16 May 08 | Chad W. Post

This is the third entry in our series covering all twenty-five Reading the World 2008 titles. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

After waxing rhapsodic about the PEN Walser Event, I don’t think I have much to add as to why one should read Robert Walser. He was an amazing writer who had a huge influence on European literature.

Cobbling together a bio of Walser from the NYRB, New Directions, and Univ. of Nebraska books in front of me is pretty fun:

Robert Walser (1878-1956) left school at fourteen and wrote numerous short pieces, essays, and a few novels. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Walter Benjamin, and W. G. Sebald. In fact, Robert Musil, reviewing Franz Kafka’s first book of stories, described Kafka as “a special case of the Walser type.” And Hermann Hesse stated, “if [Walser] has a hundred thousand reader, the world would be a better place.” In 1933, Walser entered an insane asylum and supposed abandoned writing, claiming “I am not here to write, but to be mad.”

The Assistant is Walser’s second novel, and the third to appear in print. (Jakob von Gunten and The Robber are available from NYRB and Univ. of Nebraska, respectively, and The Tanners is forthcoming from New Directions.) It’s the story of an inventor’s new assistant and his experiences with the Tobler family as it slides towards ruin.

The novel is charming and funny, and written with a really captivating tone. (Captured perfectly by Susan Bernofsky, who has translated a number of Walser works.)

Here’s a short sample:

The morning after the night of celebration, Joseph had a look at the “Marksman’s Vending Machine” down in the office, since this invention, after all, merited his attention. To this end he took up a sheet of paper upon which one could read and see the detailed description of this machine with its sketches and the instructions for its production. So what was the story of this second Tobler brainchild? [ . . . ]

The Marksman’s Vending Machine proved to be a thing simular to the vending machines for candy that travelers encounter in train stations and all sorts of public gathering spots, except that the Marksman’s Vending Machine dispensed not a little slab of chocolate, peppermint or the like, but rather a pack of live ammunition. The idea itself, then, was not entirely new: it was a concept that had been honed and refined, and cleverly translated to a quite different realm. In addition, Tobler’s “Marksman” was significantly larger than most vending machines, it was a tall, sturdy structure of one meter eighty in height, and three-quarters of a meter across. The girth of the machine was that of perhaps hundred year old tree. [. . .] The entire thing was practical and simple. [. . .] But there was more! This vending machine had the additional virtue of being connected to the sphere of advertising, in that a circular opening located on the upper part of the machine displayed a new segment of a neatly painted advertising disk each time a coin was introduced or the handle of the lever pulled.

I’m particularly excited that next month, The Assistant will be the first featured title in the Words Without Borders/Reading the World online book clubs. These book clubs have been slightly revised from past years and will include more regular participation of the translator, and a more complete “reading guide” featuring author bios, interviews, online resources, and the like. There will still be a monthly discussion, led in this case by Sam “Golden Rule” Jones, who, among other things, runs the fantastic Wandering with Robert Walser website. If you’re interested in Walser, this is a great opportunity . . .


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