Gerhard Meier elevates a simple ramble along a riverside to the status of a metaphysical inquest, with two old men, Baur and Bindschädler's words and thoughts looping and colliding until it is nearly impossible to tell one man from the other
Gerhard Meier, Isle of the Dead, Trans. by Burton Pike, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.
"Baur and Bindschädler, two old men, friends from their days in the army, share a habitual walk to the edge of town, Baur speaking incessantly—circling between past and present, inconsequential observations and profound insights—while Bindschädler, equally unmoored, listens, observes, reflects. A meandering meditation on mortality, and a gentle complement to the work of contemporaries Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard—not to mention Gerhard Meier's countryman Robert Walser—Isle of the Dead elevates a simple ramble along a riverside to the status of a metaphysical inquest, with Baur and Bindschädler's words and thoughts looping and colliding until it is nearly impossible to tell one man from the other."
From the afterword by Burton Pike:
“Constant here are the insistent wind, the drifting clouds, the autumnal leaf-whirling and coat-billowing gusts and breezes, and the ever-recurring cycle of nature. The reader should relax into the aura of the characters’ thoughts and observations, and over the first few pages let himself or herself be drawn into the absorbing world that Meier has so skillfully created . . . ”
“Isle of the Dead is a subtle novel about a meticulously detailed world. What distinguishes it from other modern novels, from the works of Robert Walser and Thomas Bernhard for instance, is that it does not convey an alienation from life but a sense of wonder, expressed with wit and humor, and, beneath the wonder, regret.”
"Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead reads as a moment when you acutely feel time within. You feel it pushing and pulling you as you simultaneously go back and forth and off to the side of yourself. Such moments can overwhelm with their plurality, their opening and closing possibilities, and their glimpses of the gulf between what is and what was. For the two old friends in the novel, Bauer and Bindschädler, the potency of this sensation is heightened by the distance of their advancing years from their former selves. As they talk and meander through the Swiss city of Olten, Bauer says, 'Why, Bindschädler, when one is old, does one have this crazy need – to look backward or to live with our yesterdays?'. That need is then evinced in the patterns, repetitions, and abstractions of the digressive and meditative prose.
As if constructing a person/action graph, Bauer's memories plot specific points and draw a line between them. His recollections, it seems, hinge on these markers. When talking about his family, the fact that his dead brother-in-law, Ferdinand, did not let his cherry trees grow too tall is a recurrent phrase throughout. Rather than being a reductive byline in place of the person, though, it is instead a pathway to him. The impression of Ferdinand and his cherry trees offers such rich sensual knowledge for Bauer because it is, as Proust puts it, a 'particular and spontaneous' memory that accesses a truth a deliberate or voluntary memory could not. From this source comes the revelation of the whole person. As one point leads on to another, Bauer goes from memory to memory; the past, whilst immutable as a remote, completed whole, offers, in fine detail, movement and malleability.
In contrast to Bauer's talking, Bindschädler mainly listens and internally reflects. Nature is ever-present in his narration. The weather and seasons permeate the mood and he returns throughout to a pondering of how crickets make sounds. Man-made constructions in the city are also noted and commented upon. Everything is in process. In Bindschädler's and Bauer's perspectives past and present coincide, as the act of remembering occurs within time, which is never stationary.
Multi-directionality is integral to the above notion that the past 'must somewhere have dissolved and yet is present'. The narrative rewinds, circles, zigzags and alternates between inner and outer voices, but, ultimately, goes forward. In Deleuzian terms, time is always 'splitting into two dissymmetrical jets, one making the present pass on and the other preserving all the past.' Within the preserved past memory may cut its own trajectory and seek certain curios, but time's arrow is inexorably moving in one direction, and it's the irreconcilability of this opposition that underscores the reverie with regret. When Bauer says 'if I should ever get around to writing, I want to do it Picasso's way' his unconsummated desire remains outside of what was and what is. It exists only as a future form reliant upon a conditional clause. The more the past expands, the more it confines because what lies inside it provides no reassurance of actualising an intention.
As the book draws to a close, Bindschädler notes that they are approaching the centre of town again. Nothing much has happened. Yet, time has passed and things are not exactly as they were. The gradual, gentle manner of the novel suggests that whilst there are big events in life, change is mostly incremental and unnoticeable. When you look back, you make the connections you need to in order to understand how it relates, if indeed it does at all, to anything of now. Isle of the Dead is infused with a wondrous appreciation of, rather than bitterness for, that process and although it does not shy away from death and sadness, it infers that emotional experience would be incomplete without them. Despite the apparent lightness, however, there is some terror in the act of remembering, in that it illuminates the incomprehension of the moment of occurrence. Perhaps because people sleep through their lives. Bauer references Picasso's wish to wake people up from their slumber and make them see that the world is 'not the way they thought it was'. Even if Bauer still has not got around to writing, the book itself prods at any complacency the reader might have about time's passage. Reading is not exempt from process and the constant movement within the prose does not let you forget the moment you have finished will, however subtly, be different from the moment you started." - Cassandra Moss
