For years people thought that the scraps of paper that the Swiss writer Robert Walser left behind at the Herisau mental institution, where he had spent much of his adult life, were covered with a secret code. Only in 1972, sixteen years after his death, were the first writings of what is known as the “pencil area” published. It turned out that the one- to two-millimeter-high letters he had crammed onto cocktail napkins, menus, rejection letters and calendars were an abbreviated German–though one writ very, very small. Walser’s penmanship was an apt metaphor: For all the Anglo-American world knew of him, he may as well have been writing in code all along.

Born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, Walser was a favorite of Kafka and Musil. But unlike these and other giants of European Modernism, and despite the advocacy of Susan Sontag and translators Christopher Middleton and Susan Bernofsky, he remains little known in America. The Assistant (1908), translated by Bernofsky, is the most recent addition to Walser’s works in English, which include the novels Jakob von Gunten and The Robber and the collections Masquerade, Speaking to the Rose and Selected Stories. (Another novel, The Tanner Family, will be published next year.) The Assistant is a funny, charming novel about the fall of a bourgeois family, the Toblers, and the life of Herr Tobler’s assistant, Joseph. Fired for flubbing a calculation at his old job–“just another instance of mental indolence”–and dressed down as an “imposter,” Joseph arrives at the Tobler home, which is called the Evening Star, for a fresh start. But it quickly becomes clear that his old friend indolence is still very much with him.

Most of Walser’s oeuvre is less immediately accessible, consisting largely of feuilletons and prose sketches published in the days when newspaper editors were more adventurous. He also wrote enigmatic shorts, long descriptions of walks, bizarre one-page narratives–a man has a pumpkin for a head; a maid loses her charge–summaries of Greek tragedies, opinions, observations, novels and unclassifiable miscellany. Much of Walser’s work is punctuated by meandering asides and jarring transitions. He’s less of a name here than Kafka or Musil only partly because his work was translated later. The fact is, Walser’s stories are opaque, sometimes ethereal, sprinkled with aimless descriptive passages whose humor may only strike you on the second or third read. You have to pay attention.

Walser often wrote in the first person, using narrators who are writers themselves, and though he published cosmopolitan stories inspired by his years hanging about the opera houses and vaudeville theaters of Berlin, his preferred milieu is the small town, village or countryside. Walser is conscious of himself as modern–his story “The Cave Man” (1918) is a witty reflection on the debt owed to our ancestors (“Combs, with which rough and tousled hair can be set in order, did not exist in those days”). But he doesn’t take well to city ways or care to rhapsodize over train cars and factory whistles. “And the world, was it changing?” he asks in The Assistant. “No…. The face of the earth remained the same. It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge, beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry, but remained always the same…. Everything in and upon the earth was subject to beautiful, rigorous laws, just like human beings.”

Much has been made of Walser’s biography: the dashed dreams of being an actor. The brother, a stage designer in Berlin, more adept at navigating the niceties of literary society (and less given to standing on chairs and breaking publishers’ phonograph records). The apprentice clerkship at the Bern Cantonal Bank in Biel. The clerkship under the engineer and inventor Carl Dubler (echoed in The Assistant). The months as a servant at Schloss Dambrau in Upper Silesia (echoed in Jakob von Gunten). He moved around a great deal; between 1921 and 1929 he changed addresses fourteen times, publishing many short pieces in a dozen different German periodicals, a book of prose and two novels. And then there is the madness (echoed in the Robber’s “illness”). In 1929 Walser, complaining of hearing voices, voluntarily checked in to Waldau Mental Hospital near Bern; in 1933, diagnosed as schizophrenic (wrongly, it is now believed), he was involuntarily transferred to Herisau. On Christmas 1956 he suffered a heart attack while on one of the long walks he loved so much, and was found lying dead in the snow.

It was a fate uncannily like that which he imagined in The Tanner Family. But of course, Walser’s work does not always so neatly mirror life. While he writes about writers, and about assistants and students, and about poets renting cheap lodging, he also writes about men who talk to wine glasses and monkeys who win the hearts of princesses. His ongoing concern–power and the relations of power between people–grounds what might otherwise seem fanciful or fairy-tale-like. His protagonists are outsiders, outcasts, interlopers–servants, assistants, robbers, job seekers, geniuses fallen on hard times. Guides to the petit-bourgeois world and its manners, petty jealousies, conventions and gossip, they attract the inanity and cruelties of authority and must struggle to define their individuality, even as they welcome the opportunities and security that power provides. For Walser, William Gass has observed, “the power others possess is something that, like a great outcropping of rock, may fall upon you; but it is also a shade under which you may find shelter.” Freedom is resisting one’s superiors; being in charge a kind of servitude. He often refuses even to commit to his own words, a habit that renders the ordinary fantastic. His characters are given to long speeches, which provides them with plenty of opportunity to contradict themselves. His narrators are most comfortable in a contingent state in which the nature of their very existence is in question.

