Max Frisch’s An Answer from the Silence and Sketchbooks

Although I felt there was something unconvincing about Man in the Holocene when I read it last summer, I found myself often thinking about the work since. I will read it again soon but I think my disappointment was in Max Frisch’s failure of pessimism, that he felt it necessary to relieve the bleakness at the end of Herr Geiser’s story, at least on the level of a realistic reading of the work. I wonder now whether I misread the serenity of the closing pages, particularly since exploring Frisch’s other work more closely.

It was An Answer from the Silence that drew me back to Frisch, encouraged also by Beckett’s interest in his work. Beckett didn’t go out of his way to engage with contemporary writers so evidence that he owned and read Frisch impelled me to dive deeply into his work this month.

An Answer from the Silence deals with that crisis that presents itself when we realise with horror our responsibility for the hollowness of our existence. If we have chosen to stay in dreary jobs, disastrous relationships, without love, the failure to do something about our wasted lives is ours alone. As Frisch writes, “Why don’t we live when we know we’re here just this one time, just one single, unrepeatable time in this unutterably magnificent world.” Frisch’s narrator stares deeply into this abyss as must we all to reach maturity and finds, of course, no answers. Not even love provides that answer.

Translated by Mike Mitchell and published by Seagull Books, An Answer from the Silence is a perfect book to start an immersion into Frisch. Its tender, lonely torments flow warmly over icy depths that further persuade me that a second closer reading of Man in the Holocene might be more revealing.

This week I also read Frisch’s Drafts for a Third Sketchbook, also translated by Mike Mitchell and published by Seagull Books, who have the rights to both his earlier Sketchbooks (Tagebucher) for publication next year. This didn’t stop me tracking down a 1974 edition of the second Sketchbook 1966-1971. I’m nothing if not a completist when obsessing about a particular writer’s work.

Frisch’s Sketchbooks present short form entries in diary format, self-reflective observations  about contemporary events and, in Drafts for a Third Sketchbook, his recounting of the illness and death of his close friend Peter Noll. Although written as a diary or sketchbook, a tight narrative microstructure suggests these meditations were meticulously written and refined. Several themes are woven throughout: the bitter ironies of ageing and the question of how to die. It is clear, at least from the little I’ve read of Frisch’s work so far, that these are the fundamental themes and concerns throughout his writing, no less in his novel Homo Faber, which I am reading at present.


8 thoughts on “Max Frisch’s An Answer from the Silence and Sketchbooks

  1. Glad to see you’re coming around to Frisch. He’s one of my favourite authors—while I was studying him at university, I deliberately made the same journey from Palenque in Mexico to Guatemala that I found fascinating at the time (all those zopilotes…)
    I also really like the relentless self-questioning in the questionnaires from the Sketchbook 1966-1971. I haven’t reread it since university (about ten years ago), but I really loved Gantenbein and want to read that again (and Montauk) to compare them more closely with Bachmann’s Malina, as there are so many echoes of their relationship in both.
    (I’m not sure it’s been translated into English, but Suhrkamp published the correspondence for between Bachmann and Celan, an earlier love—also fascinating)

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    • Those zopilotes. I’d never heard the word until reading Homo Faber this morning. The piece set in Palenque is wonderful. What a journey that must be.
      I’ll read all the novels and also wish to get to Bachmann’s Malina soon. Seagull Books published the Bachmann/Celan letters, another I’ll be reading this year.


  2. Max Frisch and Homo Faber was on my wishlist last year for some time though for the life of me I cannot remember what it was I read that triggered the interest. Given where I am at and the targeted reading that I am doing with respect to my own writing which is occupying more of my focus these days, I suspect that An Answer from the Silence would fit well into my agenda. I look forward to your further exploration of Frisch too.


  3. Homo Faber is one of the first books I read when I moved to Switzerland ten years ago. I loved it – but it passed out of my mind too quickly. I remember loving the tone, the oddness of it, too. I’d like to re-read, along with more Frisch.

    I had a false start with Quignard – I think i went with the wrong book. I started with a series of lectures he gave called “Sur l’Idée d’une communauté de solitaires” – a title which charmed me off the shelf. But it didn’t work for me… so fragmented I could not keep my mind on it (which may also be just because I’ve had too much going on), so I started Les Ombres Errantes (a serendipitous find in my local 2nd hand bookshop) and am taking it slowly, enjoying it so far.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m enjoying Homo Faber as well, trying to slow my reading to fully enjoy the unreliability of its narrator; also loving its rich allusions to Greek tragedy.

      “Sur l’Idée d’une communauté de solitaires” is a very Quignardian concept. I love it, so a pity that it didn’t work for you. Les Ombres Errants will give you a good entry point to Quignard and is all the richer on second and third reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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