Max Frisch Frisch, Max - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Max Frisch 1911-1991

(Born Max Rudolf Frisch) Swiss novelist, playwright, diarist, essayist, and journalist.

Frisch is considered one of Switzerland's most distinguished and versatile men of letters. Judged one of the finest German-language novelists of his time, Frisch, along with fellow dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, brought international recognition to the postwar Swiss theater through his innovative and political plays. Winning numerous literary awards, including the Georg Buechner Prize and Neustadt International Prize, he was also a frequent candidate for the Pulitzer Prize.

Biographical Information

Frisch was born in Zurich on May 15, 1911. As a youth, he learned about drama by studying, on his own, the plays of Henrik Ibsen; at age sixteen he sent his first play, Stahl, to producer-director Max Reinhart in Berlin. In 1931 Frisch attended the University of Zurich, studying German literature for two years until his father's death. At that point, he left school and became a freelance journalist, writing sports and travel articles for several newspapers. Critics regard Frisch's early fiction written during this period as relatively conventional, interesting mainly as precursors of more important works to come. In 1936 Frisch decided he had been unsuccessful, and he made a ceremonial bonfire of all his early writings, including his diaries. He then returned to school to train as an architect. During World War II Frisch served in the Swiss army, which was mobilized against a possible invasion. His indignation at Switzerland's neutrality toward Hitler became a central theme of his postwar works. After the war, Frisch began a successful career as an architect in Zurich. Although his early novels contain no hint of politics, professional involvement with urban planning led him to adopt the socialist views that characterize his mature work.

In the mid-1940s, Kurt Hirschfeld, director of the Zurich Schauspielhaus, encouraged Frisch to write a play for his theater. Nun singen sie wieder (1946), a bitter antiwar statement, was Frisch's first drama to appear onstage. Other productions at the Schauspielhaus followed, and Frisch was hailed as a topical allegorist in the tradition of Bertol Brecht. Frisch scholars later agreed that although Frisch became an enthusiastic admirer of Brecht in the 1940s, the Swiss writer had experimented in his novels with Brechtian devices, such as the alienation technique, years before he became familiar with the writings of his German colleague. The two authors eventually met in 1947 and became friends. Frisch, however, always remained skeptical of Brecht's Marxist beliefs, as well as his custom of delivering moral lectures through his plays. In 1950 Frisch retired from architecture to devote himself to writing and spent the next two years in the United States and Mexico on a Rockefeller grant. During the next few decades, he wrote prolifically, received several literary awards, and traveled extensively. He died in Zurich on April 4, 1991.

Major Works

Many of Frisch's most highly regarded dramas, including Andorra (1961) and Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter (1955; The Firebugs), are Brechtian parables, in form if not in content. In Andorra, Frisch creates a society ruled by prejudice and fear; critics have perceived the story as a metaphor for Switzerland's complicated and problematic relationship with Nazi Germany. In The Firebugs a cowardly yet ruthless businessman named Biedermann is intimidated by two arsonists who take up residence in his house. Lacking the courage to confront them, Biedermann instead bullies one of his employees into committing suicide. Eventually, the two arsonists set Biedermann's house on fire, killing the businessman and his wife. In his later plays, Biographie: Ein Spiel (1967; Biography: A Game) and Triptychon (1978; Triptych), Frisch attempts to demonstrate, without conventions of naturalism, didacticism, or logical temporal constraints, not only what a given set of characters think and do, but what they might experience if they acted on all possibilities open to them. This striving toward a “theater of permutations” is also reflected in his novels, notably Stiller (1954; I'm Not Stiller), Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964; A Wilderness of Mirrors), and Blaubart (1982; Bluebeard). In these narratives, Frisch presents his heroes' fantasies about their lives as no less important or true than what actually happens to them. His diaries have also attracted commercial and critical attention. They are not strictly autobiographical, however, as they contain elements of fiction and other narrative forms that do not fit the diary genre.

Critical Reception

Frisch's novels, dramas, and diaries garnered much critical attention and his work was honored with several literary and theater awards. Some critics assert that while Frisch's plays deal with social and political problems, such as prejudice in Andorra and nuclear war in Die chinesische mauer (1947; The Chinese Wall), his novels confront problems of a personal nature. Yet the main thrust of Frisch's work, whether personal or public, is, according to many commentators, the exploration of human identity. Frisch repeatedly pits his protagonists against social forces that threaten to distort or extinguish their personalities. Reviewers praised him as a superb ironist; often, his fictional works present a profoundly serious theme couched in terms of playful humor. Furthermore, his diaries have provided a rich field of study for critics. In particular, commentators have been intrigued by the methodical blurring of truth and invention in the diaries. Reviewers maintain that they serve as study aids to the plays and novels, as well as literary works in their own right.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jürg Reinhart (novel) 1934

