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Frisch, Max 1911–

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Frisch is a Swiss novelist, playwright, and architect. Translated into many languages, his writings involve not only themes of personal identity but such social concerns as dictatorship, anti-Semitism, prejudice, and justice and injustice. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Gertrud B. Pickar

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Frisch has never employed time as an inexorably forward-moving totality, carrying characters to an inevitable fate and moving the action to its ultimate prescribed conclusion…. Instead he employs undeniably 'undramatic' techniques—the extension of time, the suspension of time, repeated portrayal of the same time period, the interaction of separate time spheres, movement back and forth in time, and the presentation of incidents of the past and future which are interjected into the dramatized present.

Not all these features are present in all the works nor do they appear in identical form or degree; some, however, are found in each work and are frequently even substantial in effect. An examination of Frisch's manipulation of time considerations in these works and of the time structure which results indicates that the time sense they manifest is essentially a narrative one. It demonstrates as well that the relationship of Frisch's … play, Biografie, to its predecessors is an evolutionary, rather than an innovative one.

Frisch's interest in exploring the possibilities of time and his utilization of a narrative time sense is evident from the outset. His first play Santa Cruz (1944) is constructed upon a duality of time paralleling that of place in which the clearly delineated and progressing time of the castle is contrasted with the non-time of Santa Cruz. The framework of the play, from the Vorspiel to the final tableau, spans seven days, yet within the work, a period of seventeen years is encompassed. (p. 1)

The oscillation between the time spheres of the present and past and the fusion of realities and unrealities, together with the confrontation of time-oriented progression with the time-denying fantasies of mind and memory, represent a time manipulation which is clearly narrative in nature. It reflects a consciousness which inserts itself between the material to be presented and the viewer or reader and restructures that material in a manner which is unmistakably conscious and which cannot be ignored.

In addition, Santa Cruz exhibits a further narrative time feature—simultaneity of time, a phenomenon which is alien to the dramatic concept of temporal sequence. (p. 2)

Like a postscript, the final brief and dream-like scene ends the work on a note of timelessness, as figures from the past and future, representations of lost opportunities and experience, Death, and the promise of the future held by the daughter Viola gather around Pelegrin as he lies dying. It is a fitting conclusion for a work whose time structure exhibits such variance and fusion of fictional, experienced, and fancied time and such contrast and interaction between time oriented and time suspended events. As a result of the interwoven complexion of times and places and the timelessness which is intentionally achieved, Santa Cruz is not located in time, but seems to float unmoored in the expanses of eternity…. Frisch's second dramatic work, Nun singen sie wieder (1945), manifests a duality of time similar to that found in Santa Cruz, though of less thematic and structural impact. The scenes among the 'living' are time-oriented. They take place in a sequential order with repeated references both to previous events and to those which are to follow. The scenes among the dead, however, are devoid of time consideration; their existence revolves around the continual baking of bread and the nourishing of the dead. The time awareness of earthly life with its daily concerns and pathetic hopes for the coming spring thus forms a contrast to the timelessness of eternity 'jenseits' and provides the work with a dual basis in time. This duality of time experience and portrayal which the time consciousness of the work encompasses, however, is not structurally maintained. The removal of the demarcation of death prevents a distinction in cast, setting or action between the living and the dead. (p. 3)

The time concepts which appear to be suspended in Nun singen sie wieder are directly and consciously violated by the structure of Die Chinesische Mauer (1946, revision 1955), as three time perspectives are brought together and interact: that of the present of 'heute abend' represented by the performance itself and the figures of der Heutige, Frack, and Cut; that of ancient China presented as a fictional present in the 'play within the play' pivoting around members of the Imperial court of Emperor Twing Sche Hwang Ti of the third century B.C., and that of a timeless consciousness of the past, represented by the series of historical and literary figures, the 'Maskenfiguren' which repeatedly cross the stage singly or in groups and contribute to the revue-like aspect of the work. (p. 4)

