Max Frisch Frisch, Max (Rudolf) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Max (Rudolf) Frisch 1911–

Swiss dramatist, novelist, diarist, and journalist.

Frisch is considered among the most prominent contemporary writers of German literature. His work is influenced thematically and stylistically by the German Expressionists, particularly dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Like the Expressionists, Frisch informs his plays and his novels with disjointed time sequences and shifting senses of reality. In doing so, he examines the existentialist idea that the course of one's life depends upon personal decisions and actions. Frisch suggests that although each person has the potential to be unique, individual identity cannot be realized until one acts upon that potential. In lieu of personal identity, Frisch implies, individuals who fail to act are doomed to adopt the definitions placed upon them by society. In all his work Frisch emphasizes the importance of establishing identity and exerting will over fate. In his plays he also explores the issue of social responsibility by questioning the degree to which intervention is required to prevent totalitarianism.

Like his countryman, dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, to whom he is often compared, Frisch interprets Swiss neutrality during World War II as a reluctance to take a moral stand. Many of his plays are attempts to explain why the Holocaust was not prevented and examine the feelings of guilt experienced by observers who might have intervened. A parable play, Biedermann und die Brandstifter (1958; The Firebugs), concerns a hypocritical industrialist who, feigning liberalism, allows two hoodlums to occupy his household. The pair proceed unhindered to burn down an entire town, even after they have stated their intent and stored fuel in the industrialist's attic. Similarly, another parable play, Andorra (1961), examines citizens of a fictional village who use their prejudices to justify a murder. Implicit in these as well as his other plays is the idea that the individual's acceptance of stereotypical, socially defined roles is the basic cause of modern corruption and alienation.

Frisch further develops this theme in his fiction. His most widely read novel, Stiller (1954; I'm Not Stiller), is the story of an unsuccessful sculptor who attempts to change the course of his life by adopting a new identity. Frisch's acclaimed novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964; A Wilderness of Mirrors) also concerns a man who experiments with various identities but fails to express his true personality. In Blaubart (1982; Bluebeard), a falsely accused murderer grows to doubt his innocence and believe the prosecution's accusations. Michael Butler notes that in Bluebeard Frisch again reveals his "life-long obsession with the problem of identity and the fatal propensity of human beings to thrust crippling definitions on each other." Frisch offers little hope for improving the bleak situations he portrays. Some of his works, in fact, suggest an inclination toward human self-destruction. Frisch's play Die chinesesche Mauer: Eine Farce (1947; The Chinese Wall) and his novel Homo Faber (1957; Homo Faber: A Report) depict intellectuals unable to prevent disasters brought on by technological advancements.

Frisch's nonfiction is also considered important to his work as a whole. During the 1940s, when he interrupted his career as a writer to work as an architect, Frisch wrote several newspaper articles concerning urban planning. These are considered significant because they project his socialist views. Also of interest are Frisch's diaries, which include Tagebuch, 1946–1949 (1950; Sketchbook, 1946–1949) and Tagebuch, 1966–1971 (1972; Sketchbook, 1966–1971). These diaries reflect many of Frisch's literary themes and artistic ideals.

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 9, 14, 18 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Charles W. Hoffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Persistent though it may be … the view that the dramatist Frisch is the essential Frisch is, I think, wrong. For one thing, it can be demonstrated—though I do not propose to do so here—that the things which most often claim Frisch's attention are matters better suited to the private world of the introspective novel than to the social world of the stage. Andorra is, of course, an exception. Of more obvious importance is the simple fact that, aside from Andorra and Biedermann und die Brandstifter, Frisch has not written a new play since the early fifties. He has rewritten and revised his earlier dramas, but the mature Frisch has turned increasingly to prose fiction; and in Stiller, Homo faber, and Mein Name sei Gantenbein he has created three of the most important novels of the past decade. Taken together, these books are perhaps the most meaningful recent German writing in their particular genre: the psychological novel.

