I fell in love with Walser when I read The Tanners, a wonderfully dreamy work about siblings’ trials and tribulations. I was happy to be reminded of him again at the bookstore when I saw The Assistant, which I gobbled up over the past week, again dog-earring pages that capture the moody tranquility of the Swiss/German landscape through the passing seasons.
Joseph Marti arrives in the lake-side villa as the assistant to the inventor/engineer Tobler, taking up residence in the house but not collecting a salary since money was tight. His understatedness, taut and poised like a panther ready to pounce, his questioning of own abilities, his delight in household chores and the physical movement of labor. Money continues to be a problem; he meets his predecessor Wirsich who was fired for continued drunkenness, he travels back to the city and is told by an old friend that he never changes. He is fearless in swimming out to the middle of the lake in the autumn and bouncing around placing the storm windows on, but desperately fears his boss’ anger. The townspeople gradually realize Tobler will not repay his debts, stop visiting him and begin to openly harass him and his family. Tobler begs for money from family, taking journeys by train to pass the hat around. In the end, Joseph walks away arm-in-arm with Wirsich, looking for real employment.
“How strangely she laughs,” the subordinate mused and went on thinking: “one might, if one was set on it, take this way of laughing as the basis for a geographical study. This laugh precisely designates the region from which this woman comes. It is a handicapped laugh, it comes out of her mouth in a slightly unnatural way, as if it had always been held a little in check in early years by an all-too-strict upbringing. But it is a lovely feminine laugh, even a tiny bit frivolous.”