Die Chinesische Mauer is the first of Frisch's plays in which an attempt is made to utilize the 'present' of the stage performance and integrate it into the time considerations of the work itself. 'Zeit der Handlung: heute abend' announces der Heutige as the work opens and proceeds to move from that time sphere to the other fictional levels of the work. As a result, the 'present' of experienced time interacts with the fictional present produced on the stage…. The situation in Die Chinesische Mauer is further complicated by the addition of a third time perspective, for the 'experienced present' is brought into contact with both the fictional present of a historical time and the continuing, yet timeless present of the 'Maskenfiguren'. The latter represent figures from the historical past from fictional times and places and, if the intent of the author succeeds, they are to be accepted as manifestations of man's continuing consciousness of the past…. Die Chinesische Mauer represents a significant attempt to counteract the historicism of time with its sequential order by creating what may be termed a simultaneity of time or a recapitulative time-denying structure. Of special interest here is the fact that the time concept inherent in Die Chinesische Mauer is unquestionably alien to the dramatic concept of time and strongly suggestive of a consciously directed narrative will. Clearly, the time oriented bounds of the dramatic medium have been exchanged for the more fluid and complex time dimensions associated with the narrative mode of expression.

Relevant here, too, are the discussions of time by the protagonists in Die Chinesische Mauer. It is the first play in which time is consciously a concern of the dramatic figures, gaining thus theatrical consciousness. Not only do they integrate the concern with time into the thematic framework of the piece, but they also elucidate the philosophical bias with which both form and content are constructed, as well as bringing the phenomenon of time into relation with concepts of time in modern science. (pp. 4-5)

In contrast to these thoughts and the format of the first three works, Als der Krieg zu Ende war (1947/48) displays a far more 'traditional' use of time. Time is limited, though not severely so, for the action of the play stretches over a 'spring' (specifically indicated as that of 1945), and the thematic content of the work is very definitely bound to that period. Yet, Als der Krieg zu Ende war, too, displays a narrative element related to its temporal constitution…. Though not assuming the function of a chorus, the way [the character] Agnes speaks out of the framework of the work and suspends its time-flow as she relates incidents which have a bearing upon her attitudes or the events in the drama tends to relativize the time-experience of the work itself. The inclusion of anecdotes and incidents from the past and future disrupts the time consciousness of the work and reveals its narrative bias. (pp. 5-6)

Graf Öderland (1951) displays yet another format of time structure. The scenes, while maintaining an impression of chronology, are episodic in nature and references to incidents in preceding or pursuant scenes are minimal. As in Nun singen sie wieder, scenes in which the same protagonists, or in this case specifically the Staatsanwalt, do not participate are not dovetailed to fit in temporal sequence between those in which they are present, and acquire rather a feeling of simultaneity. A duality of time awareness, so frequent in Frisch's works, is achieved by the contrast between the opening and closing scenes [with their temporal references] …, and the intervening scenes, which are essentially unrooted in time, and seemingly take place in a simulated fairytale-time of 'once'…. The ambivalence of [the] dual time and the dual characterization of the Staatsanwalt is crystalized in the final scene, where the ambiguity of time-experience becomes thematic [and the time perception of the Staatsanwalt is challenged by the maid Hilde and her recounting of specific events]. (pp. 6-7)

[The] intrusion of the subjective experiences of the intermediary scenes into the 'objective reality' of the framework of the work, rather than dispelling their fantasy quality, tends to relativize the entire work. This feeling of a subjective time-consciousness which exists above and beyond the individual scenes and impinges upon their dramatic objectivity is a narrative one, to which the uses of extended and undefined time, also found in the play, are correlative.

In Don Juan oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie (written 1952 and revised in 1961), the first acts display a dramatic time sense, a chronological sequence of events is maintained, no variance in time experience or interplay of time realities occur, and the time portrayal is tight and limited. The final two acts do not affect the natural time sequence of the work nor insert new time elements, but they do extend the time span to narrative dimensions. The fourth act takes place a number of years after the third, and the final act is set after a further but indefinite period of time has elapsed. The intervening time is telescoped, and the earlier scenes recede into a prepast perspective. (p. 7)

Frisch's [next] four plays are characterized by a contrast between the scenes in which the validity of time is recognized and portions associated with narration or commentary in which time concerns are excluded…. The nature and effect of the contrast in time considerations thus created are significant and reveal more clearly than in the preceding works Frisch's intense concern with this aspect and the development of a time formulation which culminates with that found in [Biographie].