"I am reading Burton Pike's new breathtaking translation of Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead. Meier was a Swiss writer who lived from 1917-2008, who, after spending 6 months in a tuberculosis sanatorium, began to devote his life to writing, leaving his job at a lamp factory. Meier's is a newly discovered voice for the English reader; and Pike's translation is an epoch-making occasion. Pike writes in the introduction, by way of context: " Isle of the Dead is a subtle novel about a meticulously detailed world. What distinguishes it from other modern novels, from the works of Robert Walser and Thomas Bernhard for instance, is that it is written from the heart; it does not convey an alienation from life but a sense of wonder,expressed with wit and humor, and beneath the wonder, regret" (vi). This is a particularly suggestive comment to me. Pike does not mention Musil (with whose prose and moods he, of course, as the primary translator and the editor of The Man without Qualities, is quite intimate), but it would be illuminating to consider where on the scale of alienated-wonderfilled Musil hovers. Despite copious counts of cynicism and alienation in Musil's work, there is, for those with ears to hear, a rapturous ecstasis present in The Man without Qualities qnd Musil's other works, and a resistance to abandoning altogether the oft-maligned search for meaning and significance. Meir, who died at the age of 91, also makes me wonder what would have happened had Musil lived another 30 years or so. Pike mentions the influence of Proust on Meier, and the epigraph to Isle of the Dead is from Flaubert. There is, thus, a conscious aestheticism in Meier which is more submerged in Musil, yet present as well. It seems, so far, to be an elegy to correspondences, memory, time, and the way in which the brain collects, arranges, and connects all of the impressions and events of life--through the medium of poetry, or through movement, or perhaps through stillness, as the main speaker, Bauer, muses. I have not finished Isle of the Dead yet, but wanted to announce the book's publication here and give a few tastes of Meier's prose in Pike's version:
" 'So the blowfly flies onto the porch, Bindschaedler, against a window. Begins to wriggle. A spider comes, a little one, from the upper window frame. Spider and fly have at each other, violently, briefly. The spider withdraws, not before having wrapped up the fly. The blowfly wriggles as well as it can. Light mixes in, the clouds, the leaves. The blowfly gets more and more tangled up. Works free! Drops a few centimeters. Remains dangling. The spider is there. Wraps up the blowfly. Disappears back above. Leaves dance on the ground, in the air, vibrate on twigs. On the hillside cherry trees gleam. Farther down, pear trees. Here and there the hillside is greening. The blowfly wriggles and wrig--...The spider retreats. Comes closer to the blowfly from below, from behind. Bites! The blowfly twitches. The twitching ebbs. The spider withdraws. The fly is dangling dead in the room.--Cones of light fall now on this, now on that part of the staffage. Three, four, five pear trees sparkle, phosphorize. Then some plum trees. A cherry tree. Clouds come up over the Jura mountains, parallel to them, on the westwind'"(15).
" ' And everything, Bindschaedler, everything turns and turns. Now one thing is up, the other is down. And you fish in this confusion for a little point, just a single life, in order to extract it together with other little points, other lives, the way one pulls out fish, trout for example, on a hook; of course with the result that their lives ebb away in death throes.' Bauer blew his nose.
' I like to walk through this part of town. --Do you see all those things over there? Discarded parts from building the railroad, presumably. And through them the sky, at times bare, overcast, putting on its stars: firefly-lights above the field full of parts. I like walking through it. And if I were a photographer, Bindschaedler, these iron bones would be sold commercially so people could decorate their walls with them,' Bauer said, at the same time passing the back of his left hand across the fence of palings dividing the field of parts from the street, dividing it from the row of trees too, which consists (as mentioned) of maples with ball-shaped tops that reminded one of the head of a woodpecker tapping the trunk of a cherry tree, hopping in reverse from top to bottom.
[...] " 'This field of parts, Bindschaedler, has become for me the Field full of Bones hanging on the west wall of the soul (opposite the Three Women with Winter Asters),' Bauer said smiling, this time letting his wedding ring glide across the latticework, which made a noise as if a woodpecker were tapping directly on one's brain case.
I said to Bauer that perhaps the soul resembled that little house on the Ulica Dabrowiecka in Warsaw that contains a collection of some seven thousand artworks, which Ludwig Zimmerer, the owner, declared a paradisical cage. The constant stream of new pictures compels a constantly new, technically sophisticated space-saving presentation, so that from behind and below something can still be conjured up" (26-7)." - Genese Grill
"Isle of the Dead is the first volume in Gerhard Meier's 'Amrainer tetralogy', Baur and Bindschädler. It features two old men, Baur and Bindschädler, out for a walk in the Swiss town of Amrain (a stand-in for Niederbipp, Meier's hometown) on St.Martin's Day -- 11 November -- in 1977. It is Bindschädler that records and reflects on their outing, while Baur does most of the talking -- Bindschädler quoting him directly at length, while only very occasionally and indirectly ("I said to Baur" ...) mentioning his own contributions to any sort of dialogue.
This is typical meandering fiction - best summed up by Baur when he notes:
"I've strayed from the subject, Bindschädler. But our life, our thinking, is probably a constant deviation, although one doesn't really know what one is deviating from , in order finally to deviate to where there are no shadows, no winter.
Bindschädler describes their route and turns, and the various subjects that come up, his mind occasionally drifting off a bit, while Baur continues, almost without pause, to tell his stories and make his observations.
As Baur notes:
Why, Bindschädler, when one is old, does one have this crazy need -- to look backward or to live with our yesterdays, or to grasp again and again the threads that bind one with what has passed away, vanished, is irretrievable, that must somewhere have dissolved and yet is present, not to be got rid of ?
Taking its title from the paintings by Arnold Böcklin - as Baur notes, there are five versions of the 'Toteninsel' [see, for example, the Wikipedia page] - Isle of the Dead similarly avoids a definitive form (and, as noted, is only the first of four volumes of variations on all these themes). It meanders along with its protagonists, delving into both the past as well as incidental minutiae - from a blowfly captured by a spider to thoughts about the: "two omega cells that steer the sounds crickets receive like a sound compass".
It's an agreeable little ramble, in a quiet Swiss town, two old men at some - but not a complete - remove from life and history at its fullest. It's reflective fiction, with two protagonists the reader only slowly gets to know - Meier allows things to unfold slowly and gently - and it's a shame only the first installment of the tetralogy is available in English so far. But it's a pleasant, engaging short trip." - M.A.Orthofer
"New in English, Gerhard Meier’s 1979 Isle of the Dead recalls W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn as two friends traverse their town, discussing nature and death in elegant prose.
Two old men, Baur and Bindschädler, take a stroll through the Swiss town of Olten. Baur does all the talking, Bindschädler listens, reflects, processes. The date is November 11, 1977. We are told an Indian summer could be in the offing. But mostly we are told about the past – Baur’s past, and his time spent growing up in a small town called Amrain.
