Monday, April 2, 2012

Robert Walser - The Assistant (1908)

So I have recently read two books from two different time periods which were strikingly similar in subject: Stendhal's The Red and the Black and Robert Walser's The Assistant. Both books revolve around the experiences of young vassals who take on positions in 'aristocratic' houses and focus on their respective integration into the paternal arms of their upper class employers. Neither are particularly interesting reads, and both often frustrating in the characters' passiveness, but that is not to say I did not enjoy reading them. The Red and the Black was the more psychologically complex, but even so, not quite as 'existential' as it was made out to be. Much has been written already about this book, so I'll focus on the latter, which is still relatively unrecognized. I enjoyed The Assistant purely for the poetic, classical descriptions of the Swiss country side - this was it's main appeal to me, admittedly.

The protagonist, Joseph, who is much like a more tamed, prudish, and older Julien Sorel, is quick witted, but lacking ambition. He takes on an apprenticeship with a failing inventor, boarding a sinking ship for the sake of experiencing the sea, and clings to his own obedience and rebellion until the inevitable demise/collapse of his employer's business. Much of the book is a documentation on early 20th century caste psychology, or rather, caste Stockholm syndrome. There is an interesting dichotomy of scolding and caress in the way Joseph's master condescends him, and how this patronizing treatment is accepted and even appreciated; mistaken for familial love. He enjoys being subservient yet also enjoys his bold moments of undermining his employer and his employer's dainty and eloquent and personality-less wife, although he often apologizes immediately for these petty acts of defiance.

Nearly all of this commentary is outdated, yes, but the idea of social imprisonment is still very prominent outside of class echelon and extends to many other facets of our society. If you were to take an optimistic perspective, I also dare say that it serves to remind that despite what our idealistic criticism may debate, there has been some social progress in the last century, even if this 'progress' can be deemed miniscule. The gist of the book is summarized in a moment of realization about his follies and his curious and illogical affection towards his spiritual captors near the end:

"The assistant found it so lovely to be sitting there in that room. This was something that resembled a home. And how often, in former times, he had walked the city's lively and deserted streets, his heart filled with the cold, wicked, crushing sensation of having been abandoned. How old he had been in his youth. How the consciousness of not being at home anywhere had paralyzed him, strangled him from within. How beautiful it was to belong to someone, whether in hatred or impatience, displeasure or devotion, melancholy or love. The human magic that resided in a home like this - how dolefully enchanted Joseph had always been when he saw it reflected in some window that had been left standing open, making it visible down where he was standing on the cold street all alone, tossed from one place to another, without a home. How Easter, Christmas or Pentecost or New Year's came streaming fragrantly down from such windows, and how poor he felt when he thought of how he was allowed to enjoy only the paltry, almost imperceptible reflection of this golden, ancient glory. This beautiful privilege of the upper classes. The kindness in their faces. This peaceful doing, the living, and letting live!"

Related sentiments from a modern Joseph/Julien Sorel:

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