Isle of the Dead by Gerhard Meier
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.