Antwort aus der Stille: Eine Erzählung aus den Bergen (novel) 1937

Blätter aus dem Brotsack (diary) 1940

Bin oder Die Reise nach Peking (novel) 1945

Nun singen sie wieder: Versuch eines Requiems [Now They Sing Again] (drama) 1946

Die Chinesische Mauer [The Chinese Wall] (drama) 1947

Santa Cruz: Eine Romanze (drama) 1947

Als der Kriege zu ende war (drama) 1949

Tagebuch 1946-1949 [Sketchbook 1946-1949] (diary) 1950

Graf Öderland: Ein Spiel in zehn Bildern (drama) 1951

Don Juan oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie (drama) 1953

Stiller: Roman [I'm Not Stiller] (novel) 1954

Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter: Hörspiel [The Firebugs] (drama) 1955

Homo faber: Ein Bericht [Homo Faber: A Report] (novel) 1957

Andorra: Stück in zwölf Bildern [Andorra: A Play in Twelve Scenes] (drama) 1961

Mein Name sei Gantenbein [A Wilderness of Mirrors] (novel) 1964

Biografie: Ein Spiel [Biography: A Game] (drama) 1967

Tagebuch 1966-1971 [Sketchbook 1966-1971] (diary) 1972

Montauk: Eine Erzählung [Montauk] (novel) 1975

Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge 6 vols. (novels, dramas, essays, and diaries) 1976

Triptychon: Drei szenische Bilder [Triptych: Three Scenic Panels] (drama) 1978

Der Mensch erschint im Holozän [Man in the Holocene] (novel) 1979

Blaubart: Eine Erzählung [Bluebeard] (novel) 1982

Novels, Plays, Essays (anthology) 1989

Jetzt ist Sehenzeit: Briefe, Notate, Dokumente 1943-1963 (letters and notes) 1998

Rhonda L. Blair (essay date fall 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blair, Rhonda L. “Homo Faber, Homo Ludens, and the Demeter-Kore Motif.” Germanic Review 56, no. 4 (fall 1981): 140-50.

[In the following essay, Blair underscores the importance of the Demeter-Kore motif in Homo faber by examining the mythological and archetypal imagery in the novel.]

Since the publication of Max Frisch's novel Homo faber: Ein Bericht in 1957, no detailed study of Frisch's use of Greek mythology and related archetypal imagery has appeared. Indeed, discussions of Frisch's use of mythology have narrowly focused on the Oedipus myth, while little has been written at all concerning archetypes in Frisch's work generally.1 Walter Schmitz, in fact, has recently written, “Es gibt nur wenige Textbelege für ein Interesse am Mythischen (als Reich der Kunst) im Homo faber Einige Anspielungen auf den Ödipusmythos und die Erinnyen … denn Fabers Reisen enden ja in Griechenland, der klassischen Heimat des Mythos.”2 Consequently, the highly important thematic and structural use of the Demeter-Kore motif has been consistently overlooked while critical attention has been misdirected to various, and apparently unrelated, mythological allusions. Moreover, the lack of recognition of this central motif in Homo faber has led to an incomplete understanding of the role of the novel, of Frisch's artistic methods, and of the importance of the notion of homo ludens.

The significance of the Demeter-Kore motif in the novel becomes apparent through a detailed consideration of mythological and archetypal imagery. Some of the dangers and shortcomings of different critical approaches to so-called “mythological novels” have been discussed by John J. White in his comparative study Mythology in the Modern Novel.3 Among the shortcomings which he mentions are incorrect, ambiguous, or inconsistent terminology; and methodologies based on prejudices, over-simplification, or faulty comparisons to well-known “model” novels such as Ulysses.

One has only to examine the criticism dealing with mythology in Homo faber to see many of these shortcomings exemplified.4 It is not surprising then that Schmitz has been reluctant to attach much importance to the mythological elements in Homo faber, simply because earlier critics have so confused the subject. But a more important cause of critical inattention to the use of mythology in Homo faber is due to the apparent lack of familiarity with the myth of Demeter and Persephone and to the obvious ignorance of the geography of ancient and modern Greece.5

Even more than in other critical approaches to literature, problems with terminology are endemic in archetypal criticism. The word “archetype” has been so used and misused in literary criticism as to make one wary of it. Perhaps the most common misapplication of the term is to identify a particular myth with an archetype, whereas a myth is only the expression of an archetype. In this essay, however, I refer only to one archetype, the Mother, described by C. G. Jung. Briefly, Jung describes “archetypes” as “archaic or … primordial types, that is, with universal images that have existed since the remotest times.”6 As Frisch acknowledges in Montauk, he attended Jung's lectures in Zürich;7 I contend that he is consciously drawing on Jungian material for artistic and thematic purposes in Homo faber, whether or not he subscribes to Jung's theory or psychology.

