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).
WERNER MORLANG: 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?
GERHARD MEIER: 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.
WM: Did you give Baur and Bindschädler particular characteristics as you went along, according to the different way each behaves?
GM: 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.
WM: Did you intend the reader to take Baur and Bindschädler as separate individuals?
GM: 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.
WM: 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.
GM: Bindschädler didn’t want to write, but ends up writing. That’s exactly right.
WM: Could one say that you divide yourself between a Gerhard Meier who experiences and a Gerhard Meier who writes?
GM: 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.
WM: From the very beginning of the novel, you posit remembering as a constant of life.
GM: 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.
WM: Isle of the Dead has many connections
to your reading.
GM: [. . .] 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.
WM: Are memories [. . .] connected to, and activated, in the working of your imagination?
GM: 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.
WM: 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.”
GM: 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.
WM: 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?
GM: 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.
WM: Does that mean that the beautiful should no longer be evoked?
GM: 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.
WM: Walking resembles writing. Have you felt an affinity between these two activities?
GM: [. . .] 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.
WM: You have astonishing sequences of associations from image to image. Wouldn’t you call that free association?
GM: No, not consciously, never, never.
WM: It doesn’t have to be conscious. Free association could indicate capturing something that occurs to you suddenly and involuntarily.
GM: 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.
WM: Isle of the Dead can be considered a novel about a family, something new in your work. Was this a sudden revelation while writing?
GM: 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.
WM: What were your feelings when you reread Isle of the Dead? Did the real figures behind their literary depictions come to mind?
GM: 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 [. . .].
WM: Don’t you also want the characters to be accurate, down to the smallest details?
GM: 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.
WM: Have your three sisters read the book?
GM: 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.
WM: 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?
GM: 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.
WM: 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?
GM: 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.
WM: 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?
GM: 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.
WM: You compare Amrain itself to a Persian carpet. How does that fit with your understanding of literature?
GM: 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.
WM: Is art also a means of overcoming the loneliness of the individual?
GM: 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.
WM: 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.
GM: 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.
Edited and translated by Burton Pike