Max Frisch Frisch, Max (Vol. 9) - Essay

Frisch, Max (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frisch, Max 1911–

Frisch is a Swiss novelist, playwright, and architect. Translated into many languages, his writings involve not only themes of personal identity but social concerns, such as dictatorship, anti-Semitism, prejudice, and justice and injustice. (See also CLC, Vol. 3.)

Both Wilder and Brecht greatly influenced Zurich's Max Frisch, who employs forms typical of Brecht's epic theater and who shares his deep moral commitment. He does not, however, share Brecht's naive faith in Marxism. Frisch called one of his plays a "Lehrstück ohne Lehre" (a didactic play without a lesson) and critics have accordingly dubbed Frisch a Brecht without Marxism. Frisch constantly warns against man's inclination to create false images of a person, a race, or a nation. He maintains that the attempt to say anything definitive about "the Jews," "the Russians," and others can result only in brutal distortion. This thesis is particularly evident in his novel Stiller and in the play Andorra.

Frisch's early plays, Nun singen sie wieder (Now They Sing Again, 1945), The Chinese Wall (1947), and Als der Krieg zu Ende war (When the War Was Over, 1949), deal with problems of the immediate postwar life. His next play, Count Oederland (1951), depicting the transformation of a representative of law and order into an anarchist, has generally been understood as a rather inadequate explanation of the events of the Hitler era, which shows that every common man has a certain potential for violence and cruelty. Don Juan or The Love of Geometry (1953) is Frisch's first comedy. Here Don Juan possesses none of the qualities usually attributed to him. Instead of seducing women he is constantly seduced by them…. Frisch's dominant theme is visible even in this comedy: Don Juan realizes that women merely love in him the image they have created of him.

The Firebugs (Biedermann und die Brandstifter, 1956) is the parable of a man who thinks he can appease those who want to destroy his world. In a city plagued by arsonists, the rich and hypocritical Biedermann shelters two firebugs in his home…. [He] lets his world catch fire because of his unwillingness to resist the forces of violence.

The climax of Frisch's work is his play Andorra (1961), a study of prejudice. Here a teacher brings his illegitimate son Andri to his homeland of Andorra, telling his fellow citizens that the boy is a Jewish child whom he rescued from the dangers of the anti-Semitic neighboring state. The boy grows up and gradually experiences the racial prejudice of the entire community. Andri is molded into the stereotype image the people of Andorra have of the Jews. As the armies of the neighboring anti-Semitic state invade Andorra, the teacher reveals his son's true identity. But Andri thinks his foster father is trying to save him and refuses to accept the story. He has been convinced that he is Jewish and that he possesses all the "Jewish" qualities people have observed in him. The enemy executes Andri as a Jew. In the ensuing trial, the people of Andorra declare themselves not guilty of Andri's death. But obviously their latent prejudices have led to Andri's violent death as much as has the open anti-Semitism of the invaders. (pp. 397-99)

Diether H. Haenicke, "Literature Since 1933," in The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Daemmrich and Diether H. Haenicke (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1971, pp. 350-404.

Max Frisch is … a meticulous storyteller, a discriminating selector of the relevant from the batches of irrelevant. His best works—the plays The Firebugs and Andorra and the novel I'm Not Stiller—are intelligent comedies, intricate fables without morals. In discussions of Frisch's literary antecedents and sources, his name travels in the lofty company of Brecht, Kafka and Mann. Frisch acknowledges these influences. But what is most interesting about his writing are Frisch's consistent attempts to define precisely in what ways he is not Brecht, Kafka and Mann.

Who Frisch's characters really are is the central and unresolved question of his plays and novels. Who Max Frisch is, the kinds of relationships he conducts, the kinds of political beliefs he affirms, the kind of writer he wishes to be, and the kind of writer he is, are the questions around which Frisch has shaped his two most recent works: Sketchbook (1966–1971) and Montauk. In Sketchbook Frisch writes primarily about his political and social concerns, but oddly, it is a more personal, more intimate and engaging book than Montauk, a work which Frisch determined would be about his private life. (pp. 27-8)

Frisch confesses that he is exceedingly uncomfortable with the confessional form. The stated subjects of [Montauk], his "life as a man," his fame, his literary ambition, his inquiries into his past relationships with women, his relationships with his mother and daughter, are nearly all subverted by the self-consciousness of a writer too cautious and suspicious of his readers to be candid about his emotions…. [It] is a nightmare to Frisch to think of giving up his own life to the myriad of possible interpretations other people make. It is a nightmare not to be able to control what readers think.