Isle of the Dead, originally published in 1979 as Toteninsel, has just been released by Dalkey Press as part of their Swiss Literature Series. Weighing in at only a hundred pages it is a slender novel, but a thoughtful and beguiling one, too. Essentially it is a monologue, comprised chiefly of Baur’s recollections and observations, of the town he has left and the one in which he now calls home. Streets and buildings and the surrounding nature trigger a succession of memories relating to his youth: his siblings and parents, his doomed relationship with the baker’s daughter, his travels. Meier intercuts Baur’s reminiscences with meditations on music, literature and art (the novel’s title is appropriated from a painting by Arnold Böcklin). In a rare interjection, Bindschädler, Baur’s sounding board, likens poetry to “a spider within us,” busy spinning threads “connecting to things.” But really it is Baur’s remembrances that do the connecting, each one teasing out the next. The web we are presented with is an intricate weave of mini-disquisitions, every one a digression. At one point, realizing he has strayed from an earlier theme, he says in his defense that “our life, our thinking, is probably a constant deviation, although one doesn’t really know what one is deviating from.”
Most of Baur’s deviations incorporate images of death or are stand-alone commentaries on it. Again, nature is often the catalyst (winter asters “have the odor of death about them”) or it is complicit (two elm trees watch over the plot in the cemetery “where my father was moldering”). When death is allowed to seep in, the bucolic serenity shatters and a shadow passes over the text, like that created by the many dark clouds which scud by above both wandering men. “Love produces new life,” Baur tells his friend, before adding, “A lot of light is part of death too.” We come to expect and to relish such abrupt chopping and changing. The most extreme case is when Baur talks of windless blue days whose stillness was disturbed at most by the scream of a calf, a pig, from the slaughterhouse. The meadow saffron were already past their bloom, while the dahlias looked up at the sky in painful beauty.
In addition, one minute he is harking back and pointing out the houses of friends and neighbors from his sunlit childhood, the next we are being shown their gravestones – “There lies Ferdinand, freezing.” Trees are everywhere: fir trees reminding Baur of newspapers and books, cherry trees invoking brother-in-law Ferdinand’s pledge to “saw off its dead branches to keep the tree from dying too quickly.” Baur notes that trees also supplied Ferdinand’s wooden coffin.
Through Baur’s soliloquizing Meier informs us that we shouldn’t be jarred by this juxtaposition of death and nature, that in fact both go hand in hand as the cyclical order of things. When Baur isn’t regaling us with facts and figures as to how the human heart pumps to keep us alive, he is enthusing about the manure that gives life to the landscape, the country earth that will one day profit from our death. His message seems to be that while death may be the end, our dying is not in vain. Also that death is more intertwined with life than we’d care to admit. At one juncture both men walk past an art nouveau house, which in turn leads to another brief aside, this time on the movement. Art nouveau, for all its emphasis on “spring awakening” and “celebration of life,” was bound to “a secret, uncanny relation to sympathy with death.” Meier reinforced this in a 1993 interview, in which he also explained his choice of title: “But sometimes the world paradoxically appears to me as an island of the dead, while the realm beyond the world or the earth seems to me the opposite”; and that “the earth is a giant ghost ship, where one stands for a certain time on deck and then goes below.”
Gerhard Meier was born in 1917 and lived most of his life in the small Swiss town of Niederbipp, the inspiration for Baur’s Amrain. He studied building construction but later worked in a lamp factory where he became designer and manager. After spending six months in a sanatorium for tuberculosis in 1956-57 he decided to devote the rest of his life to writing. His novels and poems were critically acclaimed, and he won several literary prizes. Isle of the Dead was the first part of a Baur-Bindschädler tetralogy, the last book, Land der Winde (Land of the Winds) appearing in 1990. He died in 2008 aged 91.
Critics have compared him to Beckett and Thomas Bernhard and indeed we can draw comparisons: his pared-down casts mulling over the transience and futility of human life; those frequent off-kilter and off-course lines of thinking and speech. In Meier’s case it is easier, however, to find literary descendants than antecedents. Stylistically, W.G. Sebald is his closest kinsman, The Rings of Saturn in particular owing much to Isle of the Dead. Both novels follow the tracks of contemplative walkers whose thoughts meander with their steps, and who view present topography as a springboard for re-examining culture, history, and their own private pasts.
Meier’s two men reach the town limits and, we feel, a certain boundary of Baur’s memory. This is all for now; he will surely disappear down an entirely new avenue of remembrance on another route on another day. It is telling that Meier plays out these events/recollections in early November, a time for remembering the dead (in the UK November 11 is actually named Remembrance Day). These two concepts – remembering and the dead – permeate the book and intensify its wistful, elegiac tone. That dream of an Indian summer is especially short-lived, and when snow begins to fall at the end both the characters and the reader are reminded that nature’s course may be circular, but it is also unpredictable. Even memory can deceive us. In one quick, clever sketch Baur casts his mind back to flowers from his past, large ones and very blue, but then doubts himself, believing he has been tricked by “an illusion of memory,” that they couldn’t possibly have been so big and bright. Meier impresses here, as he does consistently throughout this short, shrewd novel, when we learn the flowers Baur is trying to remember are forget-me-nots." - Malcolm Forbes
"Gerhard Meier was born in 1917 and spent most of his life in the small Swiss town of Niederbipp. He studied building construction for several semesters, but in 1938 went to work in a small lamp factory in Niederbipp, where he rose to the position of designer and manager. He had always wanted to be a writer, but for the next twenty years avoided literature entirely, out of fear it would absorb all his energy. But spending six months in a sanatorium for tuberculosis in 1956–57 made him decide to return to writing. He produced a steady stream of books of poetry and novels that attracted increasing attention and literary prizes, culminating in the Baur and Bindschädler tetralogy (1979–1990), of which Isle of the Dead is the first book. Meier died in 2008 at the age of 91.
This interview took place on July 29, 1993, and was originally published in German in Das dunkle Fest des Lebens: Amrainer Gespräche (Zytglogge, 2001).
