The theme ofAndorra: Ein Stück in zwölf Bildern (Andorra: A Play in Twelve Scenes, 1961), both as a geographical topos and as an allegory of isolation and narrowness, absorbed Max Frisch since the early stages of his career. In Frisch's Tagebuch 1946–1949, one finds a first reference to the small state: “Andorra ist ein kleines Land, sogar ein sehr kleines Land, und schon darum ist das Volk, das darin lebt, ein sonder-bares Volk, ebenso mißtrauisch wie ehrgeizig, mißtrauisch gegen alles, was aus den eigenen Tälern kommt” (Andorra is a small country, very small indeed, and just for this very reason the people living there are odd people, as distrustful as they are ambitious, suspicious of everything even when it comes out of their own valleys). A few entries later, under the heading “The Andorran Jew,” Frisch converges the thematic complex in one person who will eventually evolve into the main character of the play, a young man who was believed to be a Jew and onto whom everyone projected a ready-made image, “das fertige Bildnis, das ihn überall erwartet” (372; the fixed image that meets him everywhere: 19).
Max Frisch's tagebücher mainly consist of Tagebuch 1946–1949 (1950) and Tagebuch 1966–1971 (1972). The first volume received close attention only after the second was published and rapidly became a bestseller in 1972, with extremely positive reviews by Rudolf Hartung and Marcel Reich-Ranicki in Die Zeit and by Hans Mayer in Der Spiegel. Thus, it is not surprising that the first volume to be translated into English, in 1974, was the Tagebuch 1966–1971 (under the English title Sketchbook 1966–1971), followed a few years later, in 1977, by the Tagebuch 1946–1949 (Sketchbook 1946–1949), more than twenty-five years after its first publication in German.
Yet Tagebuch 1946–1949 was not the first Tagebuch written by Max Frisch. Indeed, besides the Tagebuch with Marion—the first part of the Tagebuch 1946–1949, covering the years 1946 and 1947, which had already been published in 1947—Frisch had written Blätter aus dem Brotsack (Pages from the Knapsack) in 1939, which was his first longer prose work after the novels Jürg Reinhart (1934) and Antwort aus der Stille (An Answer from the Silence, 1937). Blätter aus dem Brotsack was also the first work that Max Frisch wrote after he had burned his unpublished manuscripts in 1937 and had decided never to write again (Tb 1, 588). As Frisch explained later in an interview with Rolf Kieser, in this very particular situation he naturally chose the diary form because he did not have enough time for longer literary forms.
Wir [sind] denn doch keine kybernetischen Mäuse, gesteuert von “information” und “feed back” und basta.
[After all, we are not cybernetic mice, guided by “information” and “feedback,” once and for all.]
The American author Kurt Vonnegut proclaimed, “novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.” If Vonnegut was correct, then Max Frisch's 1957 novel Homo Faber is a remarkably accurate representation of life. Although there is a tendency in some of the secondary literature, as noted by Ferdinand van Ingen in his article on technology and mythology in Homo Faber, to view the protagonist Walter Faber's occupation and his obsession with all things technological as more or less coincidental, and although Frisch himself gave conflicting answers regarding Faber as a “Techniker,” I suggest that technology is indeed a key to understanding this novel. Faber's former lover Hanna Landsberg puts it best when she describes technology as a trick that allows humans to order the world in such a way “daßwir sie nicht erleben müssen” (so that we don't have to experience it). This is Faber's goal. Throughout the text he denigrates “Erlebnisse” and the idea of “erleben.” His connection to the natural world is filtered or mediated by technology, and Faber claims to prefer it that way.
Max Frisch's path toward authorship did not evolve in a direct and uninterrupted manner. Two traumatic experiences resulted in ruptures and turning points in the early phase of Frisch's development as an author. In 1936, Frisch committed an auto-da-fé, solemnly burning everything he had hitherto written. With this act he intended to reject the writer's profession and turn toward a bourgeois career that provided an income that would enable him to start a family. In his twenty-fifth year, Frisch, a student of German philology, a journalist and writer, realized that life can become a failure, and he decided to build a secure foundation for his life by leaving metaphors behind and studying architecture.
The abrupt break with writing that Frisch staged as a private apocalyptic event corresponds with an acutely endangered new beginning, since the decision to turn away from literature did not turn out to be sustainable. Just six years later, Frisch began to write a more ambitious literary text, not surprisingly a sketchbook that was published in 1940 under the title Blätter aus dem Brotsack: Geschrieben im Grenzdienst 1939 (Pages from the Knapsack: Written While Serving in the Border Patrol, 1939). The political events at the time, the threatening prospect of Switzerland being occupied by its aggressive neighbor, National Socialist Germany, made it abundantly clear that a merely private existence was confined by boundaries. Not the boundaries of the self but the borders of the home country had to be defended.