Montauk is Frisch's written record of his attempts to make peace with his nightmare. He wishes to stop directing and censoring his experiences, to see and feel his life as he really lives it, to capture what he calls the "thin current moment." As a writer, however, Frisch has no feel for the "thin current moment." (p. 28)

Montauk is very uneven going. Frisch's writing about his past is dramatic and convincing in a way that the present moment of his book never is. He complains of feeling tyrannized by memory. It devours his present. But Frisch's loss is the reader's gain. What rings true in Montauk reads like Frisch's fiction, and what does not read like fiction, does not ring true. (p. 30)

Laurie Stone, "Living in Quotations," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 3, 1976, pp. 28-30.

If one accepts the premise that "God is the living spirit in each human being," then any kind of typecasting, any kind of limitation placed on human individuality and human development borders on the sacrilegious. And this is precisely the way in which such transgressions are presented in Frisch's major works.

The conflict between the stereotyped, fixed image of a person and the life force which permeates this person is the nucleus of several of Frisch's plots. The resolutions of this basic conflict vary: Stiller finally learns to accept himself and his wife in peaceful resignation. In Andorra the image-making deteriorates from the level of the individual to racial prejudice by an entire nation and eventually to collective murder or at least acquiescence in it. In Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964; translated as A Wilderness of Mirrors) the perspective shifts somewhat, since the author does not present one definite conflict or plot, but several possibilities of plots…. Frisch succeeds admirably in his aim of "showing the reality of a persona by having it appear as a white spot, outlined by the totality of the fictions that is possible for this persona."… Gantenbein is undoubtedly Frisch's best novel. It closes with a definite affirmation of life, apparently in all its vicissitudes.

Throughout his career as a writer Frisch has integrated personal experiences into his imaginative works. If one uses Flaubert's famous dictum that the author "should be omnipresent but nowhere visible" as a standard in judging how well Frisch integrates fact and fiction, then one can easily demonstrate a progression toward perfection. His first novel, Jürg Reinhart (1933/34), is a traditional and obviously autobiographical Entwicklungsroman whose protagonist, an innocent youth with a pure heart, develops into manhood. This theme is reechoed and the same telltale name reappears in Die Schwierigen oder J'adore ce qui me brûle (1942; The Difficult Ones). In both of these early novels the author's personal preoccupations stand out too clearly; the facts simply have not been molded into fiction. On the other hand, in Stiller (1953/54; translated as I'm Not Stiller) there are several passages, descriptive as well as incorporating action, which are almost verbatim repetitions of Frisch's diary entries covering his stay in the United States and Mexico, and yet they fit perfectly into the narrative fabric. Moreover, they are probably the most beautiful texts in the whole novel. It is clear at this point in his development Frisch had become a poietes, a maker, a truly creative artist. (p. 228)

Reading through the "Complete Works," one is frequently surprised by the vast amount of nonfictional material which they contain. Much of this material is political in the original sense of the term; it is concerned with the polis, with the problem of how people live together, with the problem of order in society. Here, as everywhere in his works, Frisch's statements, even his polemics, are well-reasoned: they always present the pros and cons of an argument; they never fail to recognize the complexity of modern life….

Today his polis encompasses the world. No matter whether he is concerned with the fascist putsch in Greece in 1967, with the suppression of dissident intellectuals in the Soviet Union, with the American invasion in Cambodia or with the Swiss trade in arms, his plea is always for humaneness, for justice, for a pluralistic and free society. But while he has a keen understanding of the large political and sociological forces which determine our lives, it is safe to say that from his beginnings to the present Frisch has been primarily concerned with the individual….

[It] is a pleasure to report that Max Frisch is working on a new drama which will take place in Hades and which will show a sociological cross-section and a philosophical summary of our century. May this work appear soon and may it be followed by many others! (p. 229)

Franz P. Haberl, "Max Frisch: A Retrospective," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 227-29.