Homo faber differs from most other “mythological novels” in two ways. In the first place, Frisch uses the Jungian archetype the Mother as well as one particular expression of the archetype, namely the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter the Kore, or Persephone. Secondly, the Demeter-Kore myth forms a motif which is also a prefiguration: that is, it prefigures Hanna's relationship to her daughter. However, due to Frisch's departure from ordinary chronological narration, the prefiguration does not begin to suggest itself until the last third of the novel, and its full presence and force only emerge at the end and through the reader's reflection back over the entire work. White describes this type of prefiguration as “retroactive” and one which “invites the reader to reexamine the plot in the light of the analogy which then obtains for it.”8 Frisch has given his reasons for preferring the “delayed action” technique, and though specifically referring to Mein Name sei Gantenbein, he could have been speaking of Homo faber: “The novel [Gantenbein] had to be fairly long, since a pattern had to be established; and for that you need a considerable number of variations. … As soon as the pattern emerges, the novel, as written, ceases to exist.”9 Moreover, the reader's situation in dealing with this kind of prefiguration is analogous to Faber's: for Faber has travelled blindly through the world and is reexamining his experiences by writing his Report (Bericht), while the reader has travelled through the novel, unaware of the prefiguration until the end, and must then look for a pattern beneath the surface. And it is fitting that the reader should question his own ability to “see” while reading about the fictional experiences of a “blind” man.

Frisch's handling of allusions—both mythological and non-mythological—requires some comment. Basically, Frisch employs four kinds of allusions: (1) straightforward, obvious allusions; (2) straightforward allusions which are less obvious because they are placed in an everyday context or refer to a less common analogy than what first comes to mind; (3) veiled allusions expressed through an art work, a dream, an ordinary object, or a place, in which the reader must search for the underlying association; and (4) allusions through word play, in which the ordinary meaning of a word or phrase takes on an additional, allusive meaning through multiple definitions or specific context. Obviously, these categories overlap. An example of the second kind is the often-cited allusion to Agamemnon murdered in his bath by Clytemnestra. The allusion itself is straightforward, but the analogy to Faber's situation is unclear because Hanna is not similar to Clytemnestra, and Faber did not “sacrifice” his daughter in the real sense that Agamemnon knowingly did. Rather, a closer analogy exists between them in aspects of blindness and the Erinyes, for Agamemnon states in the Iliad that blindness and the Erinyes were partly to blame for his actions toward Achilles.10 The allusions to Oedipus are also of the second kind, and one can see that Oedipus and Agamemnon do resemble each other in moral blindness, in association with the Erinyes, and in having a daughter with whom they are particularly associated. One must remember that the blind Oedipus was guided through the world by his daughter Antigone—analogous to “blind” Faber accompanied by Sabeth—and that while Oedipus knew what Man (anthropos) was and thus solved the riddle of the Sphinx, he did not know who he, an individual man, really was—exactly like Faber.11 For these reasons, then, there are certain exact respects in which Agamemnon, Oedipus, and Faber are analogous, rather than in the much-belabored, generalized respects of incest and sacrifice, which obviously do not apply to all three.

The Ludovisi altar relief and Faber's second dream may be cited as illustrations of the third kind of allusion. These examples and others will be discussed in their appropriate places. The last type of allusion, that based on word play, exhibits much variety in subtlety and tone. Critics have passed by many of these, yet Frisch's fondness for word play and double meanings is well-known.12 Ulrich Weisstein, for instance, notes the following about Mein Name sei Gantenbein:

Endless diversion is furnished by the play on words which results from the literal application of certain metaphorical expressions relating to the phenomenon of sight and blindness: Man kann einen Blinden nicht hinters Licht führen (one can't deceive a blind man), Sie werden sehen (You will see), blindlings (blindfold), etc.13

Some of these allusions reveal their importance through triple occurrences, thus falling into the triadic pattern which has already been discussed by Michael Butler.14 These four kinds of allusions, as well as the motif itself, also serve several artistic purposes: for “Verfremdungseffekt,” for irony, and as elements of play or “Spielmomente.”15 The average reader, however, can not always be expected to recognize these allusions, and Frisch probably does not expect this of him. Rather, these allusions reveal Frisch's own playfulness and point to homo ludens, “man the player,” standing opposite homo faber, “man the maker.” Indeed, the notion of homo ludens is as important to understanding the novel as is the notion of homo faber; homo ludens and the role of play will be discussed in the concluding section of the essay.

Concerning the mythological sources used in this study, I believe that Frisch was undoubtedly familiar with Walter F. Otto's Die Götter Griechenlands (1929), as Schmitz suggests.16 A work of equal relevance which Frisch probably knew is Essays on a Science of Mythology (1941) by Karl Kerényi and C. G. Jung.17 Kerényi was a student of Otto, and from about 1943, when he immigrated to Switzerland, he began working closely with Jung in Zürich. Since Frisch was acquainted with Jung's work, it is virtually certain that he knew of Kerényi's work also. Thus, I refer principally to the works of Otto and of Kerényi. In addition, I have cited relevant sections in Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie (1884-1937).18


All of the action in Homo faber is related to, or caused by, travel and all of the main characters are travelers; travel also occupies a large part of the characters' past lives.19 In addition, all of the characters' travels or “passages” consist of a series of separations from old situations, transitions characterized by changes of habit or even confusion, and incorporations into new situations or planes of existence—in short, the travels are “rites of passage.”20 This point is important because the concept of rites of passage emphasizes the social, psychological, and emotional meaning of passing from one stage to another, rather than mere physical location. It is clear to any reader of Homo faber that physical travel is subordinate to psychological and emotional journey, and for this reason I think that the Stationen are best understood as “stages.” In the Erste Station, or First Stage, Faber's stage in life is contrasted with Sabeth's, and through contact with her he enters a new, second stage in the Zweite Station. In the latter, Hanna also enters a new stage in life as a result of the loss of Sabeth and the presence of Faber, and the respective journeys and stages in Faber's and Hanna's lives are directly related to the Demeter-Kore motif.