In Biedermann und die Brandstifter (1957/58), the story line proceeds lineally from the arrival of the first lodger until the fiery holocaust, though the time factor is usually only vaguely indicated. The timelessness of the chorus forms a temporal counterpoint to the portrayed events. Its admonitions and generalizations, chanted intermittantly throughout the work, provide a loose framework for the story development on stage. [In addition, the action is temporarily 'frozen' during brief interludes, during which Biedermann and Babette step out of the fictional present to comment upon proceedings or to justify themselves].

In Die große Wut des Philipp Hotz (1957/58), the time sense is fractured, as scenes between the dramatic figures, which progress in a linear fashion, are suspended in the alternating conferencier scenes, in which Hotz steps from the platform on the stage to comment on the proceedings or to provide additional information. At other times the action continues 'on stage,' as he proceeds with his commentary in the time vacuum of 'off-stage'…. Within the dramatization of the portrayed scenes, a different incongruity of time flow is in evidence. Dorli is presented … in an uninterrupted time continuum, [while] Philipp [is] functioning in an accelerated, telescoped time stratum…. (pp. 8-9)

In conjunction with this discrepancy in time experience, an interesting use of tense occurs. The narrative past, associated with the narrative mode, is used in those passages where Philipp is acting as the raconteur, and the present tense is employed in the scenes with Dorli…. His action acquires thus a narrative perspective, while the others continue in the fictional present of theatrical illusion. This interaction of time strata, supported by the accompanying variation in the use of tense, destroys any pretense of a dramatic unity of time and reveals the essential nature of the work's time structure as a narrative one.

In Andorra (1958–1961), the episodic scenes depicting the chain of events which mold the figure of Andri and lead to the final denouement of the work are chronological and extend over a considerable period of time, reaching narrative proportions. These scenes are transposed from the immediacy of their presentation to the nebulous realm of the past by the statements of the witnesses which frequently follow them and which reveal the events as long passed. The 'present' of these figures, manifested by their appearance at the witness stand and often accentuated by a change in clothing, contrasts with the 'present' of the dramatized action, lending to the latter a narrative distance. (p. 9)

In its treatment of time, Biografie: Ein Spiel (1967), draws upon the experimentation with the dimension of time found in earlier plays. Movement back and forth in time, which was structured into acts in Santa Cruz, is used extensively, and as in Santa Cruz an attempt is made to secure on the stage a continuum of time in which past, present and future freely intermingle. As in Andorra and Die gro e Wut des Philipp Hotz (and more tentatively in Als der Krieg zu Ende war) characters both function as performers within a dramatized present and withdraw from that dramatization to function outside of its fictional and temporal framework. The time concept of the work, as in Santa Cruz and Graf Öderland, fuses fictionally 'real' events and their time dependence with projected reality (whether of dream, fantasy, or suggestion) and its inherent temporal antipathy and permits the protagonists to experience them in one time continuum and to be affected by their interaction. As in Andorra, scenes from the fictional past are presented in a theatrical present; however, in Biografie, these scenes are not absolute and their integrity is not preserved. Rather the staging present is maintained throughout the work and often [intrudes] into the scenes. A theatrical simultaneity similar to that found in Die Chinesischle Mauer dissects variant time spheres and is essentially anti-lineal and anti-historical in effect. Biografie, however, strengthens the use of the stage found in the other works by granting it domination over the entire work and radically expands its significance by utilizing the rehearsal as the structural basis of the work. The effect upon the role of time within the work is striking and substantial. (p. 10)

[Drastic in effect] is the irrelevance with which the time factor is treated in the structuring of the work. The play opens and closes in a fictional 1960—yet the opening scene is soon revealed to be a reenactment of an evening experienced by the protagonist Kürmann at some prior time. The 1960 setting is thus eliminated as a contender for the fictional present of the play, which must now be assumed as having begun in medias re. The true fictional present remains undefined, as the play proceeds, revealing in cornucopian fashion its temporal complexity and variety. (p. 12)

