Max Frisch’s reputation as one of this century’s foremost authors of German literature is based mainly on a number of formidable novels, plays, and literary diaries. His importance as a prodigious essayist is known only in the German-speaking world since the vast majority of his essays have never been translated. Indeed, it could be stated that the essay as a literary genre is at the core of Frisch’s work. Beginning in the early 1930s, when he wrote book reviews and short stories as a young student at the University of Zurich, a splendid array of essays extends over a period of some 60 years, ending with Frisch’s last publication, “Schweiz ohne Armee?” (1989; Switzerland without an army?), an essay in dialogue form which was dedicated “with gratitude to Denis Diderot and Ulrich Bräker,” two essayists of the Enlightenment tradition, which he considered the last great utopia of humankind. The subject of this last essay may explain at least partially why Frisch’s essays have remained mostly unappreciated outside Switzerland: they deal to a great extent with Swiss matters, be they political or cultural. In fact, to understand the weight of Frisch’s essays within his literary oeuvre, one has to recognize the central role the essay as a genre has always played in Switzerland’s literary tradition, from Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Jeremias Gotthelf, and Gottfried Keller in the past to Carl Spitteler, Carl Burckhardt, C.-F.Ramuz, Max Rychner, Paul Nizon, and Adolf Muschg and Peter von Matt in more recent times. The literary essay is a typical art form in that country of four major cultures whose common denominator rests on political rather than cultural similarities and which is thus dependent on short and well-formulated essays as a means of intercultural and intertextual communication.
Yet to call Frisch simply an essayist on Swiss matters would do injustice to his oeuvre, whose quality, range, and depth make him one of the few world-class authors Switzerland has produced. From a biographical point of view, Frisch’s literary works coincide with some of the major events of the 20th century. As a writer, he was in personal contact with some of the most significant cultural and political personalities of his age. Frisch’s essays on contemporaries include those on his fellow writers, colleagues and friends Albin Zollinger, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Peter Suhrkamp, Teo Otto, Kurt Hirschfeld, Günter Grass, Andrei D.Sakharov, Ludwig Hohl, Varlin (i.e. Willi Guggenheim), and Gottfried Honegger. Many experiences and encounters that are of interest to a greater public have entered his essays or appear in essay form in Frisch’s literary diaries. (His friendship with Brecht comes to mind, or his lunch in the White House with Henry Kissinger, or a trip to China as a companion of Helmut Schmidt.)
Essays play a central role in Frisch’s life as a literary diary by reflecting the writer’s love for the open-ended sketch and his distrust of timeless perfection. As with the literary diary, Frisch’s numerous essays provide the reader with structure and guidance through his own prolific literary work. Frisch is not an easy guide, no Baedecker for superficial readers. He makes demands that are perhaps too difficult for many who want to ignore his haunting, inescapable questions. Frisch set standards for literary thought and linguistic elegance. Since Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, and Thomas Mann, German literature has known no writer who handled the German language with equal precision.
“Everything that is completed ceases to be the home of our spirit,” he states at the end of his essay “Das erste Haus” (1942; The first house), reminding the reader of Frisch’s early training as an architect.
Frisch’s reflections, his intellectual analyses, his remarkable insights into the spiritual development of his epoch are nowhere more apparent than in the over 200 known essays that appear listed in his Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge (1976–86; Collected works in chronological order). His didactic intentions are quite obvious. He considered himself to belong to the tradition of the age of reason, which he eventually came to judge as a failed endeavor.
His lifelong battle against premature reconciliation, against any kind of ideology or compromise, made him a formidable opponent of all establishments, whether conservative, socialist, or postmodern. He taught the daring adventure of ongoing utopian thought. Frisch had many opponents among those compatriots who, as he said in his speech on the occasion of the awarding of the Schiller Prize, “have only an Establishment, complete with flag, posing as Heimat—and owned by the military to boot” (“Die Schweiz als Heimat” [1974; “Switzerland as Heimat”]).