Their significance does not lie so much in Frisch's narrative technique. The structure and the plot development in Stiller and Homo faber are essentially traditional, and only in Gantenbein does Frisch move onto experimental, new narrative ground…. The significance of the works lies, rather, in the astonishing accuracy and depth of psychological insight with which the experiences of his typically modern heroes are viewed and presented. His characters are engaged—often against their will and rarely successfully—in what Frisch considers to be the most urgent concerns of living. And while these "urgent concerns" are not profound new discoveries, the psychological understanding that Frisch has for what motivates his characters is rare, indeed. Finally, since most of us can see ourselves in the central figures, the importance of the novels lies also in what they can help us to recognize about our own inner selves. It would be going too far to call Frisch's intent "therapeutic"—but I suspect not much too far. (pp. 93-4)

I do not consider the novels to be in any sense a trilogy; and when I compare them to each other I do not mean to imply that Frisch intentionally fills out in one what he left sketchy or incomplete in another. This is not the case. Each novel is unique; and though they sometimes complement each other, as do Stiller and Homo faber particularly, this is because Frisch tries in each to bring the central character into psychological focus. (pp. 94-5)

The first concern of Frisch's heroes is the examination of self, and the novels rest on a series of assumptions that Frisch makes (though not always explicitly in the works themselves) about this examination. If man is to develop the ability to live productively with his fellow human beings, he must first look at self. Indeed, until he has done so, he has not even begun to be human, for, though the awareness of self may be what tortures man, it is also the essence of his humanity. Unless he tries to find out what makes him act the way he does, he must remain alienated from self and unfree. One might then expect man to engage willingly in the search for self. But self-discovery is threatening and painful and difficult, while the state of unconscious, alienated, "unfree" living is at least familiar and thus less menacing. It may well be an unpleasant state, but it is also an easy one. Hence, man is not apt to search for his self unless he is forced to do so.

This is more or less the starting point for Frisch's novels. His characters are confronted with circumstances which make the refusal to look at self no longer possible, or at least so threatening that self-examination now becomes the easier path. Each of them has been jarred loose from a familiar and essentially unconscious pattern of behavior by a severe psychic crisis. And since this crisis has been brought on by the old pattern, the character is forced to grant the shortcomings of his previous actions, his previous self, and to search for something better to put in their place. In each of the novels a different phase of this process is examined, and in each different results are achieved. (pp. 95-6)

Since none of the three heroes come to know self completely, none completely achieves the new orientation of personality, the new character structure which for Frisch is synonymous with inner freedom. None attains the emotional independence which will enable him fully to follow the voice of reason and health and well-being.

All of them, however, eventually look for inner freedom; all come to recognize that they are not free; and all have at least the desire to become so. Again, their success varies in degree. (p. 98)

Frisch's ultimate purpose in all three novels is, in my view, to give new and imaginative expression to this old truth: that men must learn the difficult way of love if they are to escape from loneliness and isolation. Or, to be more precise, his purpose is to show how men fail in the attempt to escape, for Frisch is pessimistic about modern man's chances for success. In all the novels there are only two characters who achieve it, who do learn to love: the district attorney Rolf in Stiller and Rolf's wife. Not only are these secondary characters; they also appear in the earliest of the three books. Since then, since 1954, Frisch has not created a character who succeeds. (pp. 100-01)

Of the three main characters—Stiller, Faber, and the narrator in Gantenbein—none solves the problem of relatedness. To be sure, Stiller, when we first see him at the beginning of the novel, has already come a long way from the narcissistic and thus thoroughly destructive orientation that had once cut him off from his wife, Julika, and from his lover, Sibylle…. To a large extent he has conquered the feelings of failure and of insufficiency which poisoned those relationships, and now during his imprisonment he also learns he cannot...

(The entire section is 2453 words.)

