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by Bamber Gascoigne

Max Frisch (1911-1991)


Swiss novelist, playwright, diarist, and essayist, who began his career as an architect before achieving fame with the play When the War Was Over in 1949. However, Frisch's first books appeared in the 1930s. In his early works Frisch dealt with the post-war guilt and origins of Nazism, and continued with existential questions of identity and personal freedom. Frisch's best-known plays include Andorra (1961) and Biedermann and die Brandstifter (1958). In his novels Frisch has often brought to the fore the difference between the narrator's world and the reader's interpretation of it.

"Ein Mann hat eine Erfahrung gemacht, jetzt such er die Geschichte dazu - man kann nich leben mit einer Erfahrung, die ohne Geschichte bleibt, scheint es, und manchmal stellte ich mir vor, ein andrer habe genau die Geschichte meiner Ergahrung..." (from Mein Name sei Gantenbein, 1964)

Max Frisch was born in Zürich, the son of Franz Bruno Frisch, an architect and real estate agent, and Karolina Bettina (Wildermuth) Frisch. From 1924 to 1930 Frisch attended the Kantonale Realgymnasium of Zürich. While still at school, Frisch started to read Ibsen and write plays. In 1930 he entered the University of Zürich, where he studied German literature and art history. After his father suddenly died in 1932, Frisch left his studies and worked as a free-lance journalist to support himself and his mother.

Frisch wrote for Neuen Zürcher Zeitung and Zürcher Illustrierten, specializing on travel and sports articles. With his Jewish girlfriend, Käte Rubensohn, Frisch visited Germany on different occasions; their relationship ended in 1938. Later in Montauk (1975), a fictionalized memoir, Frisch revisited past and present loves and his personal failures.

Like many German-speaking intellectuals at that time, Frisch drew a line in his journalistic pieces between high German culture and Nazi culture: "That is the question: whom do we finally find the more credible, the popular speaker or the poet, and what is more authentic for us, the screaming crowd or the individual who is, admittedly, powerless but nevertheeless makes history, at leat the history of ideas?" (The Miracle of Life,' translated by Kenneth Northcott, in Travels in the Reich, 1933-1945: Foreign Authors Report from Germany, edited by Oliver Lubrich, 2010, p. 66) Jürg Reinhart (1934), Frisch's first novel, was awarded the Conrad Ferdinand Meyer Prize. Its revised edition, J'adore ce qui me brûle; oder, Die Schwierigen, was published in 1943. From 1936 Frisch studied architecture at the Eidgenössisch Technische Hochschule in Zürich, receiving his diploma in 1941.

During World War II Frisch served periodically in the Swiss army – the country remained neutral during the war –  and recorded his daily observations as an artillery man in a diary entitled Blätter aus dem Brotsack (1940, Leaves from My Knapsack). In 1942 he married Gertrud Constanze von Meyenburg; they had two daughters and one son. Between the years 1942 and 1954 Frisch ran his own architectural practice. He started to write plays in 1944 and in 1945 the Zürcher Schauspielhaus produced Nun singen sie wieder (Now They Sing Again). Other plays followed – Die chinesische Mauer (prod. 1947), Als der Krieg zu Ende war (1949), and Graf Öderland (1951).

Throughout the late 1940s Frisch traveled in Europe. Tagebuch 1946-1949 (1950, Sketchbook 1946-1949) dates from the period when he was working on the construction of a large municipal swimming pool in Zürich; it was his first major architectural project.

The Chinese Wall, written in 1946, was set in a fictional China. Historical figures, such as Cleopatra, Columbus, and Napoleon, comment in a masked ball upon events in history, destroying at the same time the dramatic illusion. The Contemporary, an intellectual, warns about the atomic bomb. A turning point in Frisch's career as a playwright came in 1947 when he met Bertolt Brecht, whose concept of the epic theatre influenced his dramas. Brecht gave him the manuscript of his book, Kleines Organon für das Theater (A Short Organum for the Theatre), in which he presented theory and technique of the "Verfremdungseffekt" – subsequently, Frisch employed the "alienation effect" in his own stage productions. For a time Brech urged Frisch to write a Tell drama, but it took almost a quarter of a century before he treated the subject in Wilhelm Tell für die Schüle (1971, William Tell for school instruction). Noteworthy, Frisch did not share Brecht's political views and in his essays he constantly opposed totalitarianism and all establishments. His friendship with Brecht he depicted in the diaries (Tagebuch 1946-1949 and Tagebuch 1966-1971) and in Erinnerungen an Brecht (1968). 

