Interviews

Max Frisch, The Art of Fiction No. 113

Interviewed by Jodi Daynard

Max Frisch was born in a suburb of Zurich, Switzerland, on May 15, 1911. By the age of twenty-six he had published two works, the novel Jürg Reinhart (1934), and Answer from Silence, a novella (1937), both of which he burned in 1937 along with everything he had written up to then, vowing never to write again. “I had to make two trips into the woods, there were so many bundles,” he writes in Sketchbook 1946–1949. It was a vow he broke two years later by writing about his experience as a border patrol guard in the Swiss Army (Leaves From a Knapsack, 1940). In 1942 the author opened his own architectural design office, and Zurich’s public swimming pool is the result of a competition he won in 1949. After the war Frisch wrote and produced several plays in Zurich and began an important friendship with Bertolt Brecht. In 1954, the publication of I’m Not Stiller brought the author worldwide fame, and by the end of that year he was able to close his architectural practice and devote himself full-time to writing. Since then Frisch has navigated several genres with equal, and extraordinary, mastery: plays, including his best-known The Firebugs (1958), Andorra (1961), and Biography: A Game (1967); memoirs, Sketchbook 1946–1949, Sketchbook 1966–1971, and Montauk (1975); novels, Homo Faber (1957) and Gantenbein (1964); and two classic novellas, Man in the Holocene (1979) and Bluebeard (1982).

On the Sunday evening in September of 1984 when I arrived in Zurich to interview Frisch, he informed me by phone that he wasn’t feeling well and asked if we could postpone our interview until Wednesday. I took the free days to explore Zurich—its narrow, café-cluttered streets and posh bank-lined avenues that have been home to Frisch for nearly seventy-three years. It is a city that in many ways has been as marked by the author as he has been marked by it; here he has spoken out on everything from urban planning to Switzerland’s position in the world, its “guilt of the guiltless.” When Frisch walks down the streets of this city strangers tip their hats to him, as to an old and revered friend.

Wednesday morning the author met me at my hotel and together we walked back to his spacious triplex apartment nearby. Frisch, with his strong hiker’s gait, easily outpaced me. “I had hoped we could take a walk in the country and talk there, but it’s not very nice weather and I’m afraid I’m not quite well yet. Perhaps tomorrow,” he apologized. His speech was halting, with a Swiss-German lilt that sounded almost like a brogue.

Frisch expressed some reservations about our interview: “Stone Age, Iron Age, Interview Age—it’s so vulgar. It’s not so interesting to have these questions and answers. You must have a dialogue.” It’s a word that for Frisch signifies not just an aspect of craft but a way of life, something that has been expressed in everything he has done, from his active citizenship to his work in the theater and the novels he has created. It was expressed in our interview, as well as our conversations over the next three days—of which this text represents only a small fraction.

 

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to begin with some questions about your most recent book, Bluebeard. When did you first get the idea for this project? 

MAX FRISCH

It began when I first came back from the United States and dropped in on a trial of a friend of mine. The trial had just begun the day before, and it was a case of murder, a very strange case. Without any particular intention, I got there and became extremely interested not only in the case—which is different from the Bluebeard story—but in the language of the court. The fascination for me was in the ritualization of the word. In the court it’s always the same sentence, the truth and nothing but the truth. I ask you this and that. This standardization of the language has the elements of music or architecture. The same questions come again and again, in different situations. I was actually fascinated more by the language than by the story.

INTERVIEWER

Bluebeard gives the impression of having been written quickly and easily. Was it?

FRISCH

Oh, no. In fact, it was twice the length it is now. I had the opportunity to make a so-called realistic, old-style novel to get a complete picture of the characters, their different standards, milieus, and so on. It would have included many more witnesses and interrogations so that we learn how they, the witnesses, live, what they think, their prejudices and their mental diseases. But I was unable to sustain the tension I needed. Melville could do it in Moby-Dick, but I couldn’t. 

INTERVIEWER

Dialogue seems important to you.

 

FRISCH

When I started to write in college, I wrote plays, not narrative. I was afraid of narrative. My first interest was the theater, not literature. It has to do with what I tried to say before, this fascination with the court language, which is all dialogue. As soon as I start to tell a story or describe a landscape, I can’t keep to this ritual language.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your heroes after I’m Not Stiller are technocrats, or men who are not self-reflective, who give a very flat testimony of their lives.

FRISCH

Yes, that’s especially the case with Homo Faber. That was the point, that a man is giving an interpretation that is flat, flatter than life is. Walter denies he has experiences because he’s very helpless in expressing his emotions. So he describes himself as flatly as possible. He has the arrogance to say nothing. He realizes too late that he was engaged emotionally in many, many things. I think Stiller is much more telling about his feelings.

INTERVIEWER

In Bluebeard, too, Herr Schaad says, “What helps is billiards.” He never says, “I’m suffering.”

