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The Flood Next Time

Man in the Holocene

by Max Frisch, translated by Geoffrey Skelton
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 113 pp., $3.95 (paper)


by Max Frisch, translated by Geoffrey Skelton
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 82 pp., $8.95

Stiller, published in 1954 and translated into English as I’m Not Stiller in 1958, carried Max Frisch into the class of international writers, eliciting comparisons with Kafka and Thomas Mann that may have been more automatic than reasoned. I’m Not Stiller could have been called “I’m Not Swiss—Or Not Entirely.” “In Germany they click their heels, in the East they rub their hands together, in Switzerland they light a cigar and strain after a pose of surly equality as though nothing could happen in this country to a man who behaved correctly.” The eponymous (or not) hero maintains that he is not a Swiss, but a man called Sam White, an American of German origin. The implication is that anyone who doesn’t “grasp the opportunity of being Swiss as a boon” must be either crazy or criminal, possibly a spy. You can scold Switzerland for its complacency and self-righteousness, for its materialism, for what Stiller (generalizing from his small, clean prison cell) calls its “oppressive adequacy,” but you can hardly reproach it with the kind of calamities and evils caused by or occurring in some other countries. There would seem little chance for budding Bölls or Grasses among its German-speaking authors!

Even so, it is tempting to think of I’m Not Stiller as a study or critique of Swissness, if only because the alternative (alas, the correct one) is to see it as an exercise in “identity,” an attempt to escape from one identity and embrace another. If “Stiller” were a fascinating character, one might care more about his identity. His obsessive interest in himself is amazing by reason of its intensity and protraction, but that self is an enigma doubtfully worth the solving. The novel has much in the way of incidental attractions—topographical beauties, insights into other lives, some splendidly mimetic writing—but at its heart is a cloud that grows darker and more diffuse as we proceed. The hero is a menace to others, and before long becomes a bore to the reader; the novel a small spun-out storm in a large tea urn. Or a late example of Expressionism, made more human—and more humorous—perhaps as far as it can be, but not as far as it needs to be.

Montauk (1975) is prefaced by a nicely self-deprecatory passage from Montaigne: “Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject. So farewell.” And farewell it nearly is, when on the second page one is informed that, to light his pipe, “he” has to stop briefly and use five matches. Well, it is windy. Is the wind material, then (or merely hot air)? But yes, one sees that this may be in line with that “truthfulness of presentation” on which Frisch insists. What does this truthfulness have to do with fiction—or, since the diary-like Montauk is doubtfully fiction, with truth?

Yet this interrogation of mine verges on pettiness: Frisch is telling us that “he” is a pipe-smoker and that Montauk Point, Long Island, is or can be a windy place, and all these details contribute to the density of narration that is characteristic of the author. And one wants an author to have character. One may not warm to the persona that emerges in these pages, where Frisch’s remark in the Sketchbook 1946-1949 that writing is the equivalent of reading oneself applies more immediately than elsewhere in his work, but the “reading” is both unsparing and lucid. “He” is not Stiller. The writing in Montauk is, we are told, “completely autobiographical—without inventing a single character; without inventing happenings of more significance than his own simple reality; without taking refuge in inventions of any kind; without seeking to justify his writing as a duty toward society. A story without a message…. He wants simply to tell it (though not without some consideration for the people he mentions by name): his life.”

He” is amusing on the subject of Frisch’s fame, an attribute carried lightly. In a sauna bath a man asks him: “Aren’t you Herr Fritsch?” (sic), and a German customs official mentions a play of his that he liked—Der Besuch der Alten Dame, actually the work of Dürrenmatt, the other half of the Swiss twins. At Yale a girl student asks: “Does Stiller really want Julika to be redeemed, or is he really only interested in being her redeemer?”—a sensible question, one that points to the baffling egotism, the monstrous gratuitousness in Herr Stiller.

