Sunday, August 17, 2008

The illusion of the extraordinary

My former classmate Susan Bernofsky's new translation of the Swiss writer Robert Walser's 1908 novel The Assistant is spooky good! I just read the last passages with white knuckles, then finished it with that odd sadness attached to leaving behind a novel that has achieved something like the reality of a friend.

Immediately The Assistant enters that rarefied category of books to take on long trips because, if all else fails, I can always read this again and hang on its every word. It will compete for the first slot on that all-important desert-island list with I Served the King of England by the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal.

That novel - a bittersweet story of servitude, like The Assistant - pulled hard duty one night for me in Togo, West Africa. I thought I was coming down with malaria or some other nasty tropical fever. I took some powerful medicine, hit the bed, sweated without stop and reread the entire novel in about fourteen hours, and was fine after that.

I'm dismissing it as a coincidence that my two favorite novels turn out to be fringe European stories about sad-eyed servants. If that's somehow tangled up in mysteries of my ancestry ("I'm of the race that sang under torture," etc.), I guess I'll have to work that out "in the next life," as my far-out friends say.

The Assistant is hilarious on the subject of subordinate psychology, though. The assistant gets free room and board as part of his gig. A glimpse into his mind at dinner, one night when he is expecting to catch hell from his boss at table, will connect with just about anybody; we've all squirmed in expectation of torture.

"For dinner there was baked fish. It was utterly impossible to have eaten baked fish just a moment before and then immediately afterward find oneself the most miserable of human creatures. These two things simply could not be reconciled."

I can't get in trouble, because I am eating delicious baked fish: This is the magical thinking of the child, which is shot through Walser's fiction. (Go ahead and start with The Assistant, is my advice, but then move on to Selected Stories, translated by the genius poet Christopher Middleton.) Magical thinking also runs away with the assistant while he is helping the boss set off fireworks on independence day (that's August 1, in the author's native Switzerland).

"Again and again, one rocket after the other, one sparkler and fiery snake after the other. The way Joseph was standing there, he resembled a heroic artilleryman in the heat of the battle. He had assumed the noble-romantic bearing and stance of a fighter apparently resolved to give the last bit of his blood in the name of honor. This had happened without intention on his part, it was quite involuntary. At such moments, human beings can imagine for themselves all sorts of things, the image of something good and exalted and exceptional arrives of its own accord. All that is needed is a little wine and the thunderclap of gunfire, and already the illusion of the extraordinary has been spun tightly enough to let one go on dreaming an entire long, peaceful, humble night."

Speaking of magical childish thinking and a little wine, as I rough this out I am listening to an old Matt Fuller mixtape of Jonathan Richman, and sipping one to three glasses of the very delicious 2004 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot. I'll go on dreaming an entire long, peaceful, humble night, with no fear of malaria in sight.


The image is a famous one of Walser, in this case spoofed from some French guy's highly inspired MySpace page. I'll continue to salt my thoughts on The Assistant on the blog throughout the week.

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