It is not a chance happening that Walter Faber's journey, which begins in darkness, should carry him eastward to light: Greece, land of sun and sea, is noted as much for its light as for its mythological past. Edward Stäuble has already drawn attention to the similarity between Faber's descriptions of light (199) and the white houses of Corinth (151) and Graf Öderland's description of the Greek island of Santorini, whose chief city is situated “Hoch über der schäumenden Brandung. Eine Stadt wie aus Kreide, so weiß, so grell, emporgetürmt in den Wind und ins Licht, einsam und frei, trotzig, heiter und kühn” (5:54);21 and in his first Tagebuch Frisch describes his North Sea island home as if it were a scene from antiquity surrounded by the sea and blazing light (4:700). In Homo faber light is clearly a metaphor for the self-knowledge which Faber and Hanna must acquire. Nor is it due to chance that once in Greece Faber thrice passes the small town of Eleusis, the most famous sanctuary of Demeter and the Kore and site of the Eleusinian Mysteries: once with Sabeth and twice with Hanna. Indeed, the very mention of Eleusis and the description of the road taken into Athens (128-29)—the famous Sacred Way taken by celebrants in procession from Athens to Eleusis to celebrate the Greater Mysteries—should alert the reader to the possibility that Frisch is hinting at some relationship between the Eleusinian goddesses and the mother and daughter in the novel. However, critics have apparently overlooked these hints because either they are not personally familiar with Greece or have not consulted a travel guide, such as Baedeker's Griechenland or Grèce in the series “Les Guides Bleus.”22

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is the oldest account of the Demeter-Kore myth.23 The hymn begins with the Rape of Persephone: the Kore was picking flowers with the daughters of Oceanus on the Nysian Plain, when the earth suddenly gaped open and Hades sprang out in his chariot and carried her off into the Underworld. Hecate, however, heard the Kore's cries, and Helios saw the abduction. At last Demeter too heard her daughter's cries and sped off in search of her, wandering and searching in vain, until Helios finally revealed what had happened. Demeter was angry and grief-stricken; and wandering again, disguised, she came to Eleusis, where she cared for the king's baby son. But when her plan to immortalize the boy was discovered, she angrily left the palace, and for her appeasement she commanded the people to build a great temple to her. Nevertheless, she remained inconsolable over the daughter's disappearance and withheld the earth's productivity until Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to bring back the Kore and avert wide-spread famine. But because the Kore had eaten of a pomegranate offered to her by Hades, she could only remain with Demeter for two-thirds of the year; the rest of the year she had to spend with her husband in the Underworld. Demeter was thus appeased, restored the earth's fertility, and gave grain and the Eleusinian Mysteries to men. The Homeric poet stresses that the Mysteries, not the grain, was Demeter's greatest gift.

Two important variations of the Homeric account are of Arcadian origin. One version, from Thelpusa, tells how Demeter was amorously pursued by Poseidon while she, enraged and grieving, was searching for her daughter. Even after she had transformed herself into a mare to elude him, he discovered her and overpowered her in the form of a stallion. Here, she was known as Demeter Erinys. A similar story is told in Phigalia where she was called Demeter Melaina, or the Black Demeter, and where she was represented as having a horse's head and holding a dolphin and a dove. Finally, Ovid's version of the Rape of Persephone, which is perhaps better known to the modern reader than the Homeric hymn, states that the Kore spent half of the year with Demeter, half in the Underworld.

Both Otto and Kerényi explore the relationship between Demeter and the Kore, and both conclude that some kind of identity existed between them. Otto, for instance, remarks that no other relationship between deity and daughter is so close as the one between Demeter and the Kore and furthermore that “Demeter, mourning her daughter, is mourning some nature that is essentially akin to her [and] that makes the impression of a younger double.”24 Kerényi goes further than this in his conclusion: “The daughter as a goddess originally quite independent of her mother is unthinkable; but what is thinkable … is the original identity of mother and daughter. Persephone's whole being is summed up in an incident that is at once the story of Demeter's own sufferings.” But another goddess must be added to this closely-tied pair: Hecate. She hears the Kore's cries, accompanies Demeter to question Helios, and upon the Kore's return she becomes her companion forever; she is almost as close to the Kore as Demeter herself. Hecate and Persephone are also commonly associated with the moon. Of the association between the three Kerényi writes: “The budlike idea of the connection between three aspects of the world—maiden, mother, moon—hovers at the back of the triad of goddesses in the Homeric hymn.”

In Homo faber Frisch is using the Homeric and Arcadian versions of the Demeter-Kore myth to prefigure, retroactively, the situation of his three principal characters and their relationship to each other. The principal Eleusinian deities—Demeter, the Kore, Hades—form the triad “Mother-Kore-Seducer” which is suggested by the Hanna-Sabeth-Faber triad; and as I will show, each of these characters resembles one from the Eleusinian group. Frisch develops the Demeter-Kore motif through all of the previously mentioned kinds of allusions, and by accepting the identity of Demeter and the Kore, he can allude to Hanna through Sabeth and vice versa.

