Gerhard Meier (1917-2008) worked in a lamp factory for 33 years because, as he said in an interview, he was "afraid of literature". Not because he didn't love it - he did - but because he could not believe he had the gifts necessary to write anything worthwhile. He slowly overcame these fears, writing first poetry, then prose miniatures and then a series of novels.(*) His first book of poetry, Das Gras grünt, appeared in 1964; the first novel, Der Besuch, appeared in 1976.
He saw himself as close to modern French prose stylists (like Claude Simon, Michel Butor and Nathalie Sarraute, but he was definitely not a nouveau roman ideologue) and took as a motto for the first volume of his tetralogy of novels, Bauer und Bindschädler, Flaubert's famous "Ce qui me semble beau, ce que je voudrais faire, c’est un livre sur rien" (What appears to me to be beautiful, what I would like to make, is a book about nothing). This meant the same to Meier as it did to Flaubert - what holds the book together is not plot or character or setting, but the prose style of the author.
Warned by Gerda Zeltner's discussion of Meier's work in Das Ich ohne Gewähr that Meier's novels refer to each other repeatedly and form an interconnected whole, I've begun my reading of his novels with his "prose piece" Der andere Tag (The Other Day), which appeared in 1974 and is alluded to frequently in Der Besuch. But how to describe this text?
First, the fact that Meier began his writing career with poetry makes itself evident through his intense description of the concrete. Second, Zeltner's claim that the novels are interrelated is reflected already in the structure of this piece. Words, phrases, images arise, are varied and revisited from paragraph to paragraph, from chapter to chapter, referring to one another and feeding upon each other. "Characters" arise incidentally in one chapter and become the focus of another. And the text progresses primarily through digression, not the lengthy, plot-based or philosophical digressions known and loved by certain prose fanatics who shall remain nameless, but relatively brief, primarily observational digressions, many of which serve as fodder for later chapters. Stories are not told, but stories are hinted at obliquely. The subjunctive mood rules.
There is a main "character", Kaspar, who observes some of that which the omniscient, abstract narrator observes, though, often enough, we are told that Kaspar does not see or know what we have just seen or learned. And when Kaspar does, says or thinks anything, it is reported with a grammatical distancing device: instead of "he said something" (er sagte etwas), the construction used is etwas soll er gesagt haben ("supposedly he said something", or "he is reported to have said something"). It is a construction that makes clear that the narrator does not assert that he actually said something but that according to someone else Kaspar said something (German has a few more of these distancing devices for exactly this same purpose, all of which he also uses). The narrator is otherwise omniscient and these distancing constructions are used whenever Kaspar is the subject of the sentence. Strange, but he pulls it off; to me it was amusing. And it was only one of the many devices he used to draw the reader's attention to the textness of the text, that this is something which has been very deliberately written.
Often enough I found myself laughing while reading, though not because he tells jokes, makes puns or does any of the normally funny things. I suppose I was laughing at the pleasure of a verbal technique which was new to me and kept my attention riveted to the page. It wasn't strained or obscure, difficult or dour, unlike, well, you know.
So, what is this book about? Nothing, really. On to Der Besuch...
(*) He ended up winning the Petrarca, Fontane, Hermann-Hesse, Gottfried-Keller and Heinrich-Böll prizes.