In the early 1950s Frisch spent a year in the United States on a Rockefeller grant. He also visited Mexico and lived for a time in a ghetto in San Francisco. Much of the play Don Juan oder die Liebe zur Geometrie was written in 1952. Basically a comedy, it tells about the identity crisis of a rationalist who wants to contemplate the geometry of Nature, but whose fame condems him to the role of lover and seducer. "Sex is the inescapable irrationality. But Don Juan must make himself as comfortable in the shoddy human world as in humanly possible." ('Max Frisch and Don Juan oder die Liebe zur Geometrie' in The Theatre of Don Juan: A Collection of Plays and Views, 1630-1963, edited with a commentary by Oscar Mandel, 1963, p. 697) Frisch was often compared with Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose plays were staged in the same theaters. For a period they were friends. "I suppose we both began to tire of it, and we began to look for an excuse to break the relationship. So when a few silly statements were made, it was very easy to say, "I don't want to see you anymore because you said this and this."" ('Max Frisch Interviewed' by Jon Barak, The New York Times, March 19, 1978)

After the collapse of his first marriage, which officially ended in 1959, and the success of his plays and the second novel Stiller (1954), Frisch devoted himself entirely to writing and setted in Uetikon, near Zürich. Frisch also sold his architect's office which made him financially independent.

The protagonist of Stiller is a man, Jim White, who is arrested on the border because of a fake passport. While in prison he writes his story for the public prosecutor; but it is not the story which is his true identity, if there is any. White claims that he is not Anatol Ludwig Stiller, a failed sculptor and husband, who had been suspected of espionage and had escaped for some years to the United States. Gradually the reader realizes that White's stories are untrue, he is a typical unreliable narrator, whom Frisch used in some of his other novels, including Homo faber (1957) and Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1967). After to weeks, the mysterious narrator is released from the jail as Stiller and in the postscript the public prosecutor, Rolf, gives further details of Stiller's doomed life and death.

'"Sie schreiben einfach die Wahrheit", sagt mein amtlicher Verteidiger, "nichts als die schlichte und pure Wahrheit. Tinte könnte Sie jederzeit nachfüllen lassen."' (from Stiller, 1954)

Homo faber, a version of the Oedipus myth, tells the story of a middle-class UNESCO engineer called Walter Faber, who believes in rational, calculated world, ruled by technology. Strange events undermine his security – an emergency landing in a Mexican desert against all odds, his friend Joachim hangs himself in the Mexican jungle, and he falls in love with a woman who dies of a concussion, he has an incestuous affair. Finally Faber becomes ill with stomach cancer, but it is too late for him to change his life. Frisch's style is unsentimental and laconic, completely in tune with the character of Faber. "Life is form in time. Hanna admits that she can't explain what she means. Life is not matter and cannot be mastered by technology. My mistake with Sabeth lay in repetition. I behaved as though age did not exist, and hence contrary to nature."

Frisch was awarded in 1958 the prestigious Georg-Büchner Prize. In the same year Frisch met the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann in Paris; their relationship ended in the early 1960s. "Her independence was part of her radiance. Jealousy was the price I had to pay for it, and I paid it in full." (in Montauk). Frisch lived in Rome with Bachmann and wrote during this period one of his most famous plays, Andorra. The novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein (A Wilderness of Mirrors), published after the breakup, begins with an apparent suicide. A man leaves his pipe on the table before walking out of a bar, and is later found dead in his car, with the engine running. At the end a corpse floats down a river, "As a suicide plunges into the water, I plunge myself vertically down into the world, but I find in the world not death but life." In 1965 Frisch moved back to Switzerland. He married in 1968 the translator Marianne Oellers; they divorced in 1979.