In Isle of the Dead, it wasn't the stroll through Olten, or the teaming up of Baur and Bindschädler that was the starting point—you were looking for a vehicle that could elevate the material you chose, weren't you?
- The important thing was this world of Amrain, which is populated, even by myself, and there of course I myself was a model to a considerable extent. Baur and Bindschädler are two invented figures who stroll through Olten, and in doing so bring Amrain to life. Through their conversation, through their talking, I could enter into the history of certain families from Amrain and also into the history of my own family, the history of my own life. And this human cosmos—for heaven’s sake, it sounds rather pretentious—which includes the natural world, the animal world, the plant world, and the world of things, all this I tried to capture through the conversation of the two old veterans.
Did you give Baur and Bindschädler particular characteristics as you went along, according to the different way each behaves?
- There’s something to that. In all my works I did very little planning, manipulating, or cheating, but left things to undecidable, unpredictable powers. I didn’t intervene strongly, and that perhaps gives the whole a certain credibility and self-contained quality. [. . .] It’s not worked out, not forged, not an artisanal production, but arose vegetatively, by way of rampant growth and powers and influences that were not apparently conscious in me.
Did you intend the reader to take Baur and Bindschädler as separate individuals?
- I do believe that they are two distinct figures. Baur is somewhat more talkative and the other perhaps rather thoughtful. They are two characters, but they also mirror each other as well.
For the most part it’s Baur who talks about his life, while Bindschädler mostly listens, and then obviously writes down what he’s heard. So there is this other distinction: Baur simply has the ambition to write at some later point but doesn’t, and Bindschädler is the one who actually writes.
- Bindschädler didn’t want to write, but ends up writing. That’s exactly right.
Could one say that you divide yourself between a Gerhard Meier who experiences and a Gerhard Meier who writes?
- That might come from my shyness about putting myself forward. That could be. But I approach a text rather the way a musician approaches a score, by way of hearing, by sounds, rather than by way of the intellect. I do respect the intellect, and would like to involve it, but, you know, the rest of the world relies on intellect. Those who don’t are children [. . .], to some extent the old, and perhaps precisely artists. People who cultivate what the world otherwise doesn’t cultivate.
From the very beginning of the novel, you posit remembering as a constant of life.
- I’m convinced that we are not born unwritten. It’s not only the birds that come into the world with the program of their migratory flights inscribed, but we too have received a mental dowry, a mental resource program laid out for our path, and we seem to be homesick all our lives for the substance, the aroma, the essence of this essential resource. Like animals, we have certain programs within us [. . .] without which we could not live. Of course, later on what we learn and what we experience is added to that, so much so that at times one asks oneself—as Baur does at one point—whether in the end we live only in order to be able to remember ourselves. Because everything in creation is so much a matter of being borne away by wind and stream, there must be an opposing force, which we call the power of memory, so that whatever it is does not get lost, but remains. For that reason art seems to have to do with remembering. [. . .] [But] life isn’t only remembering. Life is acting, breathing, eating, sleeping, working, protecting oneself against wind, cold, drought, hail, and heat. There are functions, tasks, and events, among others. [. . .] But if we orient ourselves on material things, as has happened in the last few decades, we impoverish ourselves in a way that can become quite grotesque.
Isle of the Dead has many connections to your reading.
- [. . .] Cooper made me into an Indian or American, Tolstoy into a Russian or Slav, and through Proust I almost became Gallic. That’s how these people can stamp you.
Are memories [. . .] connected to, and activated, in the working of your imagination?
- I believe so. [. . .] Memory works like a sieve in which something is kept back. Without this sieve the individual life, life altogether, runs the risk of disappearing into a distant, unknown ocean. That’s why remembering is so important, and that’s why, in my opinion, we have art.
As epigraph to Isle of the Dead you have Flaubert’s motto, "What seems beautiful to me and what I would like to do is a book about nothing."
- There is much more in this motto than just a desire of Flaubert’s. It contains the whole drama of creation. I don’t believe in world-shaking, world-historic events, in large-scale occurrences. [. . .] However powerful, however gigantic events may be in the world, something always remains the same, moving again and again along the same paths, and in this simple realm their drama, their greatness, is revealed. That is where, ultimately, there is an incredible stillness. I’ve been preoccupied with these phenomena my whole life long, without intending it, and now that I’m getting old I realize with an almost ecstatic fascination that apparently it’s this ungraspable aspect that is what it’s all about: this passing on, this blowing wind, these shadows. It sounds almost illusory, but it’s the opposite of that. It’s not art’s job to stuff us full or comfort us with illusions. Art’s task is to disillusion us by showing us that life is not only a matter of a sausage, a piece of bread, and a bottle of beer, but that it is an unvarying, silent behavior that exhausts itself in endless repetitions.
Among the everyday events in Isle of the Dead, walking is central, the stroll through Olten. Did you take this route often? Was it a favorite walk of yours?
- For a time it was pretty much my invariable route in Olten, and out of love for the things I came across, the banalities, I gladly laid out this route precisely in the novel. Spirituality must be hung on banality, otherwise it’s not responsible, not perceptible, and that’s a good thing. But I don’t have a particularly close attachment to Olten. [. . .] I especially emphasized the industrial quarter. I was drawn over and over to these out of the way places—or to put it differently, the beauty of ugliness got hold of me again and again in life.
Does that mean that the beautiful should no longer be evoked?
- I noticed in William Carlos Williams how gloriously the unbeautiful, the unaesthetic, the ordinary, the small, can shine forth when it is placed against the right background. I’m a little in love with these discordant phenomena. [Reads aloud Williams’s poem "Pastoral."] I have never been interested in aestheticism understood as the merely beautiful, the select, the dressed up. For me the aesthetic is anchored much more deeply, connected with the completely immaterial and with the movingly small, the eccentric, the vulnerable, the susceptible, the inconspicuous. That’s why I like Williams so much, but not only because he illuminates this world. In art it’s not just a matter of the motif, of what is represented, but above all it is the sound. [. . .] Art has to do not only with the beautiful and the good in the solid bourgeois sense, it is much more existential and above all more incomprehensible. We should confess that we really comprehend little, understand little, and that we are dependent on intimations and traces in order to find our place in the world. Reason alone won’t carry us through, and often leads us astray.
