Max Frisch
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By Malcolm Forbes


The Montréal Review, December 2011




One hundred years ago Max Frisch was born in Zurich. He died twenty years ago in the same city. In between he got out and travelled widely, and in 1952 lived in the US and Mexico on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. His journeying shaped his writing, both novels and plays, providing exotic settings but also locales deliberately far removed from his birthplace. Switzerland was home, but at the same time Frisch felt marooned there, isolated from the rest of the world, particularly during wartime. He was also troubled by the country's historical principle of neutrality and wilful non-participation in influential decision-making. It is an intriguing paradox: Switzerland as sanctuary but a stifling one, its inhabitants safe but constrained. He took this sense of estrangement and worked it into his writing. In his acceptance speech for the Büchner Prize in 1958 he likened himself to past and present writers who were connected by 'das Emigrantische '. Thus throughout Frisch's literary work we find characters plagued by a pervading rootlessness; solitary, alienated individuals at odds with their homeland, struggling there or elsewhere to fit in, settle down and be accepted by society. Such dislocation makes for fascinating, if unsettling, reading and Frisch achieved his best results with it in his 1957 classic, Homo Faber.

"...throughout Frisch's literary work we find characters plagued by a pervading rootlessness; solitary, alienated individuals at odds with their homeland, struggling there or elsewhere to fit in, settle down and be accepted by society..."

Walter Faber is an engineer with a cool, rational mind. 'I believe in reason,' he tells us. Science and the arts are mutually exclusive. He prefers engineering periodicals over fiction ('I can't read novels') and in terms of antiquity is more interested in still-functioning Roman roads and bridges than dusty cultural treasures ('Museums don't mean a thing to me'). He ruminates on his first wife and how they were mismatched. Hanna was 'a sentimentalist and arty crafty. She called me Homo Faber.' When sailing from New York to Europe he loses himself in the ship's engine-room, as 'it is always a pleasure to watch machinery in operation.' He explains the main workings of the control panel to Sabeth, a young fellow-passenger who has caught his eye. He also expounds on his profession, alternating between 'engineer' and the rather baroque 'technologist'. In his job he is 'a man who masters matter' - an echo of Homo Faber, 'Man the Maker'.

He reinforces all of this in one of many later asides to the reader, out of earshot, as it were, of the other characters: 'We live technologically, with man as the master of nature, man as the engineer, and let anyone who raises his voice against it stop using bridges not built by nature.' If we refute this argument, he goes on, essentially we are rejecting the furtherance of scientific progress. 'No electric light bulbs, no engines, no atomic energy, no calculating machines, no anesthetics - back to the jungle!'

The irony is that Faber has just returned from the jungle. The book opens with his plane forced to make an emergency landing in the Mexican desert. Soon he is navigating his way through thick vegetation and cloying heat over the border in Guatemala. Naturally the decorations on Maya temples have no appeal - 'I like functionalism,' he admits. In a quiet interlude he mulls over the crash. Surviving the landing was a fluke, nothing more; being in a plane that had a fault in the fuel feed was a remote probability but it happened. (Unlike Faber the passive passenger, Dr Schaad in Bluebeard (1982) actively submits to contingency every time he plays billiards with himself: 'I flick the three balls at random with my fingers, blindly, and so violently that they collide, pure chance taking the place of an opponent.') Faber exercises his rational mind by regaling us with statistics relating to the likelihood of improbable accidents and incidents befalling us. He downplays any significance of providence but from this point on experiences a series of extraordinary coincidences, mainly in the form of chance encounters. When Sabeth turns out to be the daughter he never knew he had he is compelled to re-evaluate the faith he placed in technology over fate. 'I'm a technologist and accustomed to seeing things as they are,' he informs us early on in the novel. But when the unforeseen occurs and when the improbable morphs into the unbelievable, he is left floundering. Faber revises his whole outlook at the close of the novel when lying in his hospital bed, vanquished and desolate. 'Life is not matter and cannot be mastered by technology,' he decides. Our Techniker is a man equipped to master matter, but if life isn't matter then his technological talents are useless at unlocking life's secrets.

Early reviews compared Walter Faber's anguish with that felt by Camus' protagonists. But Frisch was no existentialist and Faber is not as aloof or morally fractured as, say, Meursault in L'Étranger. That said, they are bound by some kindred quality, an indefinable outsider-ness that results in their being incapable of fully connecting with those around them. At its most simple, we could term it eccentricity. Several Frisch characters, Faber included, are seriously afflicted with eccentricity. The protagonist of I'm Not Stiller (1954) fabricates stories in order to justify his existence. After the disintegration of his marriage, the narrator of Gantenbein (1964) becomes a man divorced from surface reality, trapped in the 'wilderness of mirrors' that was the novel's original title. The eponymous hero of Frisch's first novel, Jürg Reinhart (1934), is even described as 'dieser Sonderling ' (this eccentric). All these characters have at one point experienced life in all its shallowness and superficiality, and after undergoing some form of mental upheaval or moral crisis, are now outcasts, unmoored and disjointed. They have no option but to go it alone and act and feel on their own terms.

