Hermann Burger's red typewriter. Source: Wikipedia

The Swiss writer Hermann Burger (1942–1989) wrote the draft of a novel in 1970 called Lokalbericht (1970) [Local Report].

“‘Local Report’ – I already have the title, the hardest part of a book. Now, I’m just missing the novel.” [“Lokalbericht – den Titel, das Schwierigste an einem Buch, habe ich schon. Fehlt mir nur noch der Roman."]

The story’s narrator was right. Burger was a poet and novelist but he never finished this early novel. He died in 1989 and it wasn’t published until October 2016. I found a single English-language review.

The protagonist of Lokalbericht, the young teacher Günter Frischknecht1 is in the canton of Ticino trying to write two pieces of work at the same time, a dissertation and a novel, writing on two different typewriters and using two different Zettelkästen. These two card indices get mixed up and the slips intermingle. What to do in this situation? Reality and fiction apparently can no longer be distinguished.

This farcical Zettelkasten confusion is foreshadowed early on in the novel by Frishknecht’s academic supervisor Professor Kleinert, of whom he says:

“He didn’t believe I could actually be serious about a Zettelkasten.” [“Dass ich tatsächlich Ernst machen könnte mit einem Zettelkasten, hat er mir wohl kaum zugetraut."]

This story-line seems to be consistent with a long-standing trope among scholars that the loose slips of paper with which they ordered their work could at any moment get mixed up, or even worse, blow away, resulting in chaotic disorder.

Well, now it’s all been put back together. There’s a very impressive interactive online version of the novel, and in 2017 there was an exhibition centred upon it at the Aarau Museum.

It was Manfred Kuhn’s wonderful, though sadly defunct, blog Taking Note Now that originally alerted me to this novel and the Zettelkasten mix-up, but I had completely forgotten.

  1. a composite name made up of Günter Grass and Max Frisch, with more than a nod to the old Knecht, the Magister Ludi of The Glass Bead Game↩︎