Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439
Images of ice, of loneliness, and of the long, slow, passage of history dominate Man in the Holocene. The novel is set amid the glacial architecture of the Alps, and one of the few books that Geiser reads during his isolation is a guidebook to Iceland. The rain that forms the novel’s backdrop turns without warning to icy hail, destroying Geiser’s garden. Geiser’s most significant memory is of his near death during his descent from the Matterhorn.
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Given this pattern of images, it is plausible to interpret Man in the Holocene as an existential parable about the status of man in the universe. Although Geiser evidently loved his brother, wife, and daughter, Max Frisch chooses not to emphasize Geiser’s place in a network of human bonds. Instead, Geiser is placed in the context of geological time. The reader is reminded, by Geiser’s clippings on dinosaurs, that man has not always existed and that beings larger and stronger than man have thrived on earth only to become extinct. Other clippings dwell on the passing of civilizations or species. Overall, the novel portrays man as a temporary inhabitant of a world which will continue well after his extinction.
Despite the potentially grim message implied in the idea that man is insignificant in the grand scheme of time, Man in the Holocene is not entirely a pessimistic work. It is certainly not a denunciation of man or a warning that man is destroying the world. On the contrary, the novel pays homage to the enduring power of nature itself, a force that predates man and, perhaps most significant, is not dependent on him. Although Geiser’s valley changes physically as man erects buildings or fells diseased trees, his world has changed little from the Middle Ages—or even from the Stone Age. Twentieth century man has much in common with prehistoric man, man in the Holocene.
In addition to offering a parable for man’s status in the universe, Man in the Holocene also reflects on the changes that man undergoes as he ages. It is partly Geiser’s advanced age that permits him to view the world from a historical and geological perspective, because the passing of time has loosened his connections with his immediate surroundings. He realizes, for example, that he cannot remember the names of his grandchildren and that a portrait of his wife holds no sentimental value. As he sheds the particular memories that have defined his identity, Geiser becomes more of an Everyman figure. Even his specific Alpine surroundings may symbolize the relatively cold and unyielding world faced by the solitary elderly.