Andorra dealt with racial prejudices and conformism. The drama is set in town called Andorra, not to be confused with the Pyrenees country of the same name. The town is in conflict with its neighbor, the country of the Blacks. Andri is the offspring of a liaison between a Black Señora and an Andorran schoolteacher, but he is "adopted" by his father as a Jew. Andorrans are proud of their country's traditional Christianity, but although generally a peaceful country, hatred against Jews begins gradually grow. Andri becomes obsessed with his background and is finally executed by the Blacks, although he is told the truth of his origin. Both Andorra and The Firebugs (1958) were staged in New York in 1963 but failed there.

Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Firebugs) was first written as a radio play and then rewritten for television and stage. In the dark comedy a town is victimized by arsonists. Biedermann lets two stranger move into his attic, although they have oil drums. He even gives them matches. Frisch states the basic question: when the victims are accomplices to their own a disaster? Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979) dealt with the last days of a retired engineer, Mr. Geiser, who thinks that there is "no knowledge without memory." Geiser embarks on a lonely fight against nature, time, and oblivion by starting to construct a pagoda of crispbread, and then a cathedral of knowledge. At the end there is nothing to say, the nature don't need the memories of Mr. Geiser.

Due to his political opinions, Frisch was under surveillance by the Swiss secret service. In one of his late essayistic prose works, the so-called 'Fragebogen' Frisch asked: "Are you sure you are really interested in the preservation of the human race, once you and all the people you know are no longer living." As an essayist Frisch dealt mostly Swiss matters but he also depicted such fellow writers as Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brech, and Günter Grass, and such politicians as Henry Kissinger, with whom he had a lunch in the White House and who refused to speak German with him, and Helmut Schmidt, with whom he made a trip to China.

In 1987, Frisch was invited to deliver a speech in the "Forum for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and the Survival of Mankind" in Moscow; the congress was hosted byMikhail Gorbachev. After a period of withdrawal, he published Schweiz ohne Armee? Ein Palaver (Switzerland without an Army? A Conversation); it became a bestseller. This work, which contributed to the debate on the referendum of 1989 seeking to abolish the Swiss army, was written in the form of a dialogue between an old man and his grandson. Its stage version, Jonas und sein Veteran (Jonas and His Veteran) was performed in the Zürich Schauspielhaus and in Lausanne.

Frisch divided his time in the 1980s between Switzerland and New York, from where he had bought an apartment. "I HATE IT / I LOVE IT / I HATE IT / I DON'T KNOW / I LOVE IT / etc." he said of the city in Entwürfe zu einem dritten Tagebuch (2010). Frisch's fashionable apartment in his home country sat high on a hill overlooking Lake Zürich in the suburb of Kusnacht. In 1986 he was awarded the Neustadt Literature Prize. Max Frisch died on April 4, 1991, in Zürich. He had suffered from cancer for several years. 

For further reading: Max Frisch, Alfred Andersc : eine widersprüchliche Freundschaft by Angela Weber-Hohlfeldt (2016); A Companion to the Works of Max Frisch, edited by Olaf Berwald (2013); Kazuo Ishiguro and Max Frisch: Bending Facts in Unreliable and Unnatural Narration by Zuzana Fonioková (2015); Mysticism as Modernity: Nationalism and the Irrational in Hermann Hesse, Robert Musil and Max Frisch  by William Crooke (2008); Play is Play by Peter Yang (2000); Max Frisch: Das Werk by Walter Schmitz (1985); Max Frisch: Das Spätwerk by Walter Schmitz (1985); Max Frisch by Alexander Stephan (1983); Max Frisch, ed. by G.P. Knapp (1979); The Novels of Max Frisch by M. Butler (1976); Max Frisch: das literarische Tagebuch by R. Kaiser (1975); Max Frisch: die Dramen by M. Jurgensen (1968); Max Frisch by E. Stäube (1967); Frisch und Dürrenmatt by H. Bänziger (1960) 

Selected works:

  • Jürg Reinhart: Ein sommerliche Schicksalsfahrt, 1934
  • Antwort aus der Stille: Eine Erzählung aus den Bergen, 1937
    - An Answer from the Silence: A Story from the Mountains (translated by Mike Mitchell, 2011)
  • Blätter aus dem Brotsack, 1940
  • J'adore ce qui me brûle; oder, Die Schwierigen, 1943 (second version: Die Schwierigen; oder, J'adore ce qui me brûle, 1957)
  • Bin; oder, Die Reise nach Peking, 1945
  • Marion und die Marionetten: Ein Fragment, 1946
  • Nun singen sie wieder, 1946 (play, prod. 1945)
    - Now They Sing Again (translated by Alice Carey, in Max Frisch: Novels Plays Essays, 1989; Michael Bullock, Three Plays, 2002)
    - TV film 1965, dir. Fritz Umgelter, starring Ernst Wilhelm Borchert, Otto Rouvel, Cordula Trantow, Karin Hübner, Brigitte Kortmann
  • Santa Cruz, 1947 (play, prod. 1946)
    - Santa Crutz (translated by Michael Bullock, in Three Plays, 2002)
  • Die Chinesische Mauer: eine Farce, 1947 (play, prod. 1946, rev. version, 1955)
    - The Chinese Wall (translated by James L. Rosenberg, 1961)
    - films: Die chinesische Mauer, 1958, prod. Südwestfunk (SWF), dir. Ludwig Cremer; TV comedy 1965, dir. by Hans Lietzau
  • Tagebuch mit Marion, 1947 (rev. ed., as Tagebuch 1946-49, 1950)
    - Sketchbook 1946-1949 (tr. 1977)
  • Als der Krieg zu Ende war, 1949 (play, prod. 1948)
    - When the War Was Over (tr. 1967)
  • Tagebuch 1946-1949, 1950
    - Sketchbook 1946-1949 (translated by Geoffrey Skelton, 1977)
  • Graf Öderland: ein spiel in zehn Bildern, 1951 (play, prod. 1951)
    - Count Oederland (translated by Michael Bullock, in Three Plays, 1962)
    - films: Greve Öderland, TV film 1963, dir. Tom Segerberg, starring Erik Lindström, May Pihlgren and Susanna Ringbom; TV film 1968, dir. by Rolf Hädrich, starring Bernhard Wicki, Agnes Fink and Hans Caninenberg
  • Don Juan oder die Liebe zur Geometrie: Eine Komödie in fünf Akten, 1953 (play, prod. 1953)
    - Don Juan or the Love of Geometry (translated by Michael Bullock, in Four Plays, 1969)
    - TV comedy 1965, dir. Michael Kehlmann, starring Helmut Lohner, Manfred Inger and Hertha Martin; TV film 2001, dir. Thomas Birkmeir, starring Sandra Cervik, Herbert Föttinger, Petra Morzé, Eugen Stark  
  • Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter, 1953 (rewritten in 1958 for television and stage)
    -  The Fire Raisers (translated by Michael Bullock, in Three Plays, 1962) / The Firebugs (translated by Mordecai Gorelik, 1963) / The Arsonists (translated by Alistair Beaton, 2007)
    - Tuhopolttajat: opettavainen kappale ilman opetusta sekä jälkinäytös (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1991)
    - films: 1958 (TV film), dir.  Fritz Schröder-Jahn, starring Willy Maertens, Charlotte Schellenberg; 1961 (TV drama), dir. Willy van Hemert, starring Piet Bergers; 1963 (TV drama), dir.  Hellmuth Matiasek, starring Fritz Muliar; 1966, Pyromanerna (TV film), dir.  Lars Löfgren, starring Stig Järrel; 1967 (TV drama), dir. Rainer Wolffhardt, starring Siegfried Lowitz; 1984, Biedermann och pyromanerna (TV play), dir. Tom Segerberg, starring Nils Brandt, Stig Fransman
  • Rip van Winkle, 1953 (radio play, based on the tale by Washington Irving)
    - Rip Van Winkle (translated by Michael Bullock, in Three Plays, 2002)
  • Stiller: roman, 1954