From the first mention of Eleusis (129) and the description of the Sacred Way into Athens (128-29), important allusions to the Demeter-Kore motif follow in quick succession. When, for example, Faber wishes to see Sabeth and can not understand Hanna's unwillingness to allow this, he remarks: “sie [Hanna] ließ mich, als wollte ich ihr die Tochter stehlen, nicht eine Minute lang im Krankenzimmer” (131). Frisch here plays on the literal meaning of “stehlen” and thus alludes directly to the abduction of Persephone, while Faber remains unaware of the appropriateness of his phrase. Sabeth, too, is unaware of the literal truth in her remark, “ich sollte verschwinden” (117), which she exclaims to Faber while they are resting among the tombs in the Campagna. Faber repeats this twice more (117-18), which emphasizes the word play on “verschwinden,” meaning, in this context, “to go to the toilet” but literally “to disappear.” Similarly, when Hanna says, “Ich habe Elsbeth ein halbes Jahr lang nicht gesehen” (138), and Faber remarks, “alles für die Tochter, die ein halbes Jahr in der Fremde gewesen ist” (147), one realizes that Sabeth has been away from her mother the same length of time that the Kore, in Ovid's account, was to spend in the Underworld, away from Demeter. Moreover, Faber repeats this, for the third time, at the very end of the novel, so that the allusion can no longer remain uncertain: “es ist Hanna schon schwer genug gefallen, das Mädchen allein auf die Reise zu lassen, wenn auch nur für ein halbes Jahr” (203).

The resemblance between Sabeth and the Kore is also suggested in a variety of allusions scattered throughout the novel. First of all, Faber refers to Sabeth sometimes as “das Mädchen” and sometimes as “das Kind” which in part reveals his uncertainty whether she is a child or a woman (“ein Kind, das ich als Frau behandelte, oder eine Frau, die ich als Kind behandelte, das wußte ich selber nicht,” 114), and which in part is due to the fact that when writing his Report, he already knows that she is his own child. But “das Mädchen” and “das Kind” translate literally the Greek names of Demeter's daughter which are actually more common than the name Persephone: Kore (“maiden”) and Pais (“child, girl”).25

Sabeth and the Kore are also linked together through moon and flower imagery. Among the moon-related images, three stand out sharply: the full moon festival in Palenque (45) and Sabeth's conversation with Faber about constellations and the comet (90), which taken together prefigure the lunar eclipse in Avignon (124-25); and the moonlight and moonshadows on the Acrocorinth (150-51). The Kore was not only picking flowers when she was abducted but was herself “like a budding flower”;26 and in her youthful freshness Sabeth, too, is like a flower. Indeed, Faber's description of the agaves in the moonlit desert seems to prophesy Sabeth's fate: “Ich weiß nicht, wie verdammte Seelen aussehen; vielleicht wie schwarze Agaven in der nächtlichen Wüste. Was ich sehe, das sind Agaven, eine Pflanze, die ein einziges Mal blüht und dann abstirbt” (24). Insofar as Sabeth is innocently caught up in the fates of Faber and Hanna, she is also a “verdammte Seele.” Moreover, the name agave derives from agaue (agavi, Modern Greek), a feminine adjective meaning “illustrious, noble” which forms a proper-name formula for Persephone as Queen of the Underworld and which occurs only in the Nekyia.27 The Kore is alluded to twice more in connection with flowers: poppies, an attribute of Demeter, Hypnos, and sometimes Persephone, are growing near the highway where Faber and Sabeth are finally picked up and taken into Athens (155); and while Faber is viewing his films in Düsseldorf, the image of Sabeth picking flowers flashes across the screen and then is gone: “Sabeth beim Blumenpflücken—” (191).

Hanna resembles Demeter in the general respect of a loving mother enraged and grief-stricken over the loss of her daughter. But specifically, Frisch alludes to the Arcadian versions of the myth and to the figures of Demeter Erinys and the Black Demeter in developing the Demeter-Kore motif in Homo faber. The first allusion occurs early in the novel and the reader has no preparation for it—only in retrospect can one see the logical connection—namely, Faber's dream of Hanna: “Hanna als Krankenschwester zu Pferd!” (29). In the context of events in the novel, only the nurse image is explicable: the foreshadowing of Faber's hospitalization and Hanna's bedside visits. But within the mythological context, everything becomes clear: in the Arcadian versions of the myth, the horse is the form assumed by Demeter and then by Poseidon who overpowered her against her will, and one of Demeter's epithets is Kourotrophos or “nurse and nourisher” because she cared for the king's baby boy in Eleusis.28 Moreover, Kerényi speaks of the name Brimo (related to the verb “to rage”) which was given to Demeter in her Mysteries: “[Brimo] is Demeter, Persephone, and Hecate rolled into one. Demeter's most elementary form bears the name of Brimo; it was also the name of Pheraia, the torch-bearing goddess seated on a running horse.” In respect to the Arcadian versions the allusive meaning of Sabeth's ponytail (“Roßschwanz”) surfaces as well: her ponytail, along with her frequent appearance in black clothing, alludes to Demeter Erinys and the Black Demeter. Because of the physical resemblance between Sabeth and Hanna, Frisch can easily play upon the identity of Demeter and the Kore and thus enlarge—and complicate—his range of allusions.