"Early reviews compared Walter Faber's anguish with that felt by Camus' protagonists. But Frisch was no existentialist and Faber is not as aloof or morally fractured as, say, Meursault in "L'Étranger". That said, they are bound by some kindred quality, an indefinable outsider-ness that results in their being incapable of fully connecting with those around them..."

But feeling takes strange guises. When Faber's plane is about to crash there is chaos all around him; however he has different priorities: 'My first worry: what to do about the lunch.' Later, instead of offering the requisite emotional comfort to his long-suffering partner, Ivy, he chooses to busy himself with his defunct electric razor: 'Any appliance can break down; it only worries me until I have found out why'. In both cases we witness two of Faber's ludicrously misplaced worries, and in doing so are privy to his warped agenda. We are shown a different extreme when he is unable to furnish us with any details of his first sexual experience. It is neither callous insouciance nor a bad memory that have led this convenient amnesia, rather it stems from more of that reckless prioritising: the event, though arguably momentous, is simply not worth dredging up and revisiting. He is worryingly calm when adding, 'She died that summer and I forgot about it, as you forget water you drank somewhere when you were thirsty.' The act of forgetting is as perfunctory and mechanical as a bodily function. It occurs but needn't be recorded. We are reminded here of Camus' Outsider who on the first page famously forgets when his mother died. Both Faber and Meursault lose their bearings on reality and allow themselves to be steered by their eccentricity. The upshot is that what truly matters is subverted into trivial fact, relegated to mere peripheral importance.

Frisch captures this skewed reasoning with spare, terse prose. Where he opens up is in his backdrops. Towards the end of the novel, after much continent-jumping, Frisch comes closer to home and finally does what we want a Swiss writer to do, namely describe the Alps. Faber views from a now-functioning plane crevasses, moraines and glaciers and Frisch doesn't skimp on detail. The imagery is rich and novel, with visible landscape alternating with subconscious dreamscape. In particular are clouds:

The clouds are like gypsum, like cauliflower, like foam with tiny bubbles, I don't know what Sabeth would have thought of, they change quickly, every now and then there is a hole in the clouds, and we can see down into the depths - a black wood, a stream, the wood like a hedgehog, but only for a second, the clouds drift into one another, the shadows of the higher clouds fall on those below, shadows like curtains, we fly through the pile of cloud heaped up in the sunlight in front of us - as though our plane were going to smash itself against the cloudbanks, a mountain of steam, but rounded and white like Greek marble, granular.

Frisch sketches with the clinical precision of the architect he once was, but then spreads his talent around, blurring his outlines with a sumptuous literary wash. We have come a long way from his 1937 novel, An Answer from the Silence, recently unearthed and re-released. In this book we are presented with one hackneyed alpine panorama after another. Instead of a wood resembling a hedgehog we learn 'the dark forest...looks like a silhouette'; snowy summits at first light are simply 'like ivory'; but worst of all are 'the clouds, like cotton wool' - an image surely just as trite seventy years ago. Faber contemplates the mountains around him with Wordsworthian awe, as if viewing them for the first time. But in An Answer from the Silence - a lesser book on so many levels, and one which Frisch denied entry into his Collected Works - we can't help but observe with the jaded eye of a Swiss frequent-flier.

The above passage is also noteworthy for its exuberant gush. Words chase each other breathlessly, racing on with no end in sight. Commas crop up to momentarily slow but don't stop the flow. This frantic rambling is a typical Frisch trope. A similar head-rush appears during Faber's last night in Havana. Frisch unloads Faber's freewheeling thoughts and emotions in long, unbroken torrents. We are swept along on Faber's rising waves of delirium. Frisch's justification for this chaotic chronicling is clear: Faber is ecstatically happy. What better way to represent this than by letting his hero gabble and scarcely come up for air. 'I sing!' Faber enthuses, 'I rock and sing'. His giddy monologue concludes with words which both mirror his mood and authenticate Frisch's decision to record it in this way: 'I sing the praises of life!'