Walking resembles writing. Have you felt an affinity between these two activities?
- [. . .] I had my best insights, my best thoughts while walking, and I believe that walking and talking are very, very close to one another. Less so walking and writing, but walking and talking. In walking one can have good conversations. That’s doubtless why I sent the two friends [in Isle of the Dead] on such long, conversational walks, because I think that the world, and life, can best be captured that way.
You have astonishing sequences of associations from image to image. Wouldn’t you call that free association?
- No, not consciously, never, never.
It doesn’t have to be conscious. Free association could indicate capturing something that occurs to you suddenly and involuntarily.
- Yes, but not randomly, only associations that are interrelated and in every case connected with one another. Everything takes place within this cosmos, everything fits within the sphere. Nothing falls outside, although certain skips occur and are felt as such, certain motions, but only occasionally.
Isle of the Dead can be considered a novel about a family, something new in your work. Was this a sudden revelation while writing?
- No, because since childhood I’ve been extremely interested in what goes on under the roofs of the houses around mine or in the families of people I knew. The happenings in my own family involved me directly, and had the greatest effect, entirely existential. I had to endure them or participate. [. . .] Also, I was a component of the musical scores that arose over the decades under my roof and in the area. These scores filled me with sounds, and I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to save some of these sounds in my sound, in my writing, although as I mentioned before I have never placed people in the center, or wanted to.
What were your feelings when you reread Isle of the Dead? Did the real figures behind their literary depictions come to mind?
- That too, but my overriding impression was of the shadows of clouds passing over a landscape, in which it was less the clouds than their shadows that struck me. That was by no means deliberate, but reading a book releases light or an aroma or a tone in me. I need to read a book or see a movie a second time or hear a piece of music a third time, before the pegs emerge, these banalities, these foreground things, these so-called realities. I’m above all interested in the sound, and that’s why when I read a book for the first time I have only a weak concrete impression [. . .].
Don’t you also want the characters to be accurate, down to the smallest details?
- Yes, and it’s precisely such trifles that reveal yet again the painful being thrown into life [Geworfenheit, Heidegger’s term—trans.], the painful laying bare of the person, that stands behind it. I never render such banalities cynically or arrogantly, they simply form the line of melody in a great piece of music, in the score of this character. I am—that’s why I recited Williams’s poem “Pastoral”—a lover of the banal, the small. It is so moving when it’s done right, when it is really banal, but it needs a background in front of which it can shine.
Have your three sisters read the book?
- They may have read in it. [. . .] But the novel is really not one to one, not a chronicle. From what I found at hand something really new came about, I don’t need to have any scruples about that. Besides, I’ve never made fun of people but have always respected them. I might almost say that I have always placed other people above me. Even towards the most ordinary people I felt I was the weaker, the frailest. What saved me from feeling superior has been a certain vegetative love, love for the swallow, the daisy, the person. [. . .] Yet I’m no grand reconciler, I never wanted to turn the world into an idyll, on the contrary: I’m fascinated by the world beyond the idyll. An idyll, as we understand it, is a put-on, an inconsistency, and to strive for an idyll is of course a self-deception.
When you present characters in a few traits, a few gestures, were you thinking of how little such a life amounts to, and how little our inner and outer images of ourselves correspond to each other?
- Yes, and the grotesque that shows or expresses itself in these images is also moving, and plays a huge role. Beckett didn’t invent the grotesque, he only portrayed it. The grotesque is a given, and we can’t do anything about it. But one must not except oneself and think that one is better, as writers in our century, especially in recent decades, have sometimes done. That’s of course not the right way. A writer, any artist, must have a great deal of love. That sounds as if one hardly dare say it, but one must simply say it. Love, an existential love for the world, is a basic power, in life as in art.
Past moments are presented in such a way in Isle of the Dead that at times life is sometimes transfixed as paintings, which hang in the art gallery of Baur’s soul. Is your understanding of this aesthetically grounded?
- I do believe that we are overwhelmed by paintings, images, that our soul resembles the museum of Ludwig Zimmerer in the Ulica Dąbrowiecka in Warsaw, where some seven thousand paintings by “naïve” Polish artists are hoarded and preserved. Our soul is a gallery, a museum full of paintings, which each of us collects in his own fashion. [. . .] Life can apparently only be apprehended through the picture, the image, never by way of the intellect, never by way of the abstract or the concrete. [. . .] We think we have firm ground under our feet, in rationality, but that is a fallacy. It’s precisely groundlessness that provides a firmer ground than the rational.
The title of your novel is that of a famous painting by Arnold Böcklin,although it’s rarely mentioned in the text. Why did you choose it?
- I can’t say I remember much about that. On the one hand I have a rather divided opinion about Böcklin, on the other hand the Basel version of his Isle of the Dead [. . .] has always moved me. But sometimes the world paradoxically appears to me as an island of the dead, while the realm beyond the world or the earth seems to me the opposite. That might explain the title, [. . .] because a relatively small number of living individuals, even if numbered in the millions, inhabit the earth, whereas a great number are present who are stored, that is as skeletons, under the earth. So death is more strongly present than life, that’s true of the plant and animal worlds as well. The earth is a giant cemetery, a ghost ship, where one stands for a certain time on deck and then goes below.
You compare Amrain itself to a Persian carpet. How does that fit with your understanding of literature?
- My understanding of art or literature includes the knowledge that art, for example a novel, is first and last a product, but that art has to do and should have to do with art, that art cannot be a pale imitation but remain in contact with life, must in some sense serve life. That’s what makes art so provoking and paradoxical: on the one hand it is artificial, on the other hand it interests us only when it relates to creation, to life, to human life, to individual people. One could also see this carpet’s pictorial qualities, in their repetitions, as a musical score. [. . .] Art has to do with artificiality, with aesthetics, and also with the world opposite so-called reality. On the other hand, art should open up this reality, or at least let it be sensed, like nothing else can. Only by way of art can we sense the extent of creation, feel it, taste it, hear and see it.