This is how The Assistant begins:

One morning at eight o’clock a young man stood at the door of a solitary and, it appeared, attractive house…. Before the eyes of this man who, it seemed, had just come from a journey…. He waited a moment longer, as if reflecting on some no doubt irrelevant matter…whereupon a person, a housemaid by all appearances, came to let him in.

He could simply have told us that the house was attractive, the man had come from a journey, he was reflecting on an irrelevant matter and the housemaid answered the door. Instead, he makes this altogether banal moment strange. The effect of this typically Walserian passage is not merely to unsettle the narrative and capture the uncertainty the young man is feeling but also to express the distinct sense that things are not as they seem. Or, more terrifying still, that “things,” ebbing and flowing on the surface of the unchanging earth, may not be anything at all.

The Assistant is set in Bärenswil, an imaginary village that may be Swiss but is never identified as such. There is an inventor, Herr Tobler, whose “inventions”–a clock with space for advertising; a vending machine that dispenses hunting supplies–are things that no one could possibly want and are obviously doomed to fail. He shouts and hurls things, particularly at Joseph, who was sent by an agency to replace Tobler’s former assistant, Wirsich, who was excellent in all ways except for his unfortunate habit of becoming uncontrollably drunk. Joseph is easily distracted, relishes drinking coffee with Frau Tobler and spends hours on gorgeous, bucolic walks to the post office. His favorite part of work is smoking cheroot cigarettes in the shop. Tobler blusters and yells but puts up with Joseph’s poor behavior for months. Gradually we begin to wonder: Are we reading about an employer and his assistant, or are they merely playacting? Things may not be what they seem, but everyone strives to pretend they are–so long as they do, they can make believe that catastrophe isn’t knocking at the door. And when Frau Tobler threatens the facade by running her mouth off about money troubles–their financial state is indeed dire, though you’d never know it from the cases of wine that continue to be delivered–it is the assistant who will have none of it:

“Frau Tobler, you are about to get worked up again. Why do you have to think of this all the time? Allow me to remind you that I am your humble servant. But why all these conflicts? I am going to get up from the table now and await your permission to be seated again.” He had risen to his feet. She said he should sit down again. He did as she instructed.
 Then they go outside, where Joseph pushes Frau Tobler on a wooden swing.

Joseph, who never once receives the salary from Tobler that he was promised, restores the status quo. He does this not only because doing so guarantees him lodging and all the fried potatoes he can eat but because, like many of Walser’s characters, he enjoys being of service. As the eponymous hero of The Robber explains, “It filled me with the most delightful gaiety to imagine myself someone’s servant.”

Walser’s young men choose to be servants. They cherish the space, freedom from power and anonymity that the habit of submission (and low ambition) provides. It is a nostalgic desire to return to a stable social order of well-defined roles, but the word “role” here is key. In the story “The Job Application,” the job seeker Wenzel assures his potential employers that he is “positively drowning in obedience,” but what an odd application he sends: “I am a dreamer rather than a thinker, a zero rather than a force, dim rather than sharp. Assuredly there exists in your extensive institution…work of the kind that one can do as in a dream?” (If only!) Joseph is fickle and cheeky: “Am I a beggar or a worker?” he asks Tobler before again becoming “utterly timid.” Jakob is a poor student. The Robber talks about serving and then does whatever he pleases, including, scandalously, serving. Obedience for these men is simply playing at obedience. They like the idea of being useful; the comedy results from their obvious inability to do any good. And like Bartleby, another assistant who preferred not to follow orders, this confounds their superiors, forcing them into the game, too.

In The Assistant, role-playing ends when friendship is forged–a bond not between a master and servant but between two men of the same class. Joseph leaves Tobler only after befriending the ex-assistant Wirsich. In the presence of one who has fallen even lower than himself, he finds courage. “Now that I have witnessed my comrade’s misfortune, I find my heart is able to embrace many things with the most beautiful and peaceful equanimity that in previous months might have caused it agitation. I feel the courage to look deeply, boldy and warmly into the eyes of my future life.”

