Der Gehülfe. Roman …

Berlin, Bruno Cassirer, [1908].

8vo, pp. [4], 392, + 6 ll. advertisements; a very good copy in the original illustrated wrappers by Karl Walser, minor wear to spine and front edge of upper wrapper; in a folding cloth box.


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First edition, rare: the second of Robert Walser’s three novels (‘for my money his best book’, Michael Hofmann), which charts the decline of a family. Hermann Hesse wrote: ‘Although it is full of the atmosphere of the beginning of the century, this tale immediately wins us over with the timeless grace of its tone, with the delicately and spontaneously playful magic with which it transposes everyday life into the sphere of enchantment and mystery.’ The story itself is based on Walser’s own observations of a previous employer (‘I had to invent almost nothing. Life took care of that for me’), and was written at one stroke, with very few subsequent corrections or changes.

The book’s cover was designed by Walser’s brother, Karl. ‘“The figure of the apprentice with an umbrella over his head and hat looked almost comical … Perhaps it was in punishment that the good book, otherwise certainly quite attractive, had no success, and I feel downright sorry for the publisher in retrospect when I think of how he became more and more taciturn toward me and toward himself.” It is hard to understand why Walser stressed failure in this particular case, for of all his books this novel was the most successful: Bruno Cassirer issued three printings (the second one still in 1908, the third in 1909), each consisting of a thousand copies … Nor was there any lack of a highly positive reception …’ (Siegfried Unseld, The Author and his Publisher, 1980, ch. 5, ‘Robert Walser and his publishers’).

Walser’s work fell into almost total neglect from the 1920s until the 1960s. He was a major influence on Kafka. ‘As literature’s present inevitably remakes its past, so we cannot help but see Walser as the missing link between Kleist and Kafka, who admired him greatly. At the time, it was more likely to be Kafka who was seen through the prism of Walser. Robert Musil, another admirer among Walser’s contemporaries, when he first read Kafka pronounced the latter “a peculiar case of the Walser type”’ (Susan Sontag).

Wilpert/Gühring 3.

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