Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2295
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.
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.
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 Faber, who finds relationships with human beings “strenuous” and longs for his machines.
Not only in his diaries but also in dramatic works such as Die chinesische Mauer (1946; The Chinese Wall, 1961) and Andorra (1961; English translation, 1963), Frisch spoke out forcefully on matters of social significance. His play The Chinese Wall was one of the first postwar fictional warnings about the specter of nuclear extinction and the dangerous conspiracy between technology and political power. Andorra treats the problems of anti-Semitism, self-righteousness, and duplicity among the citizens of a small state threatened by an imperialistic neighboring country, a thematic mix that ensured the work’s success on European stages. Although he is openly skeptical about the capacity of the work of art to effect change in concrete terms, Frisch’s critical attitude toward the Theater of the Absurd reveals the voice of a moralist.
Much of the period from 1960 to 1965 Frisch spent together with the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann in Rome. He married again in 1968, but this marriage with a much younger woman also ended in divorce. In a best-selling novel that even found its way into cabaret parodies, Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964; A Wilderness of Mirrors, 1965), Frisch examines the familiar theme of identity from a narrative stance considerably more experimental than in his earlier works. Gantenbein, the narrator, who feigns blindness, undergoes radical personality changes within the course of the work. Trying on stories like clothes, as he remarks, he is both Gantenbein, the husband of the actress Lila, and her lover Enderlin as well as Svoboda, her first husband. Lila too takes on various roles in this novel about imagined and potential existences. The past loses its irrevocable finality, and fantasies about what might have been are given concrete shape. Frisch was less successful in transferring these ideas onto the stage in his play Biografie: Ein Spiel (1967; Biography: A Game, 1969).
Frisch’s second journal, Tagebuch 1966-1971 (1972; Sketchbook 1966-1971, 1974), combines a variety of elements, both factual and fictional, into a collagelike version of a diary. Comments by simulated narrators on current events, including the Vietnam War, intermingle with responses to a fabricated questionnaire on facets of daily life. With the process of aging obviously on his mind, the sixty-year-old writer ponders half seriously the right and duty of the aged to determine their own end. The question of fact or fiction was central to the discussion surrounding Frisch’s novella Montauk (1975; English translation, 1976), a depiction of a weekend affair with a young admirer on Long Island. Frisch publicly chided reviewers of his next novella Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979; Man in the Holocene: A Story, 1980) for their biographical readings even though the main character Geiser is about the same age as the author and lives in the same Swiss valley. He had indeed drawn from a model in life, but from the eccentric habits of a retired civil servant. While Geiser displays such habits, he is finally important as a figure symbolic of humankind, an aging species that may well “appear” in the Holocene, as suggested in the German title, yet one which may also be on the verge of disappearing. Frisch’s irritation sprang from dissatisfaction with reviewers who immediately turn to factual reality to find the basis of fiction. A critic with greater insight into the artistry of this work of Frisch’s old age has labeled it a masterpiece.
Frisch was more than seventy when his novella Blaubart (1982; Bluebeard: A Tale, 1983) appeared. The physician Felix Schaad, the title figure of the work, fits the mold of legend no better than Frisch’s Don Juan character, since he is finally exonerated in the trial for murdering his sixth wife. A victim rather than a perpetrator, Schaad cannot maintain his medical practice after the trial—he is shunned by his former patients—and he becomes increasingly subject to internal pressures and feelings of guilt. Following an unsuccessful attempt to admit his guilt to the incredulous police, he wrecks his car and ends up in the hospital, where they tell him the real killer has been caught. Inwardly, however, Schaad cannot escape the recognition that he could have been the killer of his wife; thus, he belongs in the family of Frisch’s characters who have existed only in potentiality.
Unlike many of his German-speaking contemporaries, Max Frisch never felt compelled to be overtly political in his works, although he and fellow Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt have been called “the conscience of the neutrals.” As a Swiss, Frisch was not forced to struggle with the legacy of National Socialism in the same way as had almost every German and Austrian writer of note in postwar Europe. The international interest that he began to attract in the 1950’s suggests that his writing addressed concerns commonly shared by readers around the globe. Restlessly wandering from country to country, he consistently sought to overcome parochial attitudes and contribute to the mainstream of world literature. His example pointed the way for the reentry of German-language literature back onto the world literary scene.
Writing for Frisch always depended on the fundamental act of reflecting upon a self that is extraordinarily sensitive not only to existential problems and to the difficulties inherent in relationships between the sexes but also to broader social problems. In general defense of this focus and with particular reference to his Gantenbein, he wrote: “This is not the time for ‘stories of selves.’ Nevertheless, human life is carried out or misspent with the individual self, nowhere else.” On his sixty-fifth birthday the writer was honored by a major German publisher (Suhrkamp) with a six-volume edition of his collected works, an edition reissued ten years later with an additional seventh volume when he won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature over Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who later that year was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Butler, Michael. The Novels of Max Frisch. London: Wolff, 1976. The book consists of an introduction and clearly written, chapter-length interpretations of Frisch’s major prose works from Jürg Reinhart to A Wilderness of Mirrors, with a short concluding chapter on Montauk. One of the most insightful writers on Frisch in any language, Butler views the novels as variations on a clearly defined thematic complex. Comprehensive notes and bibliography for the specialist.
Butler, Michael. The Plays of Max Frisch. London: Macmillan, 1985. A book constructed similarly to Butler’s examination of the novels. The introductory chapter places Frisch against the broader historical backdrop and sketches the development of his dramaturgical ideas. Appendices provide a list of the world premieres of his plays, a chronology of his life, and a list of his literary prizes.
Demetz, Peter. “Max Frisch: The Last Romantic.” After the Fires: Recent Writing in the Germanies, Austria, and Switzerland. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. Demetz provides a separate chapter on Frisch within the context of contemporary German-language literature. His broad overview dictates a focus on essentials and high points; an excellent introduction and orientation to major aspects of Frisch’s career and life.
Ivask, Ivar, ed. World Literature Today 60 (Autumn, 1986). A special issue dedicated to Frisch on the occasion of his receipt of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Includes short texts by Frisch, an introduction by the editor, a chronology, a selected bibliography, and commissioned articles in English by Swiss, American, British, and Canadian scholars on various aspects of his work, as well as several photographs and illustrations.
Peterson, Carol. Max Frisch. Translated by Charlotte La Rue. New York: Ungar, 1972. A short introductory monograph prefaced with a chronology and the author’s personal recollection of a meeting with Frisch. Treats individual works through about 1969 and includes a short bibliography.
Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. The Dramatic Works of Max Frisch. Bern: Peter Lang, 1977. An analysis of the narrative characteristics as well as the relationship of language and reality in Frisch’s plays. Close readings with citations in German. Short bibliography.
Probst, Gerhard, and Jay F. Bodine, eds. Perspectives on Max Frisch. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982. A collection of articles by German, American, Australian, and Dutch scholars, all in English, on various themes and aspects of Frisch’s work. Includes a short introduction to his life and chapters on the author as a dramatist, prose narrator, and diarist as well as interpretations of some individual works and thematically oriented studies. An extensive and well-organized bibliography is followed by a list of important biographical data.
Weisstein, Ulrich. Max Frisch. New York: Twayne, 1967. The first monograph on Frisch in English, this study is particularly valuable for its comments on the early life and work of the author. Includes a selected bibliography.