSISTANT

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.

Pub Date: July 27, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2590-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2007

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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