The kaleidoscopic interplay of the scenes and general disruption of temporal precepts encountered in Biografie is fostered by the rehearsal situation into which the play is cast and the unique formulation of time inherent in that mode. The rehearsal situation … extends the limits of theatrical tolerance. It allows an extensive range in fictional time … without effecting the bounds of theatrical time; it can justify a simultaneity of presentation not otherwise tenable, and permits a time period to be repeated, its events to be recalled, reiterated or cancelled without prejudice. It is conducive to an intermingling or interaction between varying time spheres or time perceptions and promotes minimal use of a sequential time structure. In effect, it sustains an otherwise narrative time use in a theatrical medium.

Believing that the very use of the stage possesses the power to place events and things in a sphere beyond time, Frisch has repeatedly removed his plays from a strictly dramatic time context and chosen to treat time in a predominantly narrative fashion. In the course of his dramatic works, Frisch has experimented with the employment of multiple time periods, the interaction of 'objective' and 'subjective' time, and its suspension, acceleration and extension. Protagonists, situations and thematic interests have been affected by and in turn affect these temporal variations in varying degrees and manners, until in [Biografie: Ein Spiel] the temporal concern is fully integrated into an artistic one. In [this work], Frisch, by rejecting time-structuring and proffering in its stead the vehicle of the rehearsal, has created a stage situation which parallels the narrative condition. Narrative time aspects have been synthesized within a theatrical format formalized by the work itself, and the narrative time sense has become bonded with theatrical form, thus effectively concluding Frisch's experimentation with temporal formats. (pp. 12-13)

Gertrud B. Pickar, "The Narrative Time Sense in the Dramatic Works of Max Frisch" (revised by the author for this publication), in German Life & Letters, n.s. Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, October, 1974, pp. 1-14.

V. S. Pritchett

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["Sketchbook 1946–1949"] is not a hotchpotch of things and persons seen or of random ponderings but a coherent narrative, an ingenious mosaic. The fragments hold together as the portrait of a sensitive moralist responding to the chaos in Europe in the years immediately following the Second World War; they also reveal the artist's eager greed for people and what is behind their faces. One is really reading two men at once. Frisch may be a travelling conscience, shocked by what he sees and reporting it all, but he is also at his business of imagining. So that, in a sense, the "Sketchbook" is an incipient and earnest Bildungsroman, quick-witted and vivid. Every anecdote may have its bearing on some play or story he thinks of writing….

[The people Frisch describes] will reappear in the "Sketchbook" from time to time, transfigured. Indeed, the image of the forester will turn up powerfully at the end of the book, in the long account of a lawyer's nervous breakdown, which is closely related to the writer's own fears and guilts as he travelled through Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, and Italy; Kafkaesque fantasies of the impassive interrogation, the false trial, the confiscated passport, the concentration camp, and the firing squad haunt his innocence…. And this eventually leads Frisch the artist on to questions of political commitment. Can writers have any real influence in stopping future wars? When they gather by the hundred in international meetings, do they not stick to their national or ideological factions? And what about the "good man" living in a safe and tolerant society—may not his tolerance conceal a sleepy or disingenuous attachment to the status quo? How embarrassing it is to notice that success in writing a very good sentence may keep unpleasant reality at arm's length, if only for a moment.

Anyone of Max Frisch's generation will recognize how especially painful such difficulties were felt to be at the end of the Second World War. We all remember the worried neutrals who, released from their claustrophobia, encountered the other claustrophobia of war, which had trapped the rest of us. One remembers the questions and answers in ruined Germany when one broached the question of German guilt. (p. 87)

There are many wise remarks on writing scattered through the book. One is particularly important to Frisch, as readers of his brilliant "Montauk" will recall:

Every experience basically defies description as long as we try to express it through the actual example that has impressed us…. Essentially only fiction—things altered, transformed, shaped—can convey impressions—and that is the reason why every artistic failure is always linked with a stifling feeling of loneliness.

