Well, I reached the end of Walser’s The Assistant, without having encountered any hoped-for plot twist or sudden increase in understanding as to why this story was even really that worth telling. However! About sixty pages from the end, Frau Tobler, the super-bourgeois housewife (for whom young Joseph bears feelings the strength of which he may be unaware) becomes, well, interesting. Having sat there more or less unobtrusively for the previous 240-or-so pages, the good Frau admits to Joseph that, nope, she doesn’t love her daughter. Her other kids? Sure– but she just can’t feel anything but disgust for little Silvi, and you can’t force someone to possess affection or love for another human being, even if you make a good effort, which she thinks she has.
The book was written in 1907, so we’re not smack in the age of a 1950s domestic cult– but I imagine the admission of that possibility was a shock to the reader, especially when placed in the mouth of such a paragon of upper-middle-class values. It seems to be a literary precursor of suspicions that were still appearing in the early 21st century; there’s a fantastic passage in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections about a mother feeling triumph and satisfaction at punishing her kid who refuses to eat his dinner– a passing encounter that came out of a couple of years before Lionel Shriver’s excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin. These latter treatments may have had something to do, at least peripherally, with addressing the sentiments and questions behind the child-free movement that was starting to gather steam– but that possibility, of being unable to love one’s own child, has most likely been with us in literary form for a much longer time, even if it might have been taboo to have brought it up. (If anyone knows of other examples, send them my way.)
A few pages after dropping her bomb, Frau Tobler also reveals that yes, she is solidly aware of how reality functions, of how inept her husband is at business, and consequently, of what’s in store for the family and its rapidly dwindling funds. More follows about the situation of (married) women, and seems to point to an analysis or critique of how gender expectations play out and could possibly undermine themselves– but Walser doesn’t move beyond the housewife showing some brief sparks of insight and will– with Joseph, at least, but never with her blustering husband, whose authority she truly seems to accept, even if in resigned fashion. At one point, I wondered if the Frau could be the real protagonist of the story, but the way she fit into the narrative, this story, at least, was humdrum Joseph’s.
Result? I’ll check this one off the list, trying to take comfort in the fact that literary success doesn’t always necessitate telling a great tale.