    - I’m not Stiller (translated by Michael Bullock, 1958)
    - Minä en ole Stiller (suom. Markku Mannila, 1980)
  • Der Laie und die Architektur, 1954
  • Herr Quixote, 1955
  • Achtung: Die Schweiz, 1955
  • Eine Lanze fur die Freiheit, 1955 (radioplay, A Lance for Freedom)
  • Homo faber: ein Bericht, 1957
    - Homo Faber: A Report (translated by Michael Bullock, 1974)
    - Homo faber: selostus (suom. Sinikka Kallio, 1961)
    - films: 1991, dir. Volker Schlöndorff, screenplay Rudy Wurlitzer, starring Sam Shepard, Julie Delpy, Barbara Sukowa, Dieter Kirchlechner; 2014, Homo Faber (Trois Femmes), dir. Richard Dindo, starring Daphné Baiwir, Amanda Barron, Marthe Keller
  • Biedermann und die Brandstifter: ein Lehrstück ohne Lehre. Mit einem Nachspiel, 1958
  • Die grosse Wut des Philipp Hotz, 1958 (play, prod. 1958)
    - The Great Philipp Hotz's Fury (translated Michael Bullock, in Four Plays, 1969)
    TV film 1960, prod. Süddeutscher Rundfunk (SDR), dir. Paul Verhoeven, starring Robert Graf, Karin Schlemmer and Ina Peters, Harry Wüstenhagen   
  • Schniz, 1959
  • Andorra, 1961 (radio play, rewritten for the stage in 1961)
    - Andorra (translated by Michael Bullock, in Three Plays, 1962)
    - Andorra: näytelmä (suom. Leena Ilmari, 1964)
    - films: TV film 1964, dir.  Kurt Hirschfeld, Gert Westphal, starring Peter Brogle, Kathrin Schmid and Ernst Schröder; TV film 1965, starring  Martine Crefcour, Hans Croiset and Elise Hoomans; TV film 1976, dir. Diagoras Chronopoulos, Dimitris Papakonstadis; TV film 1983, starring Niels Martin Carlsen, Lea Risum Brøgger, Holger Juul Hansen, Birgit Sadolin, Helle Virkner
  • Ausgewählte Prosa, 1961
  • Stücke, 1962 (2 vols.)
  • Mein Name sei Gantenbein, 1964
    - A Wilderness of Mirrors (translated by Michael Bullock, 1965) / Gantenbein: A Novel (translated by Michael Bullock, 1982)
    - Olkoon nimeni Gantenbein: romaani (suom. Aarno Peromies, 1965) / Gantabein (suom. Aarno Peromies, 2008)
  • Zürich-Transit, 1966 (screenplay)
    - Zurich Transit (translated by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, 2010)
    - film 1992, dir. Hilde Bechert, starring Peter Ehrlich, Tiziana Jelmini, Dieter Kirchlechner, Axel Milberg,  Monika Schwarz, Gisela Uhlen
  • Biografie: Ein Spiel, 1967 (play, prod. 1968)
    - Biography: A Game (translated by Michael Bullock, 1969; Birgit Schreyer Duarte, 2010)
    - TV film 1970, prod. Hessischer Rundfunk (HR), dir. Rolf Hädrich, starring Paul Hubschmid, Ingmar Zeisberg, Jon Laxdal, Alfred Balthoff 
  • Öffentlichkeit als Partner, 1967
  • Three Plays, 1967 (translated by James L. Rosenberg)
  • Erinnerungen an Brecht, 1968
  • Ausgewählte Prosa, 1968 (edited by Stanley Corngold)
  • Four Plays, 1969 ( translated from the German by Michael Bullock)
  • Dramaturgisches: Ein Briefwechsel mit Walter Höllerer, 1969
  • Wilhelm Tell für die Schule, 1971
  • Tagebuch 1966-1971, 1972
    - Sketchbook 1966-1971 (translated by Geoffrey Skelton, 1974)
  • Dienstbüchlein, 1974
  • Montauk, 1975
    - Montauk (translated by Geoffrey Skelton, 1976)
    - Montauk: elämäntapani ja mielenlaatuni piirteitä (suom. Oili Suominen, 1979)
    - film: Return to Montauk (2017), loosely based on the novel, dir. by Volker Schlöndorf, starring Stellan Skarsgård, Bronagh Gallagher, Susanne Wolf, Nina Hoss, screenplay by Colm Tóibín, Volker Schlöndorff 