The passage on autobiography quoted above is followed swiftly by second thoughts, prompted by the discovery that he has been concealing his life from himself. “I have been serving up stories to some sort of public, and in these stories I have, I know, laid myself bare—to the point of non-recognition. I live, not with my own story, but just with those parts of it that I have been able to put to literary use. Whole areas are missing…. It is not even true that I have always described just myself. I have never described myself. I have only betrayed myself.” The meaning of the word “betrayed” is uncertain here; and that “whole areas are missing” seems inevitable rather than reprehensible. If we discount a prurient interest in Montauk as “bare” self-revelation—something Frisch certainly doesn’t encourage and the reader would be hard pressed to sustain—the chief interest lies in a strong sense of life or of having lived, backed up by such apothegms, products of having lived, as (concerning the absence in a weekend tryst of serious quarrels as distinct from misunderstandings), “You need a marriage, a long one, to become a monster.”

There is mention in Montauk of a story set in Ticino which “has gone wrong for the fourth time; the role of the narrator is not yet clear.” If this refers to Frisch’s most recent novel, Man in the Holocene, set in a village in the canton of Ticino where the author himself lives, it may strike us as strange in that there is virtually no narrator present in this book—yet not strange, in that the role of the author, remotest of agents, remains obscure. Since blurb writers earn more kicks than compliments, it ought to be remarked that the jacket copy here is genuinely informative and truly helpful about the author’s intentions. If we wonder why there are so many white spaces between the passages in the book, the jacket tells us that “spaces are made to say as much as words, since they indicate thought leaps and gaps in a flickering memory, reinforcing the hallucinatory character of the story.” Frisch is a writer, one might venture, whose books really need blurbs. Not that, by its author’s standards, this novel is abnormally difficult to read; much of it consists of sketches of dinosaurs, charts, and inset passages in various typefaces taken from encyclopedias, guidebooks, local histories, the Bible….

Herr Geiser, nearing seventy-four, lives alone in a valley whose history of floods and landslides is reproduced from authoritative sources, alongside an extract from Chapter 7 of the Book of Genesis describing the Flood. There has been heavy and prolonged rain, and the village is cut off, the electricity supply failing intermittently. “Geiser has time to spare,” time to read in his twelve-volume encyclopedia, Der Grosse Brockhaus, about the different kinds of lightning (twelve are itemized), geology both global and local, glaciers, and mountain ranges, and (rather too much) about the dinosaurs, those tyrants who had nothing to fear on earth, yet whose reign was mysteriously cut short. That the old man cannot work in his garden may be part of the trouble: the “he” of Montauk noted that “the older I get, the less I can bear myself when I am not working.” Geiser expects disaster, an avalanche that will bury him, his house, the whole village. Even though in the village tavern, while they admit that it has been a bad year for wine and for mushrooms too, “nobody is reckoning on another Flood.”

The progress of Geiser’s fears—though fears is not the right word, for he shows little emotion of any sort—is logical enough. What has happened before can happen again. Man lives in the Holocene epoch, which began when the Pleistocene ended, and if the Pleistocene could end, so can the Holocene. The books Geiser reads are full of warnings, ranging from avalanches in the near past to the disappearance of dinosaurs in the further past. He clips passages from them which he then pins to his walls, removing his dead wife’s portrait to make room.

The reader comes to realize that the approaching doom applies to Geiser himself, not the whole earth, not even Ticino, not even the village in the valley. Geiser goes to the tavern to buy matches, and forgets: “Obviously brain cells are ceasing to function.” He drops his reading glasses and breaks them: “If necessary, one can always use the magnifying glass for reading.” Then he sets off on an arduous expedition to the mountain pass, 1,076 meters above sea level, leaving the house at dawn and returning past midnight after a painful trek (cramp in the calves and thighs). “There is always ground, even at night.” This is some feat, testimony to the old man’s indomitability, and perhaps by extension to man’s indomitable spirit, but otherwise unmotivated, inexplicable. Geiser is obviously not trying to save himself; he doesn’t even wish to.