Arrigo Subiotto

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a more direct, less complex and ambiguous manner than Dürrenmatt, Frisch made a worthy, honest attempt in his plays (more private themes dominate his prose writing) to state and analyse some of the uncomfortable problems left in the wake of the Second World War. Above all he tried to elucidate the process of 'how it came about', 'how it could come to this', with guilt, inevitably, as the central motif in every case. Frisch subtitled his second play, Nun singen sie wieder (Now They've Started Singing Again), written in 1945, 'Attempt at a Requiem': in the German soldiers who shoot helpless hostages and the Allied airmen who bomb defenceless civilians he portrays and deplores the mentality that sees the enemy...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)

Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What's in a name? The answer, according to "I'm Not Stiller," is a tyrannical past, and the novel doesn't waste any time before beginning to argue its case. In the opening pages a man claiming to be called White is arrested while crossing the Swiss border and accused of being Anatol Ludwig Stiller, a sculptor who disappeared six years previously. But when White denies the charge and is thrown into jail, the novel is only able to develop by the most subdued kind of immediate action. It turns, instead, to reminiscence and reflection.

The result is an intelligently persuasive analysis of identity and reality, but it can hardly help being dogged by temptations which often beset fictions set in prison. The hero, with little to distract him from himself, becomes increasingly boring; and the story, with such an obvious set of equivalents for the human condition to draw on (time is a prison and we're all doing life sentences) becomes increasingly inert under the weight of symbols and parallels.

As Stiller (for it is he all along) is interviewed by the public prosecutor, various figures appear from his past to elucidate the present….

Stiller is eventually persuaded to stop denying his true name, and the explanation for his disappearance emerges, when he is taken to see his former studio. In a violent destructive frenzy, he smashes the examples of his work which remain there—but seeking finally to abolish the past only convinces him that he is powerless to escape it. The effect is described by the prosecutor in a postscript which occupies the final quarter of the novel….

'As long as a person does not accept himself,' the prosecutor blandly explains, 'he will always have the fear of being misunderstood and misconstrued by his environment.' The remark gives an indication of Max Frisch's ambitious intention, which is to explore a crisis in the character of a country, Switzerland, as well as an individual. But the prosecutor's tone, with its legitimate detachment and omniscience, allows the novel's lurking dogmatism to appear. Perhaps when 'I'm Not Stiller' was first published …, this was necessarily curtailed. In the complete version, it is tediously overbearing.

Andrew Motion, "Dragging Out a Life Sentence," in The Observer, July 25, 1982, p. 30.∗

Marion Glastonbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The possibility of self-knowledge with and through others is [Max Frisch's] perennial theme. The elusiveness of shared truth torments his protagonists. Increasingly bewildered by love at cross purposes, they retreat into solitude, take stock of the past, and stand condemned by their own memories…. [The] imprisoned narrator in I'm Not Stiller … denies that he is guilty as charged but confesses to several murders in the name of 'White', an American citizen of German descent….

As the initial mystery is gradually resolved, we are made aware of further perplexities. Court proceedings to set the record straight are clearly a bureaucratic farce; so what are the laws of personal relations and where is justice to be found? What do we owe each other in marriage, kinship and common humanity? How much is each one of us worth, and what can we call our own in an age of technical reproduction when, as televiewers, telehearers and teleknowers, we perceive everything at second-hand? Vicarious experience encompasses the globe, and the interior has already been laid bare by Proust, Jung, Kafka and Thomas Mann.

The weight of these giants and their legacy of philosophical and psychological analysis must be borne by their heirs in Europe, interpreters of the human condition who have lost faith in the dignity and coherence of character, and in the romantic pre-eminence of the self…. [The] generic Frisch hero [is] a martyr to history, socially powerless, trapped in the misconceptions of others, and desperate to save his life by losing it. Accordingly, he plunges into simple stories of the New World, melodrama and burlesque, gangland yarns and jungle adventure, tribal myth and the legend of Rip Van Winkle. These elemental forms, ardent fantasies and popular entertainments, untrammelled by doubt and introspection, have their counterpart in the occasional stark gestures and bursts of energy with which characters try to stop the world when they want to get off. Breaking the endless journey from self-justification to self-censure and back again, the narrator acts on impulse, chooses authenticity, becomes momentarily himself, 'free from the fear of doing the wrong thing'….

