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.


Max Frisch, Bae Suah and Meaningless Existence

There are my old chestnuts, those writers to whom I’ve become attached. They are sufficient that I could just read and reread their works till the end, but something compels me to seek out new voices, or those that are new to me.

Three decent train journeys provided enough time to be disappointed with Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, not for its writing, which was quiet, meticulously observed and refreshingly bleak, but for its conservatism. It began as a novel about a man pottering about his house pondering the storm outside, how we are eroded by age and disenchantment, and how minuscule we are in time and space, and turned into the recounting of a perilous journey. The ending unspeakably compromised what started as a tale of the utmost simplicity. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with Frisch’s story if this sort of novel amuses you, just simply not to my taste.

The coal-dark humour of Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found is far closer to the complicated depths I seek in apparently simple novels. Bae Suah’s characters inhabit the meaningless of existence, echoing TS Eliot’s hollow men, painfully aware that “life is very long, ” and that things more often end “not with a bang but a whimper.” I wanted this book to go on for so much longer than its hundred pages, with its loops, its repetition and its uncertainties.

A Bad Person

Through flowerville (I think, though I can no longer find the original reference) I discovered Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s work. I’ve been reading three books published by Seagull Books, drawn as much to Schwarzenbach as her writing. I do hope that Schwarzenbach’s letters find a good translator and publisher.

I’m having a run of Bohemians.

The following is from an Afterword to her Lyric Novella, though I think it is the travel diaries I prefer; she writes beautifully of landscape and skies. Though, to quote Wilde, the truth is rarely pure, and never simple, this excerpt strikes me as refreshingly truthful.

When she is lonely, she writes him a sort of love letter in which she categorically denies any possibility for loving a man: ‘Incidentally, you are so sure of yourself, so conceited in your hyper-criticism, so endlessly alone due to your knowledge. [ . . . ] For I also believe that you are a bad person. Weak, vain and wicked, like all men, because they do not have the same humility as we women do.’

Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Pariser Novelle II

The Judge and the Hangman by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Do we all go through a detective fiction phase, a bit like that Stephen King phase? There was a time when I serially consumed the output of writers like Ed McBain, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. Good and evil were neatly polarised, the bad guys were unconditionally evil, the good guys were flawed but uncontaminated.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman must surely be the textbook example of detective fiction. The hero, terminally ill Barlach is endowed with flawless logic though disorganised and lazy. His nemesis Gastman is evil personified. The two protagonists have battled each other for forty years since making a youthful wager:

And as we kept arguing, seduced by those infernal fires the Jew kept pouring into our glasses, and even more by our own exuberant youth, we ended up making a bet, and it happened just as the moon was sinking behind Asia Minor, a wager which we defiantly pinned to the sky, very much like the kind of horrible joke that offends against everything sacred and yet holds out such a devilish appeal, such a wicked temptation of the spirit but the spirit, that we cannot suppress it.

Gastman refrains from the stock manic mwahahaha but you can feel the strain of his suppression. Whether the idle flow of cliché is the fault of Dürrenmatt or his translator, it was a struggle to proceed, at one point our hero holds his head in his hands moaning “What is man!”

From time to time it is useful to remind myself why crime fiction makes be bilious, the relentless path to the obvious. In this case I had nailed the murderer fifty pages before his denouement.

I turned to a work of crime fiction as part of German Literature Month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. I am not inclined to read another Dürrenmatt.

My Plans for German Literature Month II

Somehow during German literature month, in addition to my plans to read Effi Briest, The Silent Angel, Visitation, The Judge and his Hangman and Old Masters, I have challenged Nicole to a shared reading of Elective Affinities, which seems proper to post about as part of German lit-month. I am also going to read at least one of Kleist’s brilliant short stories again to respond to the call for a worldwide reading on 21 November.

The international literature festival berlin (ilb) and the German Heinrich von Kleist Society are calling for cultural institutions, schools, radio stations and anyone who is interested to organise a worldwide reading of the works of the German author Heinrich von Kleist on 21 November 2011, the 200th anniversary of his death.

The 200th anniversary of Kleist’s death on 21 November 2011 is an occasion to discuss the relationship between crisis, critique and reform ideas then and today. However, the 21st of November is also the day on which tribute should be paid to Kleist’s life, how he died and his works. In his honour, excerpts from the letters and works of Heinrich von Kleist should be read on the anniversary of his death.

Fortunately I have a few days off and a business trip down under, so should have reading time to spare.