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|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 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 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. His first novel, Jürg Reinhart, appeared in 1934. 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, and recorded his experiences in a diary entitled Blätter aus dem Brotsack (1940). 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. 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. In 1947 he met Bertolt Brecht, whose concept of the epic theatre influenced his dramas. However, Frisch did not share Brecht's political views and in his essays he constantly opposed totalitarianism and all establishments. Frisch depicted his friendship with Brecht in his diaries (Tagebuch 1946-1949 and Tagebuch 1966-1971) and in Erinnerungen an Brecht (1968). Frisch's play 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.
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. During his stay he wrote much of the play Don Juan oder die Liebe zur Geometrie (1953), about the identity crisis of a rationalist, whose fame condems him to the role of lover and seducer. 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 escaped for some years to the United States. However, gradually the reader realizes that White's stories are untrue. He is released from the jail as Stiller and in the postscript the public prosecutor gives further details of Stiller's sad life.
'"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 (1957), 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. Frisch lived in Rome with Bachmann and wrote during this period one of his most famous plays, Andorra. The novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964, 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. Later in Montauk (1975), a fictionalized memoir, Frisch revisited past and present loves and the end of a relationship. "Her independence was part of her radiance. Jealousy was the price I had to pay for it, and I paid it in full." In 1968 Frisch married the translator Marianne Oellers; they divorced in 1979.
Andorra dealt with racial prejudices and conformism. The drama is set in town called Andorra, where the hatred against Jews begins gradually grow. 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. 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.
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 has 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 Helmut Schmidt, with whom he made a trip to China.
Frisch divided his time in the 1980s between Switzerland and New York, from where he had bought an apartment. In 1986 he was awarded the Neustadt Literature Prize. Max Frisch died on April 4, 1991, in Zürich.
For further reading: 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)
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