Toteninsel in English

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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' reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin. More from this author →