Man in the Holocene

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1537

Thumbing quickly for the first time through the pages of Man in the Holocene, one is immediately struck by the fact that this is a curious book, a book which—even in its appearance on the printed page—is unlike the novels to which one is accustomed. Where the reader expects to...

(The entire section contains 1572 words.)

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Thumbing quickly for the first time through the pages of Man in the Holocene, one is immediately struck by the fact that this is a curious book, a book which—even in its appearance on the printed page—is unlike the novels to which one is accustomed. Where the reader expects to find neatly arranged, orderly paragraphs following one after the other, he finds instead paragraphs of radically varying lengths separated by gaps of empty white page. Stranger still, sections set off by a gray background are found, and these sections contain such diverse materials as biblical quotations, lists, sketches of prehistoric animals, and dictionary definitions. Returning to the beginning and reading slowly—for this is a book to be read slowly and savored—through these odd-appearing pages, the initial impression of strangeness is confirmed. The realization is made, however, that this is strangeness for a purpose, strangeness which is integral to the very subject matter of the book. Man in the Holocene portrays with devastating accuracy and effect the vain effort of an elderly man to stay the disintegration of his mind and to find for himself a stable and enduring place in the universe. Lest this description make the book sound like a weighty philosophical tome, let it quickly be said that this is a book of unusual clarity and directness, a book which is, in short, a small literary masterpiece which brilliantly weds subject and form while remaining entirely free of literary artiness.

Herr Geiser, age seventy-three, is a widower who lives alone in his house in a small Swiss village. For several days the village has been deluged by rain. The power has intermittently been off, and the mail truck has been unable to get through. There may have been landslides along the roads, but the news is conflicting. Herr Geiser first appears at night with thunder clapping and rain pouring down outside while inside he tries to build a structure of crisp-bread. To no avail, however, for as the fourth floor is being constructed, the whole edifice wobbles and then collapses into ruins. This is the first image of collapse and disintegration, but others appear throughout the book: a collapsed wall in the lower garden, the sound of rushing water signifying new streams channeling changes into the earth, a television screen on which figures appear and then flicker and disappear, an apparent fissure in the ground outside Herr Geiser’s window. Geiser perceives these images and fears the collapse and disintegration of his world. Further, precisely when Geiser perceives these external images, he—and the reader—also perceive the lapses in memory and the fragmentation which signal the collapse and disintegration of his mind.

“What would be bad would be losing one’s memory,” Geiser thinks. “No knowledge without memory.” Knowledge becomes Geiser’s obsession. He feels the necessity to organize and to categorize, to put all meaningful information into orderly arrangement and to have it available for instant recall. This, in fact, becomes Geiser’s mission. Elsbeth, his deceased wife, read novels. This retreat, however, is not for Geiser because novels deal with the relationships among people “as if the place for these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time.” Facts are what Geiser is after. Facts about creation, about the geological changes the earth has undergone, about prehistoric animals, about emerging man—thus, Geiser seeks facts. He listens to the thunder and isolates sixteen or more different types. He plunges into his encyclopedia, his dictionary, and his other books that provide facts. Shortly, however, he realizes that the facts slip from his mind soon after he has acquired them. So, he begins to write them out in longhand and to attach his writings to the wall; however, this process is too slow. So, he finds scissors and begins to cut out articles and append them to the wall. Always, he is threatened by time, which he knows is running out; by his memory, which he knows is failing him; and by the uncertainty of what he is after. Distractions come between Geiser and his task. A salamander in the house must be removed. Age-old cobwebs in an inaccessible location gnaw at his mind and must be cleared away, so Geiser tears out the handrail of the bannister to use as an extension rod for his broom and then is unable to affix the handrail back in place.

At dawn one day Geiser sets out on foot with his rucksack, his hat, his raincoat, and his umbrella. The path, however, is not as he remembered it, age has taken his agility and stamina, and the rain continues to fall. This is his escape, but, to where? Then it is night, and Geiser is heading back home barely aware that he has decided to turn back. Home again, Geiser continues his work of accumulating information, but his perceptions become more disjointed and his memory falters further. He awakens to find himself on the floor, spectacles lying unbroken nearby, and hat still on his head. The telephone rings, but Geiser does not answer. Men enter his house and look about, but Geiser throws a cup at them and drives them away. Numbness sets in on the left side of his body. An old memory of climbing the Matterhorn with his brother comes into his mind in lucid detail. His daughter arrives, but by now Geiser has slipped far away. Why, he wonders, does she talk to him as if he were a child?

Geiser’s mind dwells quickly on the broken bannister, then on the snipped pages of his books. Geiser sees that “all the papers, whether on the wall or on the carpet, can go... . Nature needs no names. Geiser knows that. The rocks do not need his memory.” The reader is told that an article about apoplexy occupies a place on the wall; it seems to describe much of what is happening to Geiser. Finally, the reader is told that life goes on, business as usual, in the village—with, it must be assumed, Geiser gone, dust to dust, to take his place in the timeless story of the earth which evaded his mind but received his remains.

Herr Geiser, this elderly man about whom one learns very little factually and for whom one has no particular reason to feel anything except pity, somehow exerts such power upon the imagination that he continues to live and grow in the mind long after the final page has been turned. This, one must feel, is because of the awesome economy and clarity which Geiser’s creator, Max Frisch, used in telling Geiser’s story. It is interesting to consider how different this book might have been if the materials had been in the hands of someone like James Joyce or William Faulkner. One thinks of the great soliloquys of Molly Bloom and Quentin Compson, and one can easily imagine a book two or three times the length of Frisch’s with great convoluted sentences piled upon one another—a book, in other words, of great artistry but one which, because of the artistry, inevitably calls attention to the artist.

Not so with Frisch. His method is that of understatement. He disciplines himself against the temptation to record all of the workings of Geiser’s mind and all the external experiences with which Geiser comes into contact. Rather, Frisch simply and directly draws the reader’s attention to the shifting points of focus in Geiser’s mind and then steps aside to allow the imagination to add the details and the colors. The result is a reading experience of far more complexity, depth, and richness than one would expect from a short book filled with straightforward declarative sentences. Indeed, time and time again while reading the book, one is drawn to close the eyes and to project oneself into the consciousness of Herr Geiser and to linger while Frisch’s images grow and expand. So doing, one can feel in a palpable and visceral way the loneliness, the fear, the obsessiveness, and the frustration felt by Herr Geiser.

Man in the Holocene, in addition to its considerable inherent quality, might be hoped to achieve the further distinction of introducing its author to a wider audience in the United States. Max Frisch is widely known and admired in Europe but is relatively little known in this country despite the availability of English translations of a number of his works as well as occasional performances of his plays. He deserves the same sort of widespread audience that such European writers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus have found. He is a writer of tremendous diversity who, in addition to fiction and drama, has written philosophical essays, travel articles, political commentary, personal reminiscences, and other types of nonfiction. Two volumes of sketch-books as well as several plays and novels, including Man in the Holocene, are available in English translation. They are the work of a man who has spent a lifetime examining closely, critically, and unflinchingly the human condition of his time, and they merit Frisch a place among the serious and important writers who are alive today.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35

Butler, Michael. The Novels of Max Frisch, 1976.

Petersen, Carol. Max Frisch, 1972.

Probst, Gerhard F., and Jay F. Bodine, eds. Perspectives on Max Frisch, 1982.

Weisstein, Ulrich. Max Frisch, 1967.

The Yale Review. Review. LXX (Winter, 1981), pp. 273-283.

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