Max Frisch, Marriage, Identity

On July 30, 1942, Max Frisch marries his former classmate Trudy Constanze von Meyenburg.

On July 30, 1942, Max Frisch marries his former classmate Trudy Constanze von Meyenburg.

Reading around Frisch’s central question of how to stay alive “between the portrait of you that is made by the others and the one you make yourself”.

The ethical core of the marriage bond, Hegel is suggesting, lies in the ideal that marriage partners become so embedded in each other’s characters as agents, that neither is really in a position simply to renounce the other at will, for the constitutive “will to be married’ to the other comes to be part and parcel of each self’s own spontaneous affirmation of his or her own self-identity and of his or her own character as an agent—this will is not located merely in the particular exchange of vows (itself not dissimilar to a contract) that occurred on their wedding day.

From David Ciabatta’s investigation of the role of family in Hegel’s phenomenology.

Books That Make My Ears Burn

There’s quite a lot I want to say about Max Frisch but I’m writing something for the Spring issue of The Scofield and don’t want to foreshadow that piece too much here. There is this curious quality though to I’m Not Stiller that I haven’t quite understood. It is often difficult to pick the book up, as though beneath it lay a dead rat that I’ll have to deal with. But when I start reading again I’m fully absorbed.

It is brilliant how Frisch dissects the nature of identity within marriage, or any long-term relationship. From where do we get this fallacious notion of fixed identity? How do we negotiate identity within the context of society, marriage, family and self? Frisch wallows in these questions in I’m Not Stiller. I don’t know whether I like the book but I’ve started to reread it without the encumbrance of plot and the suspense of not knowing where Frisch is taking the story. I feel a need to remove the screws and dismantle the clock, to question how he creates this resistant yet mesmerising quality.

I recently wrote about what modernism means to me in context of the writers I return to often. It is obviously an idiosyncratic view, very personal to me. I’m always thrilled when people discover writers through this blog but I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what to read. It’s why I don’t really write reviews here. I am without any significance to anyone but those who are linked to me through friendship of some sort. I’m certainly no expert in literature or anything else.

Instead of dragging Kafka’s axe out of the shed I’ll quote the Stranglers, “Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? / He got an ice pick / That made his ears burn.” I want to read books that hit me like an ice pick, that make my ears burn. When I reread Quignard’s The Roving Shadows this year, or discovered Brigid Brophy and Tomas Espedal last year, my ears burnt. When I get that sensation it’s like falling in love. I want to read every word those writers have written, even the dodgy bits they’d rather forget. I want to read first editions to share a bit of the thrill those writers must have felt when setting eyes on their long-baked work for the first time.

The books that make my ears burn more often than not are those I described. But I’m also quite happy to pick up a chapter of two of my daughter’s latest Stephen King. It isn’t snobbery that drives my reading but mortality. If I live five years longer than my father, I’ve got time for something like 2800 books. It isn’t enough. I want every one of those 2800 books to be ice picks.

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.