In Frisch's narrative Montauk (1975), various memories and episodes from the narrator's life are alternately presented from a first-person and a third-person point of view. throughout the text, the writing process of this specific book, and of literature in general, are negotiated in a self-referential discourse. The time frames change frequently. Fragmentary and constantly shifting memories that reach back into childhood are interwoven with a present-day plot set in the United States. This plot shows the sixty-two-year-old narrator “Max” in 1974 with Lynn, a young American woman whom he met at his New York publisher's office and with whom he spends a few days in New York City and a weekend at the shore, in Montauk, on the far eastern end of Long island.
The work's narrative structure is highly complex. The pages written in the past tense are partially grouped according to thematic clusters and partially follow a loose associative pattern. The thematic segments present aspects of the life of “Max,” a Swiss writer, in brief episodes or diachronically under thematic titles such as “architecture” or “fame,” and shed light on his experiences and character traits. Another technique of weaving the diverse segments together uses subtle associations that are triggered by persons, places, objects, time references, questions, single words, and quotations, associations that establish parallels between the present and a remembered past. Particularly memories of other people are interwoven in an associative manner. They provide connections to the narrated time in Montauk.
In max Frisch's early work, nature is often presented in a sentimental and Romantic manner. In his Tagebuch 1946–1949, for example, Frisch describes the golden autumn landscapes, and a morning break at a lake with “versponnener Sonne” (a hazy sun) and “verblauenden Ufern” (the banks turning bluish). From his early works on, Frisch used images of water to symbolize a longing for vastness and distance, for movement, transformation, and therefore aliveness. Already young Jürg Reinhart, the protagonist in the eponymous novel published in 1934, is fascinated with the ocean. At the beginning of the novel, Frisch writes:
Und wenn man dann aufsprang und diese hellgrünen Holzlättchen verstellte, sah man zwischendurch das Meer; es lag in silbriger und makelloser Zartheit, und makellos war auch die Riesenmuschelbläue, die es überwölbte. Jauchzen hätte man wollen.
[And when one jumped out of bed and moved these light-green wooden battens, one could see the ocean in between; it lay in silvery and pristine delicateness, and the gigantic sea-shell blue that arched over it was also pristine. One felt like cheering.]
But soon Reinhart experiences the sea as a dangerous force of nature. As Reinhart is tacking along the coast of Dalmatia with his improvised sailboat, the wind intensifies dramatically and drives him and his boat out into the open ocean:
Es ging immer rasender in dieser neuen Richtung. […] er […] blickte gradaus, was wohl kommen würde. Und sein Herz hämmerte. Denn dieser Wind hatte ihm den Willen aus der Hand ge rissen, und er klammerte sich mit adergeschwollenen Fäusten ans Steuerruder.
In an interview published in Die Zeit in 2010, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, one of the most influential artists in the German-speaking world over the last fifty years, insists on the unreliability and fluid status of personal identity:
Ich halte es nicht für einen allzu gesicherten, fest umrissenen Zustand, der zu sein, der ich bin. Ich denke, Identität besteht aus allen möglichen ungeklärten teilen. Und was ist eigentlich dieses “Ich”? Ich versuche, das fliessend zu halten, weil ich Angst vor festen Grenzen habe. andererseits merke ich schon, dass es so etwas wie “mich” gibt. Oder Dinge, die sich einfach immer wieder ereignen, wenn ich dabei bin.
[I do not consider being who I am a well secured and rigidly defined condition. I believe that identity consists of all kinds of possible unexplained components. And what is this “I” in the first place? I try to keep it fluid because I am afraid of static boundaries. On the other hand I notice that there is something like “me.” Or things that happen time and again when I happen to be around.]
Arguing against a static conception of autobiographical coherence, Ganz, whose early theater career at the Zurich Schauspielhaus had been supported by Frisch when he urged the city of Zurich not to close the Schauspielhaus, puts the fragility of selfhood and a productive fear of fixed boundaries at the heart of self-understanding.
Why should we read Max Frisch (1911–91) in the twenty-first century? Because his works relentlessly examine an acutely crippling human condition, our addiction to turning ourselves and others into passive recipients of fixed images and projections. But beyond the undiminished relevance of this main thematic thread that runs through all of Frisch's works, his sparse and precise prose style generates a rare level of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure that reintroduces his readers to the intense joy of thinking through what it could mean to be human. The introspective playfulness of this classic writer of late modernism seduces readers to immerse themselves in Socratic skepticism. Frisch's sketch-books, fictional prose, plays, essays, and speeches offer the reader useful and stimulating antidotes against complacent catchwords and prescriptive solutions that mask the personal crises and social conflicts of today's over-medicated societies. Frisch challenges us to think through who we are by inviting us to imagine who else we might have been.
Nobody has outlined the resilience of curiosity that is at the core of our assessment of Frisch more lucidly than Stefan Zweig. In a letter to his fellow exiled writer Hermann Kesten composed in Petropolis, Brazil, on January 15, 1942, Zweig explains his interest in the French philosopher Montaigne in a way that may also serve as an elucidation of Frisch's continuing relevance to readers in the twenty-first century.