Finally, we come to the long sketch of the breakdown of lawyer Schinz, a fiction that can be said to dramatize the facts, fantasies, symbols that have been at the back of the author's mind throughout the "Sketchbook." Story or play? Whatever it is, we see the artist pushing the moralist out the door and finding a possible self in the rich mosaic he has created. (pp. 88-9)

V. S. Pritchett, "A Peripatetic Conscience," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 21, July 11, 1977, pp. 87-9.


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Few contemporary writers have attacked the traditional borders between fiction and nonfiction more systematically than Max Frisch…. "Montauk," and two sets of diaries, "Sketchbook 1946–1949" and "Sketchbook 1966–1971,"… rebel against the tyranny of genre more vigorously than any contemporary work I can think of. (p. 3)

Mr. Frisch's literary mosaics could have become a mere hodgepodge in the hands of a lesser artist, and yet, few works I know prove the increasing irrelevance of distinctions between literary genres. The power and consistency of the writer's sensibility—that of a very sophisticated, concerned, acerbic Western liberal probing the conscience of our time—binds his disparate styles into a powerfully unified structure. They are like metal filings kept in perfect order by an unseen magnet, held together by an order of energy not unlike that which unites Kierkegaard's and Nietzsche's disparate aphoristic jottings….

Mr. Frisch's novels differ from the mainstream of post-war Existentialism in several important ways: They are essentially studies of marriages and relationships between equally independent male and female protagonists, and it is in great part his heroes' unwillingness to commit themselves to their strikingly liberated women that leads them to destruction. Also, Mr. Frisch is more interested in concrete problems of "honesty" in our technological age, in a concrete "telling of the truth" in contemporary life and art, than in expressing the prevalence of the absurd or the sweet indifference of the world….

In "Montauk," his boldest work to date, Mr. Frisch recounts the impact of the American press on a famous European writer's consciousness—his very own…. With the same deftness with which he assembles the disparate genres and styles of his "Sketchbooks," the author moves among several personas: the novelistic "he," Frisch of the American media romance, and the autobiographical "I."… The contemporary writer's attempt at ultimate candor is both the theme and the process of this book….

"Montauk" is Mr. Frisch's biggest gamble to date. It involves his most meticulous violation of novelistic taboos, his most aggressive attack against whatever boundaries remain between fact and fiction. Like the heroes of his novels, Mr. Frisch's books have always seemed to rebel against any process of pegging, naming, classifying; they defy the useful and worn labels of the literary trade. And Mr. Frisch's tour de force is that "Montauk," like the "Sketchbooks," remains rigorously devoid of any confessionalism. The author is in such control that these bluntly honest documents are infinitely less subjective and more elegantly impersonal than the thinly masked life histories that emerge in the fiction of Updike, Mailer and countless other contemporary novelists. The liberating effect of Mr. Frisch's rebellion against the tyranny of traditional genres, as well as the breadth of his human message, make him a more fitting candidate for the Nobel Prize than any other writer I can think of. (p. 34)

Francine du Plessix Gray, "Max Frisch Considered," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 19, 1978, pp. 3, 34.

Franz P. Haberl

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The dramatic action [of Triptychon], such as it is, consists of a funeral during the first tableau, a series of conversations in Hades during the second one, and a conversation on a park bench in Paris between a couple of lovers (one alive, one dead) during the last one. The innovative device which Frisch uses to propel his "action" and to advance his thesis is to have dead and living characters intermingle and even speak to each other. The dead retain the age which they had at the moment of death; the living continue to grow old. This device results in some comic relief in the second tableau, as when a seventy-year-old son encounters his forty-one-year-old father who scolds him for still not being able to fish properly.

Essentially, though, this is a very serious work. As the eighteen disparate yet related characters confront each other in Hades, as they recount important events in their lives, as they try to justify their acts and omissions to each other, Frisch's familiar themes reappear: his condemnation of social injustice and of prejudice, but most prominently his exhortation that we should love a person without trying to change him or her, without forcing him or her into a preconceived mold. The eighteen characters in the second tableau had been unable to live up to Frisch's standards while they were alive, and they persist in their imperfections even in Hades. This is why Hamlet's question (uttered by a clochard) is answered at the end of the second tableau with the lapidary phrase: "Eternity is banal."

