Man in the Holocene

by Max Frisch

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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373


Geiser (GI-zehr), a retired businessman who lives alone in a house in a village high in the Swiss Alps. His wife died years before the action of the novel. He is seventy-three years old and is beginning to experience symptoms of senility. The novel begins during the last few days of a severe storm that has caused some minor landslides in the area. The roadways are blocked, and there have been some disruptions of telephone and electrical service. Geiser passes the time building a pagoda out of crisp bread and reading encyclopedia articles about thunder and lightning. He gradually becomes more involved with his encyclopedia readings and obsessively peruses pieces on weather, the local geography and its history of landslides, the age of the dinosaurs, and the vast eras of geological time. Geiser is very concerned with the possibility that he may be losing his memory as a result of senility and thus starts to read articles about the symptoms of aging. He makes lists of various items as a test of his memory, such as types of thunder, the supplies in his kitchen, and the contents of his deep freezer. He takes notes on his reading at first but then abandons that and cuts out the encyclopedia articles instead. He tacks them up on the walls of his house, which soon become completely covered. When neighbors come by to bring him soup, he refuses to answer the doorbell. At one point, in a state of disorientation, he kills his pet cat and roasts it in the fireplace. Geiser decides to hike over the mountain pass into the next valley, a dangerous journey for a man his age. He gets lost several times. Exhausted and unable to make the trip, he returns home. Having suffered a mild stroke, he falls down the stairs and injures himself slightly. Telephone service has been restored, and his telephone rings periodically—presumably his daughter calling—but he refuses to answer it. He begins to remember a climb he made with his brother some fifty years earlier, on the Matterhorn. With the roadway cleared, his daughter arrives to check on him; it is likely that she will have to commit him to a home for the aged.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

Man in the Holocene is a one-character novel, and its action occurs mainly inside the protagonist’s mind as he awaits catastrophe caused by the interminable rain. The novel is written in a very limited third-person point of view, almost as if its reflections were confined strictly to Geiser’s own mind. Because of this technique, the reader is sometimes forced to extrapolate information about what has happened to Geiser when Geiser himself is disoriented or unaware. This is particularly true toward the end of the novel when Geiser begins to behave eccentrically. The evidence of his behavior and physical symptoms suggests that he has had a stroke. Near the final page, this intuition is confirmed by the final quotation, an excerpt on the subject of apoplectic stroke. Evidently, Geiser himself was sufficiently aware of his changing condition to do some medical research in the same encyclopedia which had provided his clippings about dinosaurs and geology.

Despite the close connection between the point of view and Geiser’s mind, the narration is spare and objective. The reader sees only what Geiser sees but is rarely told how the protagonist feels about his experiences, his memories, or his reading. The dominant emotion in the book is Geiser’s fear that an avalanche will destroy his house or his village, but even this fear is conveyed indirectly—for example, by the collapsing pagoda of crisp bread that Geiser is constructing when the book begins. Later, he watches the rock cliffs that surround the village, searching for cracks. Shadows, snakes, or running water may momentarily seem to him to be a fatal crack in the earth.

Oddly, the most emotional moments in the book come neither in connection with Geiser’s present fears nor with respect to any memories relating to his wife and children but in his description of the long-ago climb of the Matterhorn, undertaken with his brother, Klaus. The two men managed the ascent with ease, but they made an error in descending, trapping themselves on a narrow ridge of snow. It was decided that Klaus, as the elder, would take the risk of climbing back upward to surer ground from which a rope could be lowered to his brother. If this plan did not work, Klaus would descend by himself and go for help. Geiser knew that he could not wait for hours on the narrow ledge and that he would allow himself to fall before he could endure the long, cold isolation. Luckily, Geiser was rescued within short order by this method. About the experience, he tersely remarks that Klaus was a good brother. Yet, from this episode, the reader understands Geiser’s love and admiration for his brother as well as Geiser’s own physical courage. It is also apparent that Geiser is willing to confront the loneliness and potential death inflicted by the world of ice which surrounds and underlies his Alpine homeland. He recognizes, too, the thin line between life and oblivion.

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