Is art also a means of overcoming the loneliness of the individual?
- Art also has to do with eroticism, that is, with love in general, but also in the sense of sexual love. Without love, without the erotic, without the aesthetic, creation would be pale or dark or not worth living in, and it is perhaps out of these three elements that poetry arises. That’s what sings in this image of the meadow of flowers; perhaps it’s there that, in a childish fashion, art is represented, in that one has only an image at his disposal in order to portray something unimaginable, incomprehensible.
You say in Isle of the Dead that “the right to happiness” would be “a meager utopia.” Freud said that man’s goal of happiness is not contained in the plan of creation.
- I don’t know Freud’s statement, but I am most deeply convinced that we have a right to nothing. We have perhaps [. . .] the grace of encountering or the grace of becoming part of something. Of course that sounds rather pious and discordant to many people’s ears, but I am convinced that we are not the ladies and gentlemen that we always try to present ourselves as, but are bound up with creation the way the swallow, the daisy, or the cherry tree are. That is where we belong, and we can be happy that we belong there. [. . .] We belong there, and cannot make an exception of ourselves. The daisy takes its life as it is given; the swallow makes its flights, brings up its young, and chases mosquitoes in the evening against the sky. [. . .] They’d never dream that they might have a right to happiness or self-realization. That should also be true of us. Of course we are rather privileged, but we belong to the great whole, and when we accept that, we do not endanger the great whole. But when we arrogate something to which we have no right, we endanger the basic principles of our life, as we have very clearly done in recent decades." - Interview by Werner Morlang
"Bindschädler, at three, four, five one lives off the images, the thoughts one has inherited, as a dowry for life.—At sixty-three, -four, -five one walks along a river of a Saturday, declares it North American, feels its gray, orange, yellow tones as Indian tones, hallucinates a canoe on it, with the last Mohican inside, crowned with two, three colorful feathers. And one understands, glancing at the oaks by the river, that the Germanic tribes revered oaks. And one looks back on the decades of duties fulfilled as a citizen," Baur stumbled, "that is, on decades when one produced shoes for example, rifles, made bricks, tiles, bicycles, cars, television sets, and so forth, or made oneself useful in some other way, focusing on punctually observing the start of the workday, the end of the workday, above all the start. And one remembers having tried to keep body and limbs clean all those years, the dirtying oneself that comes from inside and that comes from outside, from the street for example, from the lathe, from jam, to get rid of it, also the dirt between the toes and other parts. And you think of the Eau de Cologne you poured in your left hand to spread on your cheeks, neck, nape, forehead. And you think of the Eau de Cologne you poured in your right hand to spread on your cheeks, neck, nape, forehead. You see again the clothes that you put on, all those years; you see particularly the pants, and of these especially the legs, which couldn't be too long or too wide; but the jackets had to meet certain requirements too, for instance they absolutely had to have two and not three buttons in front, had to provide as it were freedom in the elbows, had to provide as far as possible pockets with flaps; coats likewise, coats in gabardine or in herringbone pattern; and umbrellas too surge into memory (the most recent ones springing open automatically)—and hats, berets, and above all of course shoes, which fascinated one again and again by their smell, their color (especially chestnut brown), their form—all that is really quite clear. And you think of the relations you entered into with the tender sex, that is, with a quite specific representative of this tender sex. And one is surprised that a tie of this kind can endure over decades, which would be impossible to ascribe to one's own merits (and that "with the tender sex" is of course farcical). And one sees before one the children who issued from this connection, the son for example, as a three-, four-, five-year-old boy in late summer, Indian summer, or autumn, and how delighted he is with rolling potatoes, piling them in a heap as if he were counting them; or one sees one of the daughters as a three-, four-, five-year-old girl digging up wild carrots on the embankment of the local Amrain railroad, between the tracks, from which she could only be coaxed away by the threats of her playmates to call the police," Baur said, stopped, looked at three gulls flying up the river, more or less at the height of the oaks, setting down, letting themselves drift, endeavoring to keep facing upriver.
"One remembers all that, Bindschädler, not to speak of the orgasms that crown life like the feathers on the head of the last Mohican," Baur said, lifting his left heel (in place), setting it down, lifting it, and so on, with an expression that indicated a concentration of the senses.
Rail cars coupled, far off. On the river the gulls floated past. A gust of wind brought exhaust fumes. We walked on.
"We were cleaning up the borders," Baur said, "because we wanted to put down composted soil. The trees, at least those that still had leaves, most of their leaves, stood there like torches, above all, of course, the cherry and the pear trees. It was almost evening. At times the leaves of the cherry trees vibrated as if on command, only to expire as one into a kind of immobility. And you know, Bindschädler, I am a visual person: the trunks and branches of the cherry trees, especially the trunks, were black, making the cherry trees seem like torches on black posts, occasionally flown over or even swarmed around by crows, although to point out the crows' blackness here would be unnecessarily specific, for crows simply are black. But when they, the crows, appear too often and in unusual numbers I feel somewhat uneasy, because crows seem at times to be accompanied by imminent misfortune, which of course almost borders on superstition, crows and misfortune.
"So when my wife and I were recently working in the garden and heard voices from the east side of the house, one still had something like Chopin Etudes in one's head, for that odd behavior of the leaves evoked piano music, and why not then music of Chopin, for it seems really saturated with Polish, Galician autumns, with torches on black posts, whose wraps, who knows for what reason, tremble at times, only to again motionlessly enclose a light around which crows are swarming. So one heard voices from the east side of the house, walked toward them, and was abruptly standing before three women, women with winter asters, whose bouquets were so large that they were forced to carry them in their arms, which led one to see godmothers in these three women, with children to be baptized in or on their arms, bedded in pastel-colored winter asters, which in turn conjured up a correspondence in art, Picasso's Woman with Rooster, in my opinion his most beautiful painting, although you feel that this 'most beautiful' is misplaced, for superlative sloganistic gestures really do consort badly with decent, serious consideration of paintings, texts, or musical performances," Baur said, with an expression as if he were trying to make out sounds of some kind.