The banality of the characters in the second tableau is contrasted to the seemingly extraordinary couple in the third one. (p. 283)

[But] Frisch's stage directions specify that the banality of life is to assert itself: the very last sounds of the third tableau are the roaring noises of contemporary city traffic. (pp. 283-84)

Franz P. Haberl, "World Literature in Review: 'Triptychon'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 283-84.

Steven Kellman

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[Montauk] takes its title and its authority from the town on Long Island where Frisch spends a weekend in the company of a woman who works for his American publisher and whom he refers to simply as Lynn. Montauk is no literary invention, and Lynn's identity is no secret to the New York publishing world. We enter the book in medias res and in the present tense, as Lynn and the author find themselves on foot, lost in the thickets of the Long Island coast. It is the palpable disorder of immediate sensation.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, precisely because of our faith that art transcends the bagatelles of specific time and place. Frisch acknowledges that "Literature cancels the moment—that is what it is for," yet he eschews literature. His avowed purpose in Montauk is to meet the moment on its own terms. Describing himself, not without perverse satisfaction, as "a writer without very much imagination," his goal is very nearly that of l'ecriture blanche, writing that denies its own resources. Frisch would be a humble servant of present verity, and for such fealty impositions of past and future would be churlish. His modest proposal is:

to describe this weekend: in an autobiographical way. Completely autobiographical—without inventing a single character; without inventing happenings of more significance than his own simple reality; without taking refuge in inventions of any kind; without seeking to justify his writing as a duty toward society. A story without a message. He has none to give, and yet he is alive. He wants simply to tell it (though not without some consideration for the people he mentions by name): his life.

Montauk is to be an aging writer's effort to capture life, though its Gnostic premise is that life defies the wiles of narrative. (pp. 433-34)

Published confessions often thrive on the frisson of wondrous indiscretions toward self; but Montauk, a record of their weekend together, is an exercise in self-effacement. Jean-Jacques Rousseau exalts himself even when broadcasting his problems over premature ejaculation. However, Max Frisch's disparaging remarks about himself, such as the disclosure of impotence during his final night with Lynn, are consistent with his entire project of abandoning the self. Individual identity, like plot, possesses shaped chronology, and it is to flee both that the Swiss novelist finds himself in Montauk….

[Throughout] Montauk, Frisch escapes to the freedom of "he." Yet atavistic reappearances of "I," sometimes even within the same sentence as "he," are reminders of how very difficult it is to live outside the fictions that are our selves.

Aware that language and plot are desecrations, Frisch struggles valiantly to resist the temptations of art. Yet his diary is an artifact. He declares that: "It is just the present moment he wants, nothing more," but his account of the weekend with Lynn is crowded with flashbacks to other times and other places…. Diarist, historian, and fabulist are uncomfortably confounded. (pp. 434-35)

The publication of a diary, especially one with intimate details so embarrassing and lacerating, is an exercise in the mortification of personality. Yet, as in the case of Gide's journals, such an act can also enhance an author's reputation. Frisch's epic question "Why am I telling all this? Whom am I telling it to?" remains unanswered. But it is clear that his is a Romantic quest to lose oneself in the Other. Individual imagination becomes distortion, a flight from the here and now. In seeking "to describe this weekend, this thin present weekend, exactly as it is, without inventing anything," Frisch is desperately attempting to embrace Nature, which, an sich, is immediate—and feminine. When the self and its fictions are discarded, "All that remains is the mad desire for present identity through a woman." "Every first time with a woman is the first time all over again," and repetition breeds not only boredom, but history.

The diary, with its shifting point of view, is the appropriate form for an epistemological skeptic. It aspires to the unmediated experience of a fundamentally fragmented, shapeless world devoid of the consoling patterns of past, present, and future. (p. 435)

Steven Kellman, "The Diary As Fiction: The Days of Max Frisch," in Book Forum (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson River Press), Vol. IV, No. 3, 1979, pp. 431-35.

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Frisch, Max (Rudolf)


Frisch, Max (Vol. 18)