Max Frisch Biography

Biography

Article abstract: One of the most widely respected literary figures in the German-speaking world since the 1950’s, Frisch has increasingly been recognized as a writer of international stature. Indicative of this recognition are the translations of his works into more than twenty languages, the voluminous secondary literature surrounding his oeuvre, his candidacy for the Nobel Prize, and the receipt of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1986.

Early Life

Max Frisch was born on May 15, 1911, in Zurich, Switzerland, as the youngest of three children to Franz Bruno Frisch, a self-taught architect with family roots in Austria, and his wife, Karolina Bettina, a woman whose family originally came from Germany. After graduation from secondary school, Frisch went on to the university to study German literature and attended lectures by such prominent Swiss professors as Heinrich Wölfflin in art history and Carl Jung in psychology. When Frisch’s father died in 1932, he abandoned these studies for the first of many trips abroad and free-lance newspaper writing. The first public indication of his literary talent emerged two years later with the appearance of his novel Jürg Reinhart (1934), a novel of maturation following in the tradition of Gottfried Keller, a nineteenth century Swiss writer much admired by Frisch.

By 1936, Frisch was enrolled as an architectural student at the Technical University in Zurich. He continued to publish, however, throughout the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, despite the claim that he had at one point destroyed everything he had ever written. By the end of the war he had added several prose works to his bibliography, including his first journal, had seen one of his plays performed, and had been honored by his native Zurich for his literary efforts.

In 1942, the year after he received his degree in architecture, the city also awarded him first prize in an architecture contest that included a contract to design and build a large public swimming facility. During the same year, Frisch married the daughter of a prominent Zurich family and opened his own architecture firm, which he maintained until 1955.

During the years immediately following World War II, Frisch traveled widely in war-torn Europe, recording his shock at the ruined landscape and human suffering in his Tagebuch 1946-1949 (1950; Sketchbook 1946-1949, 1977). Later, supported by a Rockefeller grant for drama, he made his first visit to the United States. His plays, enriched by the personal contact and interchange with Bertolt Brecht, enjoyed considerable success on stage. Only with the appearance of his novel Stiller (1954; I’m Not Stiller, 1958), however, did Frisch emerge as a mature writer fully deserving the attention of the world literary community.

Life’s Work

Frisch’s novel about Anatol Stiller, the Zurich sculptor who attempts to create and inhabit a new identity, was greeted with international acclaim. Convinced that he has taken on a new self, Stiller returns home from abroad with a new name and identity only to find that his former world refuses to accept the change. His wife and friends naturally remember the old self and expect him to assume the old roles upon his return. One of Frisch’s recurring themes concerns the human habit of making a mental image of a person that disallows change and development, of fixing and limiting a person’s existence to a set of rigid expectations. The rebellion of the fictional Stiller against this closure of human possibilities is finally in vain.

In the year following the publication of I’m Not Stiller, Frisch closed his architectural office and separated from his first wife, a separation that ended in divorce in 1959. Renewed travel abroad helped keep in abeyance the insular attitudes that Frisch as a Swiss author particularly feared and consciously avoided. His dramatic accomplishments in the 1950’s included Don Juan: Oder, Die Liebe zur Geometrie (1953; Don Juan: Or, The Love of Geometry, 1967), a unique interpretation of the master seducer, and Biedermann und die Brandstifter: Ein Lehrstück ohne Lehre, mit einem Nachspiel (1958; The Fire Raisers, 1962; also as The Firebugs, 1963), a Brechtian parable. In the determination of Frisch’s Don Juan to disappoint the expectations traditionally associated with his character, he prefigures Anatol Stiller. As a coldly intellectual figure with a preference for the precision of geometry over the incalculability of women, he foreshadows Walter Faber, the main figure of Frisch’s second highly acclaimed novel, Homo faber: Ein Bericht (1957; Homo Faber: A Report, 1959).

The writer/architect Frisch is well acquainted with the inner lives of both the artistic and technological temperaments. The title figure in the novel Homo Faber embodies the counterpart of the artistic Stiller. In Faber, a Swiss engineer in the employ of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Frisch explores the debilitating effects that a blind faith in technology can exert on human relationships. Although he rejects the concepts of providence and the power of myth, events conspire to bring the peripatetic Faber back into touch with his past as he plays out in his last days a modern version of the Oedipal drama. Narrated in the form of a “report,” the novel is a critique of a life based entirely on rationality and a depiction of the tragic consequences for...

(The entire section is 2295 words.)