Similarly gratuitous (is the gratuitous a part of truthful presentation? A hard question) is the lengthy account, late in the proceedings, of Geiser and his brother (now dead) climbing on the Matterhorn fifty years before. In itself, however, this is a vivid, expert piece of writing. For example,

From the summit there was not much to see. Here and there a break in the clouds: a view of bleak moraines or the dirty tongue of a glacier, elsewhere a green Alpine meadow in sunshine, streams like a network of white veins, and once they caught sight of the little lake, the Schwarzsee, beside which their green tent was pitched, though they could not spot it, a small ink-blue pool glistening in the sunshine, next to some things that looked like white maggots, presumably cows—

Geiser’s expedition to the pass might certainly explain, if explanation is required, the collapse he now suffers. Perhaps he fell down the stairs, perhaps his chair slipped, he cannot remember, but his left eyelid is numb, he has a feeling of tightness above his left temple. He appears to have had a slight stroke. The chilly dryness of the writing, its closeness to documentary, is alleviated, as elsewhere in Frisch, by some touches of humor. The crack Geiser sees from his window—“that is the way landslides begin”—turns out to be a track made by his cat through the grass. Food is running short in the village, but (Geiser notes in his local-historian’s manner) “the cats in this district are seldom eaten”; just as the last murder in the valley occurred decades ago, and “ever since the young men have owned motorcycles, incest has been dying out, and so has sodomy.” A little later, we gather, Geiser has roasted the cat over the fire but found himself unable to eat it: “Kitty is buried near the roses.” The doorbell rings, the telephone rings, he answers neither. He cannot remember what gave him the idea of cutting out those pictures of dinosaurs and lizards: “There were never any dinosaurs in Ticino.” The more humane or tender-minded reader will be relieved to hear, toward the end, that Geiser’s daughter Corinne has arrived from Basel—“Why does she talk to him as if he were a child?”—and is making tea.

Concrete, all very concrete. But how much concreteness does a reader want in a novel? As “conventional” fiction, in which characters into whom we can enter are caught up in actions we can follow, Man in the Holocene doesn’t work (and no doubt doesn’t want to), if only because we cannot feel much sympathy for Geiser—considerable respect, yes, but less of that after the roasting of the cat, surely an un-Swiss activity—nor can we take much interest in the documentation unless we happen to be climbers mad on geology, Ticino, dinosaurs, and lightning. The book can be read as a parable about the threat that hangs over us all, the new dinosaurs—in Begegnungen, a Festschrift (more Fest than Frisch) for the author’s seventieth birthday, a contributor suggests that the sentence in Geiser’s encyclopedia, “Man first appeared in the Pleistocene,” could be continued “and died out in the Atomic Age”—and perhaps about the hope of survival too. But this sounds too obvious for Frisch, too much “a duty toward society.” Whatever the game is, it is not incontestably worth the candle.

It may be, in Frisch’s case, that résumés make the books sound not merely simpler but more engaging than they are. In the reading, his new play, Triptych: Three Scenic Panels, is not notably engaging, although on the stage, with some extra humanity in the shape of human beings actually in front of one, it could well be more so. Once again, the work compels respect, largely through its stealthy ingenuity and its compactness. With its three interrelated pictures of death, it is indeed a triptych, exceptionally tightly knit, while conveying an impression of freedom in its personae, an apparent absence of manipulation by the author. Humor, that liberator even of slaves, again helps in this respect: in the land of shades in which one “scene” is set, there is a flute player who makes the same mistake again and again; a son, dead at seventy, who is older than his father, forever stuck at forty-one; a convict who assures the clerk whom he shot in a bank raid: “I’d never do such a thing again, and that’s the truth, I’m sure of it”; a clergyman who “can’t understand there’s no job for him here.”

This sense of freedom, of autonomous existence, is a rare achievement, and yet it is procured at the cost of some gratuitousness—what is freer than that?—and of pointless repetition. Granted, the repetitiousness is the point: the dead go on repeating themselves, ad infinitum one supposes, for “what has been can’t be altered,” and they can meet only those they already knew (“Bakunin and all the rest of them, you’ll never meet them”). Triptych is a tour de something, and I wish I could be sure what the something is. What does it tell us about death, except that there’s a lot of it about? What does it tell us about eternity, except “How ordinary eternity is!”? What does it tell us about life that life itself cannot tell in a livelier fashion?

Although he is expert at skating on the brink of it, the giving of enjoyment does not rank high in Frisch’s order of artistic priorities. This must endear him to those who believe that the profound, the precious, and the new are incompatible with ordinary pleasures, and to those who feel comfortable only with discomfort. The rest of us, probably by now a minority, can only stare and wonder, or wonder and slink away.

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