The second allusion, or rather complex of allusions, centers on the sculpture Head of a sleeping Fury (Kopf einer schlafenden Erinnye) which so fascinates Faber when he and Sabeth are in Rome. Although it is not at first apparent, this sculpture is also inextricably linked to the marble altar-top known as the Ludovisi Throne which Faber first notices shortly after entering the museum. Concerning its relief sculpture he says: “Geburt der Venus. Vor allem das Mädchen auf der Seite, Flötenbläserin, fand ich entzückend …” (119-11). What Faber does not say is that on the other side of the Venus is a matrona holding an incense burner; thus, the Venus figure is literally positioned between a woman and a maiden. Baedeker's Italy describes the relief as follows:

Ludovisi Throne, probably the upper part of the side of a large altar, an admirable specimen of developed archaic art; on the back, which is turned towards the spectator, is shown the birth of Venus from the sea; on the right side is a veiled woman offering sacrifice and on the left is a nude girl playing the flute.29

Faber then moves on to the Head of a sleeping Fury, his own discovery: “Es war ein steinerner Mädchenkopf, so gelegt, daß man drauf blickt wie auf das Gesicht einer schlafenden Frau, wenn man sich auf die Ellbogen stützt” (111).30 He describes the strange effect caused by the fall of shadow on the sculpture, which is first noticed by Sabeth, when he moves again towards the Venus relief: “Wenn Sabeth (oder sonst jemand) bei der Geburt der Venus steht, gibt es Schatten, das Gesicht der schlafenden Erinnye wirkt, infolge einseitigen Lichteinfalls, sofort viel wacher, lebendiger, geradezu wild” (111). In other words, when Faber moves towards the woman-Venus-maiden relief, in which the association Hanna-love-Sabeth-Faber is readily seen, the Erinys seems to wake up. That Sabeth is to be associated with the flute player on the relief becomes explicit when Faber, alone in Sabeth's room, remarks, “Ihre Flöte auf dem Bücherbrett—” (149).

Moreover, two other scenes link both women to the sculpture. First, while in the Campagna Faber is reminded of a dog when he holds Sabeth's head and questions her among the tombs: “Ich hielt den Kopf so, daß sie sich nicht rühren konnte, mit beiden Händen, wie man beispielsweise den Kopf eines Hundes hält … sie schloß wieder ihre Augen, wie ein Hund, wenn man ihn so festhält” (119-20). The Erinyes are...

(The entire section is 10590 words.)

Timothy Shipe (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shipe, Timothy. “Montauk: The Invention of Max Frisch.” Critique 22, no. 3 (1981): 55-70.

[In the following essay, Shipe asserts that “the real subject of Montauk is how autobiographical material came to be transformed into a work of fiction.”]

Montauk (1976) is a work which invites its own misreading. Frisch seems to declare his intentions in the clearest possible fashion: Montauk is to be a work of pure autobiography, a factual account of the weekend the sixty-three-year-old Swiss writer spent on Long Island with an American woman half his age. There will be not a touch of fictionalizing, and the work will be free of the...

(The entire section is 6975 words.)

Peter Ruppert (essay date September 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ruppert, Peter. “Brecht and Frisch: Two Theaters of Possibility.” Mosaic 15, no. 3 (September 1982): 109-20.

[In the following essay, Ruppert contrasts the aesthetic orientations of Bertolt Brecht and Frisch.]

With few exceptions critics have approached Frisch's experimentation in the theater as an extension of Brechtian forms.1 Claims of continuity and influence are generally based on the brief personal friendship of the two playwrights, on their shared thematic interests and concerns, and especially on their use of the “model” or parable form.2 The image of Frisch emerging from these comparisons is that of a somewhat reluctant...

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Mary E. Stewart (essay date April 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stewart, Mary E. “Alpine Adventures: Some Thoughts on Max Frisch's Antwort aus der Stille.Modern Language Review 78, no. 2 (April 1983): 359-64.

[In the following essay, Stewart assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Antwort aus der Stille by comparing it to C. E. Montague's Action and Frisch's later work, particularly his novel Stiller.]

Max Frisch's early tale Antwort aus der Stille (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1937) is generally thought to contain little of interest beyond its rudimentary prefiguration of later themes, particularly that of self-acceptance.1 Indeed, it is not included in Frisch's Gesammelte Werke in...

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Rhonda L. Blair (essay date summer 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blair, Rhonda L. “Archetypal Imagery in Max Frisch's Homo faber: The Wise Old Man and the Shadow.” Germanic Review 59, no. 3 (summer 1984): 104-08.