In a notebook entry from 1982 posthumously published in Entwürfe zu einem dritten Tagebuch (Drafts for a Third Sketchbook, 2010), Max Frisch comments on the recent publication of his story or short novella Blaubart (Bluebeard): “Was habe ich geschrieben? Eine Fratze.” (What have I written? A grimace.)
According to the notes in the critical edition of Frisch's collected works, Blaubart was written in Zurich between October and December 1981. In February and March 1982 it appeared serially in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung before being published as a book in March 1982. The Frankfurter Allgemeine announced the work to its readers as an unconventional narrative that begins like a crime story and consists of a multitude of mosaic stones. The newspaper further stated that the protagonist, the fifty-four-year-old medical doctor Felix Schaad, is confronted with a role-play that complicates his true identity, just like Anatol Ludwig Stiller and Theo Gantenbein, the protagonists in Frisch's previous novels Stiller and Mein Name sei Gantenbein. I precisely recall reading segments of Blaubart as they appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, and I remember the high expectations I had as well as the lightness of this new text, and my confusion, which increased from day to day: could this really be all that there was to this work?
It will be useful to begin with an overview of the most important book reviews of Blaubart that appeared in the spring of 1982.
Biedermann und die brandstifter (1958; translated under various titles: The Fire Raisers, The Firebugs, and The Arsonists) has attained international renown and is considered Max Frisch's most famous play. Yet many are aware neither of its complex evolution through various literary genres, nor of its relationship with Die große Wut des Philipp Hotz (The Great Rage of Philipp Hotz, 1958), its sister drama originally written to accompany Biedermann, but now only rarely performed. This chapter seeks to provide an overview of the literary life of both plays by introducing their primary themes, possible scholarly interpretations, and, when possible, the authorial intent behind their inception.
Biedermann und die Brandstifter
The Inception and Evolution of Biedermann
The versatile writer Max Frisch proved successful as an author of prose as well as drama and clearly enjoyed manipulating genre boundaries in his works. Biedermann und die Brandstifter provides us with such an example. Over the course of its development, the story took form in four different genres: short prose sketch, radio play, stage play, and television film.
Frisch penned the first incarnation of the Biedermann story, entitled “Burleske,” in a 1948 Tagebuch entry. This six-page fable sketches out the work that would eventually become known as Biedermann und die Brandstifter. In it Frisch offers only a very general outline of the action, introduces no specific characters, and addresses the reader directly as the protagonist using the second-person familiar form “du.”
Frisch conceived his playsGraf Öderland (Count Oderland, first version 1951, later versions 1956 and 1961) and Don Juan oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie (Don Juan or The Love of Geometry, 1953, later version 1962) during a fascinating period of transformation in international theater in the 1950s. One component of this transformation was the presence of Jean Paul Sartre's existentialism, which painfully examines the roots of the human condition in the twentieth century, on the German stage. Another component was the showcase of the Berliner Ensemble, which staged Brecht's political vision of an alterable world, a showcase that transformed Brecht, in Frisch's own words, into a “Klassiker” whose approach needed to be modified. A third component framing Frisch's work was the success of absurdist writers such as Samuel Beckett, whose most famous works, Endgame and Waiting for Godot, portray the lack of motivation and the boredom in bureaucratic societies, themes that play a significant role in Graf Öderland. Unlike the stage successes of Sartre, Brecht, Beckett, and Ionesco, or even of Frisch's early plays, both Graf Öderland and Don Juan share the fate of being his first works to be rejected by theater audiences and critics alike, forcing him to rethink his approach within the context of the 1950s.
This essay will examine Frisch's two last plays, Biografie: Ein Spiel (Biography: A Game, 1967) and Triptychon: Drei szenische Bilder (Triptych: Three Scenic Panels, 1978). Biografie was first performed on February 1, 1968 at the Schauspielhaus Zürich under the direction of Leopold Lindtberg. Triptychon was initially staged in French at the Centre dramatique de Lausanne on October 10, 1979 and was directed by Michel soutter. Its German premiere took place on February 1, 1981 at the Akademietheater Vienna. The director on this occasion was Erwin Axer. While these two dramatic works have been extensively analyzed by Frisch scholars, the common thematic, philosophical, and even structural elements binding them have been the object of only cursory attention. Although it has been recognized that they continued to develop the author's central paradigms of permutation and repetition, thus linking them to another late work, the novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964, Let My Name Be Gantenbein, translated as A Wilderness of Mirrors, 1965), the two plays also strikingly invoke the principle of eternal recurrence in the realms of both life and death. While Biografie provides its chief protagonist the chance to alter the development of his life by changing key moments in his existence but constantly confronts this protagonist with dilemmas that cause him to repeat his life in almost all its particulars, the third “panel” of Triptychon shows a man apparently permitted to alter the last moments of his relationship to a deceased lover.
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