Of Frisch’s essays, those about politics were the most heated and passionate, those about literature the most memorable. Over the years he gradually gave up the somewhat apodictic style of his earlier writings and developed a new form of essayistic prose, the so-called “Fragebogen” (questionnaire), consisting of a list of mostly unanswerable questions regarding the human condition. With his precise questions he challenged the reader into recognizing the frailty of the world he lived in and the false assumptions on which the human condition has been built, as in his caustic but humane query at the beginning of his last “Fragebogen 1987”: “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?”
Max Rudolf Frisch. Born 15 May 1911 in Zurich. Studied at the Kantonale
Realgymnasium, Zurich, 1924–30; University of Zurich, 1930–33; Zurich Technische Hochschule, 1936–41, diploma in architecture, 1941. Freelance journalist, from 1933. Served in the Swiss army, 1939–45. Married Gertrud Anna Constance von Meyenburg, 1942, (divorced, 1959): two daughters and one son. Practicing architect in Zurich, 1942– 55. Traveled in Europe throughout the late 1940s; visited the United States and Mexico, 1951–52; lived in Rome, 1960–65, then moved back to Switzerland. Married Marianne Öllers, 1968 (later divorced). Awards: several, including Raabe Prize, 1954; Büchner Prize, 1958; Zurich Prize, 1958; Veillon Prize, 1958; Jerusalem Prize, 1965; Schiller Prize (Baden-Württemberg), 1965; Schiller Prize (Switzerland), 1974; Neustadt International Prize, 1986; Heine Prize, 1989; honorary degrees from five universities and colleges. Died in Zurich, 4 April 1991.
Essays and Related Prose
Tagebuch mit Marion, 1947
Tagebuch 1946–1949, 1950; as Sketchbook 1946–1949, translated by Geoffrey Skelton, 1977
Ausgewählte Prosa, 1961; enlarged edition, 1965
Tagebuch 1966–1971, 1972; as Sketchbook 1966–1971, translated by Geoffrey Skelton, 1974
Forderungen des Tages: Porträts, Skizzen, Reden 1943–1982, 1983
Novels, Plays, Essays, edited by Rolf Kieser, 1989
Other writings: several novels (including Stiller [I’m Not Stiller], 1954; Homo Faber, 1957) and II plays (including Biedermann und die Brandstifter [The Fire Raisers], 1958;
Collected works edition: Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge, edited by Hans Mayer, 7 vols., 1976–86.
Gerlach, Rainer, “Bibliographie,” Text+Kritik issue on Frisch, 47–48 (1983):114–49
Wilbert-Collins, Elly, in A Bibliography of Four Contemporary German-Swiss Authors: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Robert Walser, Albin Zollinger, Berne: Francke, 1967:33–52
Bodine, Jay F., “Frisch’s Little White Lies: Self-Discovery and Engagement Through Skepsis of Language and Perspective,” in Perspectives on Max Frisch, edited by Gerhard F.Probst and Jay F.Bodine, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.
Cook, Mary E., “‘Countries of the mind’: Max Frisch’s Narrative Technique,” Modern Language Review 65 (1970):820–28
Pender, Malcolm, Max Frisch: His Work and Its Swiss Background, Stuttgart: Heinz, 1979
Petersen, Jürgen H., Max Frisch, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1978
Schmitz, Walter, Max Frisch: Das Werk (1931–1961), Berne: Lang, 1985
Schmitz, Walter, Max Frisch: Das Spätwerk (1962–1982), Tübingen: Francke, 1985
Schuchmann, Manfred E., Der Autor als Zeitgenosse: Gesellschaftliche Aspekte in Max Frischs Werk, Berne: Lang, 1979
Stephan, Alexander, Max Frisch, Munich: Beck, 1983
Weisstein, Ulrich, Max Frisch, New York: Twayne, 1967
Werner, Markus, Bilder des Endgültigen, Entwürfe des Möglichen: Zum Werk von Max Frisch, Berne: Lang, 1975
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