A light plane circled over the town, came in for a landing on the small airfield nearby. The housefronts on the opposite riverbank appeared classical or bore traits of art nouveau, or the simple lines of our own day.
"What distinguished the three women with winter asters from real godmothers was their clothing: two were wearing black coats, one just a jacket. In addition, all three were quite old: my three sisters, named Julia, Gisela, Johanna. Julia was the one with the jacket. Greetings were exchanged, the three sisters invited into the house, their parental house, Gisela and Johanna were urged to take off their coats, and sat down around the table.
"Gisela and Johanna related that in Zurich they had visited the graves of Hans, Benno, Niklaus, Karl, and Ludwig, had traveled yesterday to Werdenburg to visit Ferdinand's grave (the grave of Gisela's husband), and now today they had come to Amrain to go together with Julia to the Amrain cemetery, where they had planted a sprig of erica among the pansies on the freshly planted grave of their mother, which of course represented a certain intrusion in the new plantings, for which they begged forgiveness.
"According to the numbers on the stone it had been determined that Mother had been born over a hundred years ago, on the island of Rügen (which made me think of Caspar David Friedrich, my mother, and blossoming alfalfa together, although I don't know if that's right about the blossoming alfalfa, but I've never been on the island of Rügen, so I could not have seen any blossoming alfalfa there, which on the other hand doesn't justify my corrective intervention in this image), where the three of them, Gisela, Julia, Johanna, and also brother Benno likewise were born, and it had been ascertained with painful surprise and displeasure that our father's grave had been leveled, as had sister-in-law Lina's, the first wife of Philipp, the second-oldest brother, although their bones were still lying in the same place, at least for the time being; just that now grass was growing over them, there were no longer any gravestones, any flowers; and they had visited the newly built mortuary, which had robbed the cemetery of its village character. Missing above all was also the elm that had certainly shaded the graves for hundreds of years while winter's harsh hoarfrost transformed its top into antlers belonging to a being that was awaiting the awakening of those who were eternally slumbering, in order to escort them there where there are no shadows, no winter; all of this reminding one of the reproductions that earlier adorned bedroom walls and that depicted the Isle of the Dead, which didn't mean that she, Johanna, particularly cared for those reproductions, upon which Gisela said Ferdinand's tombstone was wonderfully preserved, showing no signs of moss or lichen. She had to confess that unfortunately one no longer knew what sort of stone Ferdinand's tombstone was. It came out that it was of black marble, which in turn led one to understand that, in contrast to limestone, Jurassic stone, no lichen or moss could thrive on it (on highly polished marble, that is). That induced me to object that I found the patina of moss and lichens beautiful, which unleashed an energetic rebuttal and the demand that I go wash Mother's tombstone for once.
"Bindschädler, several of our other relatives are also buried in the cemetery of Amrain, the Bergers for example, one of whom spent his life trying to get hold of an inheritance from England, so it was only as a sideline that he worked in an iron factory and as a small farmer. My cousin Albert Baur lies there too, a clockmaker by profession, clockmaker all his life; he had a stiff, shorter leg, a special bicycle, usually the stump of a cigar in his mouth, something like roguishness in his eyes, and on my only visit showed me his workshop, which was lodged in a large attic whose walls were filled with ticking clocks. Cousin Albert died when the horse chestnuts were falling. Later, after his wife had died too, a preacher took over the property, removed the nameplate above the entrance, an enamel nameplate on which was written black on white Albert Baur/Clockmaker, and painted the house, painting over the inscription prominently displayed on the south side that likewise proclaimed Albert Baur/Clockmaker, but which could only be read by few people, by a few churchgoers for example, who took the little alley by the church on their way home, or by the few neighbors who knew him, Albert Baur, clockmaker, anyway. Now the housefront is on the south side, facing open ground, painted gray, clean and unwritten on," Baur said, reaching for the leaf of a shrub while walking, and plucking it so that the affected twig snapped back violently and the leaf in Baur's hand twisted around its own axis, now to the right, now to the left.
"I can," Baur said, "hardly imagine my oldest sister, Gisela, without at the same time conjuring up the image of her husband Ferdinand, who, when they both came to Amrain on a visit, went behind the house and facing the cherry tree said: 'I don't let any of my cherry trees get so tall. I saw them all off on top. I don't want any more tall cherry trees.' This cherry tree, Bindschädler, is still standing today. Every so often one saws off its dead branches to keep the tree from dying too quickly. The bark of the trunk is badly furrowed, but is regularly checked for harmful insects by a woodpecker, which pecks the bark in reverse, hopping from top to bottom, always listening, the hammering of its beak so violent that one worries about the gray matter in the woodpecker's brain.
"Bindschädler, whenever I chance to look at the cherry tree it can happen that brother-in-law Ferdinand says: 'I don't let any of my cherry trees get so tall. I saw them all off on top. I don't want any more tall cherry trees.' Which presumably sounds from that realm where there are no shadows, no winter (freely after Johanna).
"We drank tea, my three sisters (who had deposited their bouquets on a bench), my wife, and I. And one said to oneself, anyway it is the time of the dead, strictly speaking it was the first and second of November, when one particularly remembers the dead, visits them in the cemeteries, that is their graves, adorns them, even places a bowl of rice on them, or sometimes it's only pasta, and in many places one puts candles on them, or the women sit on the graves. Gisela said she had always tried, as they knew, to have Benno lie by the wall, and he had to be crowded in. At that time the new cemetery wasn't ready, so that in the old one the dead had to be placed as close to each other as possible. That brought brother Benno to my mind, laid out in the aforementioned cemetery, but as a young man, as I knew him from photos, the sport ribbon across his chest, decorated with two, three medals. Then the sports certificate intruded, which months before had turned up by accident among all the rubbish and that he, Benno, must have sported home pretty precisely a year before I was born and that since then had lain around our family seat, where I, as mentioned, had begun a year later to puff, scream, crap, drink (sharing the maternal milk, incidentally, with a notary's daughter, a girl from Amrain)," Baur said.