[Frisch's] novels are more solid, less solipsistic than a summary of their ideas might suggest. A single consciousness contains multitudes: in fathoming it, Frisch evokes the complex reality of a dangerous and enthralling world.

Marion Glastonbury, "Breaking Out," in New Statesman, Vol. 104, No. 2681, August 6, 1982, p. 23.∗

D. J. Enright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'I try on stories like clothes,' says the narrator of ["Gantenbein"] …, now reissued with its English title changed from 'A Wilderness of Mirrors.' In this rather more engaging replay of the 'identity mystery' secreted in 'I'm Not Stiller,' two different identities and two life-stories are invented for a dead stranger. He could have been Gantenbein, who pretends to be blind, or Enderlin, who is having an affair with Gantenbein's wife—or possibly both gentlemen are having an affair with the wife of Svoboda.

Versions and variations proliferate: one female character starts as an actress and is recast as a contessa; another is a manicurist who declines into a call-girl (found strangled with a cord)....

(The entire section is 188 words.)

Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Max Frisch isn't an easy writer to classify. He's Swiss but in no sense a regionalist; he's neither comfortably traditional nor avant-garde in his style or styles. At his best, he's what we might call sharply contemporary, with an edge of nervous informality and a kind of rueful sagacity. He's been versatile to the point of sometimes seeming glib—his plays, written mostly in the 1950's and 60's, are especially notable in that respect—but he's also full of unexpected felicities; Max Frisch surprises.

His true achievements lie in a few novels, the relatively early "I'm Not Stiller" (a cult book for its admirers, of which I'm one), "Homo Faber" and the recent "Man in the Holocene," along with his...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Sven Birkerts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….

Out of this mountain fastness comes novelist, dramatist, and perennial Nobel candidate Max Frisch …, whose career has been one long assault upon repression, self-satisfaction, and bourgeois right-mindedness. Frisch—the Swiss who would not be Swiss—has done everything in his power to throw off the burden of his heritage. In the forty years since he quit architecture for writing, he has expressed himself with great inventiveness upon a single theme: the...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Jim Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Bluebeard"] shows Frisch to be in dazzling command of his meticulous literary powers. The hero is a hapless Don Juan named Herr Doktor Schaad. We meet him in the aftermath of a spectacular trial in which he has been accused of strangling a Zurich prostitute—his sixth wife. Acquitted by the jury, Schaad persists in trying himself in the courtroom of his conscience. Therein lies the drama in this laconic little fable about guilt and innocence in an Age of Bureaucracy.

Through a sequence of terse flashbacks we relive Schaad's ordeal. A long parade of witnesses—secretaries, psychiatrists, ex-wives—offer conflicting testimony. Depending on the speaker, the doctor appears meek, harmless,...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

Robert M. Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Max Frisch, who has revived (and revised) the story of Blue-beard in a short, quasi-parabolic book [Bluebeard] is a versatile Swiss man of letters with a practiced talent for deliberately fragmented and enigmatic writings. I'm Not Stiller, his first, best-known, and still best book, studied a divided personality, one element of which was intent on repudiating the other; its theme of guilt disintegrating a nonpersonality only vaguely aware of what was being done to it would provide a constant pattern for Frisch's work. Homo Faber was a fable of technological man brought to destruction by the ancient Fates—as well as by an inopportune itch for slender easy young things. Man in the Holocene,...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

David Myers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Both Frisch and Dürrenmatt, the terrible Swiss twins of moralistic postwar drama, have shown themselves fascinated over the last forty years with the tragicomic analysis of evaded ethical responsibility. The guilt of their protagonists has commonly had allegorical overtones for the whole of Western civilization. These male protagonists are violently expelled from the ostensible harmony of their cowardly lives. They are forced into tragic introspection that reveals they are en mauvais foi with themselves. Their lives culminate in the moving confession of guilt and failure. This is so with Dürrenmatt's III in Der Besuch der alten Dame and with Trapp in Die Panne, just as it is with Frisch's...

(The entire section is 511 words.)