  • Stich-Worte, 1975 (ed. by Uwe Johnson)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1976 (12 vols., edited by Hans Mayer and Walter Schmitz)
  • Kritik, Thesen, Analysen, 1977
  • Triptychon: drei szenische Bilder, 1978 (play)
    - Triptych: Three Scenic Panels (translated by Geoffrey Skelton, 1981)
    - TV film 1981, starring Elisabeth Orth, Joachim Bißmeier and Maresa Hörbiger 
  • Der Traum des Apothekers von Locarno, 1978
  • Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän, 1979
    - Man in the Holocene: A Story (translated by Geoffrey Skelton, 1980)
    - Ihminen ilmestyy holoseeniin (suom. Markku Mannila, 2008)
    - film: Holozän, 1991, dir. Heinz Bütler, Manfred Eicher, starring Erland Josephson, Sophie Duez, Elvezia Barzan
  • Blaubart, 1982
    - Bluebeard: A Tale (translated by Geoffrey Skelton, 1983)
    - Siniparta: romaani (suom. Markku Mannila, 1987)
    - TV film: Blaubart, 1984, dir. by Krzysztof Zanussi, starring Vadim Glowna, Karin Baal, Vera Tschechowa, Ingrid Resch, Maja Komorowska, Margarethe von Trotta 
  • Forderungen des Tages. Portraits, Skizzen, Reden 1943-1982, 1983 (edited by Walter Schmitz)
  • Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge, 1976-1986 (7 vols., ed. by Hans Mayer)
  • Schweiz ohne Armee? Ein Palaver, 1989 (2nd ed.; stage adaptation: Jonas und sein Veteran)
  • Novels, Plays, Essays, 1989 (edited by Rolf Reiser)
  • Schweiz als Heimat? Versuche über 50 Jahre, 1990
  • Max Frisch / Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Briefwechsel, 1998 (edited by Peter Rüedi)
    - Friedrich Durrenmatt and Max Frisch. Correspondence (translated by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, edited bv Peter Ruedi, 2012)
  • Jetzt ist Sehenzeit: Briefe, Notate, Dokumente 1943-1963, 1998 (2nd ed., edited by Julian Schu¨tt)
  • Frisch, Max / Uwe Johnson: Ein Briefwechsel, 1999
  • Der Briefwechsel: Max Frisch, Uwe Johnson, 1964-1983, 1999 (edited by Eberhard Fahlke)
  • Im übrigen bin ich immer völlig allein: Briefwechsel mit der Mutter 1933: Eishockeyweltmeisterschaft in Prag: Reisefeuilletons, 2000 (edited by Walter Obschlager)
  • Max Frisch: Three Plays, 2002 (translated by Michael Bullock)
  • Herzzeit: Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan: der Briefwechsel: mit den Briefwechseln zwischen Paul Celan und Max Frisch sowie zwischen Ingeborg Bachmann und Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, 2008 (edited by   Bertrand Badiou et al.)
  • Schwarzes Quadrat: zwei Poetikvorlesungen, 2008 (edited by Daniel de Vin,Walter Obschlage)
  • Entwürfe zu einem dritten Tagebuch, 2010 (edited by Peter von Matt)
    - Drafts for a Third Sketchbook (edited with an afterword by Pater von Matt; translated by Mike Mitchell, 2013)
  • Aus dem Berliner Journal, 2014 (edited by Thomas Strässle; with the cooperation of Margit Unser)
    - From the Berlin Journal (edited by Thomas Strässle; with the cooperation of Margit Unser; translated by Wieland Hoban, 2017) 
  • Briefwechsel / Alfred Andersch, Max Frisch, 2014 (foreword by Jan Bürger) 
  • Ignoranz als Staatsschutz?, 2015 (edited by David Gugerli and Hannes Mangold)

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