The tires of an automobile screeched. A car backing up stopped. The driver of the screeching car twisted his left index finger on his left temple. There was a smell of gasoline.
"Why, Bindschädler, when one is old, does one have this crazy need—to look backward or to live with our yesterdays, or to grasp again and again the threads that bind one with what has passed away, vanished, is irretrievable, that must somewhere have dissolved and yet is present, not to be got rid of? That is then somehow laid with us in the earth, where it dissolves or would have to pass along into the mineral, the material, in order to become present above us in flowers, lilies for example, asters, snowdrops, forget-me-nots, as their aroma (insofar as they are pleased to dispense such)," Baur said.
Through the nearly bare trees one could observe the quietly flowing Aare, its colorations, which it had taken from the colorations of its banks, but also from those of the sky.
"Are the plastic flowers," Baur said, "the plastic flowers that appear increasingly on our graves a sign that we increasingly take less and less with us into our graves, less and less of what has passed away, vanished, is irretrievable, that then passes into the lilies over us, into the forget-me-nots, the snowdrops, and that streams out as their fragrance (insofar as they are pleased to dispense such). Upon which this aroma can in turn produce in those left behind this crazy need—to look backward or to live with our yesterdays. So it can just keep going around and around, Bindschädler. Concerning which, the plastic flowers can of course have something quite special about them, something almost able to signal a new epoch, an epoch attempting to enter into competition with nature in a painfully awkward way, and in which these competing products, the plastic lilies for example, derisively outlast the genuine products, the ordinary lilies for example, many times over." Baur reached out for a chestnut leaf. "So that something painful attaches to the plastic flowers in that they exhibit the awkwardly moving quality that characterizes shoddy things, especially plastic bouquets," Baur said, stroking at the same time with the back of his left hand over the poster PATRIA / YOUR SECURITY / 99 YEARS PATRIA / FOR ALL YOUR INSURANCE PROTECTION on a wall of posters on the Gösgerstrasse.
"Bindschädler, now and then, mornings, I walk through town to buy bread at the far end, in the bakery where my girlfriend from school Linda grew up. Today this establishment still belongs to Linda, but she doesn't live in Amrain any more. Linda's father too was a gymnast, even won prizes. I believe he wore a double prize sash when he marched off to festive occasions of the gymnastics club.
"Whenever I approach Linda's establishment, Bindschädler, I ask myself: 'Did the baker, Linda's father, really enter through these doors, occasionally crowned with a wreath of laurel, the double prize sash across his chest?' And whenever the baker marched off to festive gymnastic occasions he must have left through these doors, must have strode across this terrace, which still shows the same cracks, for they must be old. And the baker must have glanced over at the pergola, which is overgrown with very old wisteria that shades the two windows of the bakehouse in which Linda and I said farewell about forty-five years ago, so that after leaving school we could set out to learn to be afraid. Bindschädler, I can still today feel Linda's damp cheeks. While at school I didn't dare enter this shop, because I was afraid that the baker knew of our love.
I said at the start of German lit month the new job has given me a little extra money to buy some second-hand copies for this year’s challenge. I got this book last year. But finally read it again, last week. As Gerhard Meir belongs with writers like Bernhard and Walser writers that need a couple of readings. Meier is by trade a designer and it wasn’t till he was ill and in his forties, he took up got a lot of recognition when Peter Handke shared his Franz Kafka prize money with him. He lived in a small village and avoided the limelight.
“I like to walk through this part of town,- Do you see a;; those things over there? Discarded parts from building the railroad, presumably. And through them the sky, at times bare, overcast, putting on its stars:Firefly-lights abouve the field full of parts.I like walking through it. And if I were a photographer, Bindschadle, these iron bones would be sold commercially so people could decorate their walls with them.
I loved this description as the bones of an industral past how often I walk [past these in Chesterfield!
This is a short novella of hundred pages. It follows two old guys Baur, now he is the talker of the two. Bindschadler is the quiet one, although I sense he has just got used to speaking when it is worth it and letting Baur fill the gaps. The two have been friends since they were in the army at a young age. The two wander along the river and talk the things that matter to the pair of them like art, writing and writers. The way the hometown has changed over the years .But as they talk the events and time they talk about drift and they seem caught in a past that has gone and like the title of the book which is a famous picture of an island that is rather unclear and has a number of different versions also is the cover is homage to the picture of the Isle of the dead . They are maybe an isle of a dead world in the words.
“Thus Bindschadler, one could say that Bartok’s music brings groves of plane trees to ballet dancing, bringing in what’s around them, while prayer moves mountains or wakes the dead, even when their bones lie neatly ordered in the eartg, which according to the usual opinon, is the right place for them,” Baur said
We followed the path accross the Dnnern meadow. Antonioni’s tennis scene from Blow-up came to mind, which was mimed without a tennis ball; saw the green of the court, which in the ligh from the searchlights appeared especially green
Bones agian a rcurring theme at times also the falk of music and film here.
If Samuel Beckett had ever been asked to an episode of last of the summer wine this would have been how it would have turned out. The Isle of the dead is considered a masterpiece of Swiss modernist fiction and has echoes of the like of Bernhard in the way he viewed the art world. Joyce as they walk he use the places around them as a metaphor for a changing world. This is a slow meandering book the talk is beautiful from the two full of subtle details like a macro lens on the lives the details they give away are so defined in the conversations between the two. The way two objects or animals get a symbiotic relationship the shared past of these two is like the intertwining of the branches of two great trees that is keeping them together but also from falling over. - https://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/2017/11/17/isle-of-the-dead-by-gerhard-meier/
Read it at Google Books