[In the following essay, Blair examines Frisch's utilization of two archetypes—the Wise Old Man and the Shadow—in Homo faber and relates it to C. G. Jung's psychology and use of imagery.]

Max Frisch's familiarity with the work of C. G. Jung and his use of images related to Jungian ideas have increasingly received critical attention.1 In particular, Jean Quenon's study of Frisch's plays explores the self-realization proc ess of the dramatic characters with reference to Jungian...

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Gertrud Bauer Pickar (essay date winter 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pickar, Gertrud Bauer. “Hades Revisited: Max Frisch's Triptychon.German Quarterly 59, no. 1 (winter 1986): 52-64.

[In the following essay, Pickar compares Triptychon to Nun singen sie wieder and Thornton Wilder's Our Town in order to illuminate Frisch's thematic and structural concerns.]

Since the publication of Santa Cruz in 1944, Max Frisch has written and published ten additional works for the stage. Their study reveals both the ebb and flow of his thematic concerns and his enduring interest in the nature and ramifications of man's propensity to make images of himself and his fellow men. Unmistakable, too, are his...

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Alfred D. White (essay date winter 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: White, Alfred D. “Max Frisch Revisited: Blaubart. Monatshefte 78, no. 4 (winter 1986): 456-67.

[In the following essay, White discusses the major thematic and stylistic elements of Blaubart.]

Frisch's Blaubart, Eine Erzählung was written in 1981. Interviewing Frisch for his seventieth birthday, Peter Wapnewski found him unenthusiastically at work on what is then described as a novel (the finished work is under 40,000 words).1 In November Frisch read from the manuscript at a symposium in Graz.2 From 22 February to 17 March 1982 Blaubart was serialized in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung before publication in...

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Rolf Kieser (essay date autumn 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kieser, Rolf. “From Utopia to Eschatology: The Road of the Thinker Max Frisch.” World Literature Today 60, no. 4 (autumn 1986): 561-65.

[In the following essay, Kieser enumerates several reasons for Frisch's impressive reputation in European literary circles and investigates his relative obscurity in America.]

Max Frisch has recently been paid tribute in America in the form of honorary doctorates, honorary fellowship in the MLA, the 1985 Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature, and now the Neustadt Prize. He is a writer whose fame in Europe is already legendary. Frisch's awesome reputation among German-writing authors as the dean of...

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Wulf Koepke (essay date autumn 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Koepke, Wulf. “Retreat into Prehistory.” World Literature Today 60, no. 4 (autumn 1986): 585-88.

[In the following essay, Koepke finds parallels between several of Frisch's narrators and protagonists.]

Herr Geiser, the narrator and protagonist of Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979; Eng. Man in the Holocene),1 is in a situation customary for Max Frisch's first-person narrators: he is in a place from which he cannot escape and is forced to take stock of his existence—past, present, and future. Stiller was confined to a comfortable Swiss prison and compelled to hear what others had to say about him; Walter Faber sits in the shade...

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Marga I. Weigel (essay date autumn 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weigel, Marga I. “‘I Have No Language for My Reality’: The Ineffable as Tension in the ‘Tale’ of Bluebeard.World Literature Today 60, no. 4 (autumn 1986): 589-92.

[In the following essay, Weigel explores the role of communication and speech in Bluebeard.]

Following acquittal on charges of murdering a prostitute, Felix Theodor Schaad, M.D., begins to search for the reasons why his life has been a failure. The public cross-examination in the courtroom is followed by Schaad's private cross-examination, an attempt to determine his guilt which ultimately drives him to confess the murder and shortly thereafter to attempt suicide. In the last...

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Kurt Fickert (essay date winter 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fickert, Kurt. “The American Character James Larkin White in Max Frisch's Stiller.Monatshefte 79, no. 4 (winter 1987): 478-85.

[In the following essay, Fickert investigates the nature of identity in Stiller.]

The well-known opening sentence in Max Frisch's 1954 novel Stiller—“Ich bin nicht Stiller”1—states that the protagonist, who is relating his own experiences, has been mistaken for a Swiss citizen named Anatol Ludwig Stiller and implies that he is someone else. He subsequently identifies himself as the American James Larkin White. The story he tells, in actuality a series of stories, has the purpose of establishing...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “Max Frisch.” In An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-Century Literature, pp. 55-61. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1987.

[In the following essay, Birkerts traces Frisch's literary development.]

The precision-minded Swiss have never been famous for grand gesture or passionate utterance. It is as if exposure to the mighty contours of the land has over generations pruned back the national soul and turned its energies inward. Auden, connoisseur of craggy places and intricate inwardness, might have singled Switzerland out as one of his “comfy” places—but then, his idea of “comfy” also included boiled meat and cold potatoes....

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Mary Karen Dahl (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dahl, Mary Karen. “The Victim and Catharsis.” In Political Violence in Drama: Classical Models, Contemporary Variations, pp. 33-56. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Dahl analyzes the function of hero sacrifice, subjugation, and scapegoating within a community as illustrated in Sophocle's Oedipus the King, Frisch's Andorra, and Sławomir Mrożek's The Prophets.]


Expulsion of malignant energies by catharsis is another way in which a community may be renewed. The victim is once again the center of the sacrifice, now serving as the vehicle through which evil is vented....

