Monday, October 31, 2011

Burton Pike's new translation of Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead

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).


  1. Genese, lovely to see someone so engaged in literature and willing to share her enthusiasms. I wonder how the 'regret' manifests itself in Meier's work. ("and beneath the wonder, regret") I wonder too if it's entirely fair to say that other modern novels are not written from the heart; I think the expression of disillusionment, of existential despair, is ultimately an act of love. A testament to the wonder that is inherently part of the human experience. To me, modernism (in the context of literature), expresses the frustration of having no language w/ which to articulate this wonder.

    I think it's a John Berger essay that compares Pollock to a prison inmate, whose seen nothing his whole life and just paints as a gesture of his inarticulateness, this energetic chaos of beauty, wonder, feeling...

    Perhaps Meier and Musil, unlike other modernists, renounce the notion that they are blind... They embrace the idea that feeling IS seeing. And in this they express wonder, marvel.

    Ah, the human animal, such a curious thing! And how you are it's advocate! Thanks for sharing the post with me.


  2. Wonder-filled, yes, this ongoing discussion we are having over the dinner table, in the kitchen, in cyber space, about meaning and modernism (did you say something earlier tonight about rapture and dissolution, or the rapture of dissolution?) And yet, there is a difference, if only of degrees, between those who despair mostly and rejoice in the rarest moments, and those who choose joy and despair because it is not enough present. Sometimes the extremely alienated voice feels adolescent, although it is an adolescent frustration one can easily relate to, a frustrated sense that no one understands one, that there is no way out, that there are no possible choices that can be made. There are novels (and voices, and lives) that are more or less entrapped within a commitment to negativity. And, yes, I think your comment about renouncing the notion that one is blind is brilliant. One could also add, renounce the notion that one is dumb, inarticulate, incapacitated, irresponsible, ineffective. Wonder, marvel, and agency?!
    I read in the Times Book Review yesterday, in a review of Beckett's letters, the following two quotations (Beckett representing, of course, the side of despair and alienation which persistently, paradoxically expresses love):

    "Since we cannot dismiss it [language?culture? meaning?] all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind it, be it something or nothing, starts to seep through"
    (from a letter to the translator Alex Kaun on July 7th, 1937).

    "The words too whosesoever. What room for worse! How almost true they sometimes ring! How wanting in inanity! Say the night is young alas and take heart!" (from "Worstward Ho!")