Archive for March, 2008
In Saturday’s Times, Melissa Katsoulis considers “three new literary homages to the wage slave,” among them our The Assistant:
Robert Walser’s semi-autobiographical The Assistant is not strictly new, having been first published in 1907, but Susan Bernofsky’s translation introduces English readers to this remarkable work of Swiss-German modernism. Walser was a troubled man who, after writing several gritty novels, spent decades in an asylum, writing nothing. “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,” he told one visitor.
The Assistant tells of a year in the life of Marti, a frustrated office clerk who constantly battles with the desire to say insulting things to his boss, an irascible inventor in a small country town. Our hero’s working day, which includes frequent stops for coffee and pastries in the garden and glorious lake-side rambles to the post office, may seem idyllic to today’s deskbound reader, but his anxieties are universal. Will his boss be in a foul mood? When will he get paid? Eventually, after a year whose changing seasons are gloriously described, Marti quits, deciding that when you hate a job so much you start drinking at lunchtime, it’s better the devil you don’t know.
A troubled man and his gritty novels — sounds like Charles Bukowski.
For some reason I’m inordinately amused by the idea of Bukowski (think Factotum) as a (really) peculiar instance of the Walser type …
A bounty of Michael Hamburger’s work on Walser has come my way recently.
First was Dali’s kind research on Hamburger’s 1961 essay on Walser; certainly, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the best essays on Walser ever written.
Next was delivered to my door, courtesy of my friend and WWRW co-founder Smyth, an original hardcover copy of Hamburger’s 1965 essay collection, From Prophecy to Exorcism, which includes a longer version of the TLS essay.
Finally came a tip from long-time Walser reader James Tweedie, who alerted me to the most recent issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, which includes twelve Walser poems never before published in English, all translated by Hamburger not long before his passing last June.
Perhaps my favorite item is the following, also via Jim. The poem has been on my bibliography for a while, but I hadn’t seen a copy. Here it is, as it appeared in German Poetry, 1910-1975: An Anthology in 1981.
My Fiftieth Birthday
I was born in April in a small town
With charming surroundings, where I
Went to school; vicar and schoolmaster
Were partly satisfied with me. In due course
I nicely got into a bank to learn the trade,
After which I saw cities like Basel, Stuttgart
And Zurich. Here I made the acquaintance
Of a most kind and amiable woman
Who resided now in the town, now in the country,
According to which seemed expedient to her,
And who drew my attention to
Heinrich Heine, whom probably I did not
Fully appreciate until much later.
The woman’s name was one that only I
Could divulge: but why should I do so
When discretion makes me happy? Of positions
In businesses I held a good many.
With alacrity, out of an impulse entirely
My own, I left one of these to be able to afford
And fill a new one; on the side
I wrote poems in the industrial sector
That later appeared, perhaps too lavishly,
In the publishing firm Bruno Cassirer.
For about seven years I then lived
In Berlin as a hardworking prose writer
And, when those gentlemen the publishers were
No longer willing to grant an advance, returned
To Switzerland, which many people love
For its beautiful mountains, there
To persist unaggrieved in poetic efforts.
Now, to judge by a few gray hairs,
I have reached the age of fifty years.