Tobler’s response is revelatory: “Get out of this house at once! Go! To my enemies with you! I no longer need you.” Finally, he acknowledges his failure and admits the truth. He has no need of an assistant. And Joseph, like a good servant, needs to be of use. Having arrived alone, he walks off into the countryside with Wirsich–he has found someone new to take care of. “How could he have turned his back on an unfortunate like this?”

Walser wrote The Robber in 1925, after the Weimar period had thrown Germany into chaos and World War I had ripped apart the Continent. Some of his late writings can be seen in this light. But The Assistant dates to 1908. Its refusal of power is not only a reaction against its oppressive consequences but a celebration of rustic pleasures–swimming, boating, walks–and of the companionship that the brute exercise of authority precludes. But pleasure is elusive. Something is always awry, something always prevents Walser’s heroes from fully enjoying their idles. “Scarcely has he taken up his pen,” Walter Benjamin wrote of Walser, “than he is overwhelmed by a mood of desperation. Everything seems to be on the verge of disaster; a torrent of words pours from him in which the only point of every sentence is to make the reader forget the previous one.”

The effect of these self-canceling sentences, these interrupting tangents, is to create a suspended state in which all things are possible and no consequences have crystallized. Even the most serious topics–death, money, love–seem to melt at his touch. In Jakob von Gunten, Walser’s protagonist runs away from a good home to enroll at a school for servants, the Benjamenta Institute. As time passes, the line between what is happening at the institute (which is only dreamily sketched to begin with) and what is happening inside Jakob’s mind dissolves. The novel ends with Fräulein Benjamenta dead and Jakob running off with her brother, the Principal. Whether or not it “really happens” is hardly the point. It might happen: “And if I am smashed to pieces and go to ruin, what is being smashed and ruined? A zero. The individual me is only a zero. But now I’ll throw away my pen! Away with the life of thought! I’m going with Herr Benjamenta into the desert.” Another servant, another zero, another escape.

A Kafka story is tight–every detail is necessary, nothing is extraneous. In Walser, everything is extraneous. There is no center. His writing isn’t augmented with digressions; it is digression. It doesn’t build to an ending because it is always beginning again. There’s simply not time for everything. “You’ve no idea what a pile of things I have to tell you,” the narrator of The Robber sighs. But “Enough, enough. Already I’m afraid I’ve bored the reader atrociously. What in the world has become of all those ‘fabulous ideas’…?”

Unlike the strong, fleshy characters of Musil or Roth, Walser’s people are fragile creatures, liable to fall apart if pressed too hard. There’s little to hold on to–just an association, or a name, or a few melancholy thoughts strung together. And Walser makes things more complicated by disappearing completely into stories like “An Immortal” or “There exist drunken geniuses…” The story “Minotaur” begins, “When I’m awake as an author, I pass life by without a glance, sleeping as a man, and perhaps neglect the citizen in me, who would make me give up cigarettes as well as writing if I let him take shape.” He jumps to the “problem of nations” before dismissing it, and then decides that “the nation, which is something like a creature that looks to be making all sorts of demands on me, best understands, that is, is most likely to approve of me when I seem to ignore it.” He compares this to the Minotaur. “Perhaps one shouldn’t, I think, be all too much what one is, too bursting with things one is good at,” he muses, before concluding, “If I can consider what has here come into being from knowledge and unconsciousness to be a labyrinth, then the reader, like a Theseus, so to speak, now steps forth.” He provokes the reader–he never spites her, he mostly tickles her, and he doesn’t wander through labyrinths for their own sake. He has a plan. He wants to be followed.

There is a message, after all, and it too comes from under the shadow of a falling rock. “All of us, couldn’t we be a little readier to help and to please each other?” the narrator of “The Cave Man” asks. In the same year, Walser wrote in “Frau Wilke,” “Whoever has been poor and lonely himself understands other poor and lonely people all the better. At least we should learn to understand our fellow beings, for we are powerless to stop their misery, their ignominy, their suffering, their weakness, and their death.” This burden is shouldered in the quest for freedom of a deeper, collective kind. As he endures Tobler’s curses, Joseph thinks “he ought to feel pity for the entire world and also, just a little, for himself–but most intensely and pensively for those around him.” In “The Walk,” the narrator confides, “What we understand and love understands and loves us also. I was no longer myself, was another, and yet it was on this account that I became properly myself.” Perhaps these simple servants, freed from the competitions of modern capitalism, do more than flout the rules of the game. Perhaps their condition gives them a different power: the ability to see each other clearly, intensely, compassionately, fraternally, and only then to see, and at last to know, themselves. All these zeroes together, Walser suggests, may add up to something in the end.