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Kari E. Lokke (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lokke, Kari E. “Bluebeard and The Bloody Chamber: The Grotesque of Self-Parody and Self-Assertion.Frontiers 10, no. 1 (1988): 7-12.

[In the following essay, Lokke discusses thematic and stylistic similarities between two variations of the Bluebeard folktale: Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Frisch's Bluebeard.]

Like many fairy tale motifs, the Bluebeard legend is grotesque in essence. This tale of the wealthy, seemingly chivalrous aristocrat who murders seven young brides and inters them in his cellar brings together violence and love, perversion and innocence, death and marriage in an unsettling combination. The intermingling...

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Evelyn Moore (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moore, Evelyn. “Aesthetic Records: A Comparison of Max Frisch's Tagebuch 1946-1949 and the Diary of Kenkō, Essays in Idleness.Comparative Literature Studies 25, no. 2 (1988): 167-81.

[In the following essay, Moore finds parallels between the diaries of Frisch and Kenkō, asserting that the books include “the authors' reflections on their own creative process.”]

Max Frisch's diary, Tagebuch 1946-1949, breaks from the tradition of most Western diaries, i.e., historical treatments and autobiographies, and approaches the diary form as it had evolved in the Japanese tradition: art diaries in which fiction was intertwined with facts to...

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Victor Brombert (essay date fall 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brombert, Victor. “Max Frisch: The Courage of Failure.” Raritan 13, no. 2 (fall 1993): 9-32.

[In the following essay, Brombert surveys the central themes of Frisch's work, focusing on the author's concern with weakness and failure.]

Max Frisch's second diary or sketchbook, Tagebuch, 1966-1971, concludes with the image of a stubby column standing incongruously all by itself in the loggia of his Swiss country house, where he sips his coffee in the evening. Its origin is unknown, its presence inexplicable. It is an unpretentious column, made not of marble but harsh granite, with nothing festive or noble about it. It is so short that one can touch its...

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Charles H. Helmetag (essay date winter 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Helmetag, Charles H. “Volker Schlöndorff's ‘American’ Film Adaptation of Max Frisch's Homo faber.Monatshefte 87, no. 4 (winter 1995): 446-56.

[In the following essay, Helmetag discusses the 1991 cinematic adaptation of Frisch's Homo faber, particularly the attempts to “Americanize” the story.]

Luchino Visconti and Bernhard Wicki considered making a film version of Max Frisch's 1957 novel Homo faber but dropped their plans, in part due to the high production costs resulting from the many locations utilized in the novel. Paramount offered Volker Schlöndorff the opportunity to direct a movie version in 1978, but it was not...

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Peter C. Thornton (essay date fall 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thornton, Peter C. “Man the Maker: Max Frisch's Homo faber and the Daedalus Myth.” Germanic Review 70, no. 4 (fall 1995): 153-63.

[In the following essay, Thornton interprets Homo faber in terms of the Daedalus myth.]

Juvenal, in the first of his Satires, asks why he should not attack the vices of his age instead of choosing safe subjects like “mugitum labyrinthi / et mare percussum puero fabrumque volantem” (lines 52-54). In this reference to the Cretan Labyrinth, to Icarus, and to his father, Daedalus, the last appears as a “faber volans”—the very mode in which Max Frisch's Walter Faber is discovered in the opening pages of Homo...

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Bill Niven (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Niven, Bill. “The Green Bildungsroman.” In Green Thought in German Culture: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Colin Riordan, pp. 198-209. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Niven identifies and discusses three works that demonstrate the inversion of the Bildungsroman concept: Frisch's Homo faber, Uwe Timm's The Snake-Tree and Friedrich Cramer's Amazonas.]

The term Bildungsroman is traditionally used to apply to novels in which characters learn to adapt to the norms of society. In this [essay] I suggest that modern writers in the German-speaking world frequently focus on the...

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John Russell (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Russell, John. “Max Frisch, Sketchbook 1946-1949: Tunnel Vision, Twofold View.” In Reciprocities in the Nonfiction Novel, pp. 167-86. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Russell classifies Frisch's Sketchbook 1946-1949 as a nonfiction novel, contending that the way he orders his experiences in the diary “caused novelistic form to rise to the surface.”]

Moving on from a satirist such as Céline, writing of the doomed Vichy French in 1945, to a diarist such as Max Frisch, whose jottings in Sketchbook 1946-1949 (Tagebuch 1946-1949, 1950) carry him through several years, over some of the same...

(The entire section is 8631 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Butler, Michael. “Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene: An Interpretation.” World Literature Today 60, no. 4 (autumn 1986): 574-92.

Addresses autobiographical interpretations of Frisch's novel and asserts that Man in the Holocene can “be situated clearly in the tradition of a sober, contemporary humanism.”

Hanlin, Todd C. “The English Translations of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch: Evolution and Evaluation.” Translation Review 40 (1992): 30-43.

Assesses English translations of the works of Dürrenmatt and Frisch.

Latta, Alan. “The Nature and Variety of...

(The entire section is 179 words.)