Max Frisch Frisch, Max (Vol. 14) - Essay


(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 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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2797 words.)

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

(The entire section is 533 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Franz P. Haberl

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 713 words.)