Sketchbook, 1946-1949/Sketchbook, 1966-1971

by Max Frisch
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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

For many writers such as Max Frisch, the diary as literary form replaces the novel in an age when an omniscient narrator is suspect, if not ridiculous. Many critics consider Frisch’s Blatter aus dem Brotsack (1940; papers from my mess kit), his third work, to be a conventional diary, that is, an autobiographical account of his military service at the outset of World War II. With the revision and expansion of his Tagebuch mit Marion as the beginning of Sketchbook, 1946-1949, however, scholars have noted the development of a unique idea of the contemporary diary, a model Frisch has followed in subsequent works: In the traditional diary form, the reader receives the impression that he or she is reading something spontaneous and private, thus credible and true. Frisch plays on these traditional expectations, though he creates a structured work of art at once as fictional as the most imaginative novel. Thus, Frisch may give his reader the impression that these sketchbooks are, in fact, personal diaries. In reality, they are tightly structured works of literature, works of fiction, which have from the outset been composed with publication in mind.

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As a professional architect during the 1940’s, Frisch simply had no time to write expansive works. The brief sketches, ideas, and literary fragments which characterize the first sketchbook are a symptom of this shortage of time, though the strict composition of the final version belies this casual tone. In a 1961 interview, Frisch drew the distinction between his private diaries and those written for publication, emphasizing three volumes to be considered under the latter category: Blatter aus dem Brotsack and the two sketchbooks. Moreover, he considered two of his novels, Stiller (1954; I’m Not Stiller, 1958) and Homo Faber (1957; Homo Faber: A Report, 1959), diaries. With this in mind, the scholar Horst Steinmetz has gone so far as to assert that indeed all Frisch’s works—be they drama or prose—are simply components of a greater, comprehensive diary.

In that same interview, Frisch pointed out that his first sketchbook was more than simply a logbook of historical events; it was intended to portray reality through fiction as well as through facts. Frisch further explained that his first sketchbook was to be a “confrontation” between three different realms: that of “fact,” meaning the political and social events of the day; of “fiction,” that is, of imaginary literary fragments (later often expanded to become independent works of prose or drama); and of “personal life,” those incidents, anecdotes, travel descriptions, observations, and experiences such as his meetings with Brecht or the development of his architectural projects. These two volumes are therefore much more than casual sketchbooks or private diaries with literary inserts.

One of Frisch’s repeated exhortations is the biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” In varying forms Frisch consistently repeats his conviction that one should cultivate no preconceived, and thus limiting, opinions. If an opinion of someone else has been formed, that person is then trapped in the preconception; regardless of what that person does, only those things that reinforce the observer’s prejudice will be seen. No development will be possible, for either party. This commandment reflects Frisch’s own postwar experiences and discoveries. For example, there are no “good” and no “evil” nations: There are only good or evil individuals. Despite the complexity of the task, each person must somehow be able to differentiate between the two by their actual deeds, not by preconceived notions.

According to Frisch, this philosophical approach can best be expressed in certain types of fiction. In writing novels and dramas Frisch has had to posit a beginning and an end, thus creating a finished work with developed or “fixed” characters in time and space to which the reader can react only after the fact. In the diary—as sketch or fragment—possibilities are only intimated:It is conceivable at least that a late generation, such as we presumably are, has particular need of the sketch, in order not to be strangled to death by inherited conceptions which preclude new births. . . . The sketch has direction, but no ending; the sketch as reflection of a view of life that is no longer conclusive, or is not yet conclusive; it implies mistrust of a formal wholeness which pre-empts the spiritual content and can only be a vehicle for borrowed ideas; mistrust of ready-made formulas which prevent our time from ever achieving a perfection of its own.

Individuals or ideas should be seen as capable of development in several possible ways, and the reader should participate in this process. In this way, Frisch creates his own alienation effect to distance the reader’s emotions from these important questions: Only through the conscious juxtaposition of “fact,” “fiction,” and “personal life” can Frisch arrive at a work that is at once distanced from his own subjective, thus limited, personality and yet is of general interest for a broad readership.

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