Not that Frisch is always so joyful. Faber surrenders himself to the sublime Swiss vista but is repulsed by the showy facade of American cities: 'next morning you see the empty scaffolding, humbug, infantile, an advertisement of optimism spread out like a neon carpet in front of the night and death.' Onboard the Europe-bound ship he studies the older American women, 'the products of cosmetics': 'All sorts of worn-out goods lay there, all sorts of organisms that had probably never blossomed'. Frisch used a similar language when Faber was stuck in Latin America and complaining about the newts he saw in every puddle: 'all this procreation, this stench of fertility, of blossoming decay.' Too much is alive for him. 'Wherever you spat it germinated!' This short rant is especially disquieting as it follows on from Faber telling us how Hanna aborted his child.

On a certain level, then, Faber objects to life. There are moments in which he is repulsed by the stench of his own fertility. The closest he comes to real existential angst is when he gives us his views on ending it all. 'I have no use for suicide,' he begins, and positively, before adding, 'it doesn't alter the fact that one has been in the world, and what I wished at that moment was that I had never existed at all!' When his characters don't wish they could erase their own existence, they spend time wishing others could disappear. In Santa Cruz (1944), Frisch's first play and written while he was still an architect, the marriage of Elvira and the Rittmeister is tested when a figure from the past makes an unexpected return. Pelegrin had seduced Elvira seventeen years ago and, as with Faber's lived life up until now, this simple event is turned into a hard, ineradicable fact. Frisch takes this truth - the past is all-too frequently a blight on the present - and explores it in depth throughout his novels.

Faber's past catches up with him when he learns the girl he has fallen for is in fact his daughter. But rather than allow this to stain his present, he adapts to it, altering his mindset to accommodate her in the new role. He even welcomes her mother, his former wife, back into his life. There are to be disastrous consequences and Faber cannot slough off all his accumulated eccentric traits. Yet he has moved on from his preference for solitude ('people are a strain'), moved away from his assertion that 'feelings, I have observed, are fatigue phenomena', and after his failed relationship with Ivy has revised his belief that 'every woman is like clinging ivy'. After all his long-distance travelling Faber realises, albeit too late, that staying put with family can provide ample peace of mind after all.

Frisch bore this out with an entry in his Diary 1946-1949 : 'Heimat ist der Mensch ' (home means human beings). Frisch was referring to something wider, more crucial, attacking Swiss sanctimoniousness and complacency particularly with regard war-guilt - but the comparison remains apt. Walter Faber has hitherto lived a charmed life, selfishly and comfortably without any real threat from anyone. In this respect he is the polar opposite of Andri in Frisch's 1961 play, Andorra, who is trying to claim his Andorran birthright but is thwarted and victimized at every turn by a community that ostracizes him for being different. Andri needs sanctuary; Faber has it and takes it for granted. If Faber is persecuted at all it is by himself. He doesn't shut people like Andri out of his country but he will exclude him and others and any attendant human kindness from entering into his life. However, Sabeth files down his sharper eccentricities, leaving him still with an edge but one he can't harm himself with.

The eccentric individual stands at the heart of Frisch's work. We appreciate every one of them now but that appreciation is heightened when we look back and imagine their original entrance after one of Europe's darkest hours, a chapter in which many political regimes saw fit to stamp out the individuality of the individual and make room for the obedient automaton. It is refreshing to hear Biedermann, the protagonist of Frisch's 1958 play The Fire Raisers, proclaim, 'Think? Gentlemen, I am a free citizen. I can think what I like. What is the meaning of all these questions? I have a right not to think anything at all'. Frisch used this new dawn to hit back and allow his characters to wear their eccentricities proudly like badges. But there is a caveat that comes with this unrestrained flaunting. His message becomes clear after we have finished hitching a ride with Faber on his travels - namely that peripatetic wanderings and self-exile, as far from static society as is possible, are deleterious forms of retreat. Unlike Andri in Andorra, Faber may ultimately have a home to return to but it is worthless if he cannot see that 'home' as a concept is far more than bricks and mortar.

"As with the best of literature, the pleasure to be had in Frisch's world is the travelling rather than the arriving..."

As with the best of literature, the pleasure to be had in Frisch's world is the travelling rather than the arriving. Walter Faber is the perfect travelling companion, albeit one who is unwilling to stray from grounded facts and let his imagination run riot. 'Why should I experience what isn't there?' he says, defending himself. Thankfully Frisch ensures that his stolid technologist, a man who refuses to read fiction, still has a poetic turn of phrase to offset that calm, logical outlook. Even technologists have imaginations. The result is hard truth tempered with flashes of surprising beauty. At one juncture Faber informs us that he can't bring himself 'to hear something resembling eternity'. We expect nothing less from this rationalist. But it is the complementary lyrical payoff we hold out for, and Walter Faber, that unique individual, never fails us. In this case: 'I don't hear anything, apart from the trickle of sand at every step.'


Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer whose work has appeared in many print and online literary journals. Born in Edinburgh, he is currently based in Berlin.


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