FRISCH

That’s perfectly true. Actually, it has to do with my own personality, probably. I have very strong feelings but I don’t like to describe them. There are other ways to show them—body language, or silence—that can be very strong. And maybe, too, one has a distrust of words; one fears that they won’t be interpreted correctly. It’s very difficult to describe a feeling and not to lie a little bit, to put it on a higher level or to blind yourself. So I don’t trust myself to describe my feelings, but I like to show them by a piece of art. And as a reader I’m the same, I don’t like it if the author tells me what I have to feel. He has to urge the reader to get a feeling of shame or of hope. So there’s a lot of feeling, there’s a lot of emotion, but . . . not expressed in words. 

INTERVIEWER

In that sense your writing hasn’t been given over to the prevalent mode of confessional writing, the writing of what one might call “psychoanalytic culture.”

FRISCH

Yes, I hate that in literature. I have a good friend who is excellent at that, but I always feel as if I’m sitting in a therapy session with him. 

INTERVIEWER

When did you first decide to create the flat, cold, “affectless” hero we have been discussing?

FRISCH

Hard to know. I think I made it not all at once, but slowly; gradually it felt more and more comfortable. Just now I think—I don’t know if it’s right or wrong—that if you describe emotions, or the hero describes his emotions, as in the work of Dostoyevsky, for instance, or Melville, or other great writers, the danger that you will fall into the conventional is very great. It was Goethe who told us how we feel if we are in love with a girl—there are forms for that. But suppose you try to establish a situation, a movement, to show gestures and faces, and not talk about it. This is closer to film than old literature was. We have learned a lot from movies about what can be expressed without words. I would be proud or happy if a reader could feel the essential situation of, say, the man in Man in the Holocene, to feel how it is to be wet in your pants, how it’s getting colder, the feeling of growing tired, of melancholy or despair. That you get without using all those words. That you feel sensually and see with your eyes. I want to give that, or I try, anyway.

INTERVIEWER

By creating these flat characters you’re also giving them the freedom to express themselves metaphorically, through objects. “What helps is billiards,” to come back to that phrase.

FRISCH

That’s right. If Herr Schaad would write a letter to a friend, “Now I am free, I can do what I want and I’m perfectly depressed, I’m desperate, and I’m poor,” I’d say, “Well, come on over, have a drink.” But if all he says is “the only thing that helps is billiards”—that’s desperation. If a friend phoned me and said something like that I’d say, “I have to go, I have to have a look at him.” 

INTERVIEWER

Why do some of your characters, as different from one another as they are, possess your own traits? They all seem to smoke pipes or their first girlfriends are Jewish.

FRISCH

It’s a kind of laziness. Some friends warned me. Uwe Johnson said, “Max, is it really necessary for this guy to smoke a pipe?” We both smoked a pipe at the time. And I didn’t even realize it. It’s just laziness. And I forget. I forget that I’ve written it so many times. It’s a little mistake, but I feel it is a mistake. All the boyfriends have the same car, a Jaguar. And if I see it later I’m not pleased with it. I’m angry about always taking things that are next to me [taps pipe], instead of getting up and taking something from the kitchen.

INTERVIEWER

As a writer, what does it mean to have an experience, to want to write about that experience? 

FRISCH

I think that one has experiences without having the means to verbalize them, and this is my situation. Speaking frankly, I don’t want to write about experiences I’ve had that I’ve already written about. I could write them better, but that’s not so interesting. I’m experiencing something now and I don’t know what it is. And that makes me silent. And easily bored by everything else. But what is this experience? What is it? And if you asked me I’d say, “Well, I don’t know.” It’s not nothing, it’s not emptiness, and the hope is that sometimes this finds expression. 

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to demystify your writing process, if that’s at all possible. Can you tell me in concrete terms how you go from a sketch to a book? 

FRISCH

In Triptych, for example, I know that I didn’t have an idea. I didn’t think about Hades or anything like that, but about a theatrical situation: in a rocking chair, a youngish woman—she has a bodily presence, with a voice, an erotic, magic presence. And she speaks as a dead person, that’s all we see for the moment. This contradiction was the start for Triptych. The entire play is built around this. In general, I see a scene or a situation that inspires me to write, but I don’t know if it’s in the middle of the whole thing, or if it’s the beginning. You grope your way. I don’t want to have a plan. If I do, I’m certain not to write from genuine experience. Take, for instance, the incest in Homo Faber. Only after I wrote the book did I understand where the thought had come from. And if I had known where this thought had come from, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the courage to touch the whole thing. But the story in itself, the story worked. And before you have a chance to get frightened, it’s already written.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a kind of control that is not within your conscious grasp? 

FRISCH

Yes, I have this control that tells me when to cut something, improve it, or give it up, often without knowing why. But just how much of this capacity you have is important in determining, I think, whether you’re a writer or not. If you criticize what you’re doing too early you’ll never write the first line. Then, if you don’t have this capacity at all, that’s also a danger. Before I published Man in the Holocene, it was not a bad book, but I had an uncomfortable feeling about it. That’s criticism. Then after I wrote a second draft I had the feeling, “Now it works, now it’s okay.” And afterwards, again this shock that it didn’t work. If I hadn’t had that feeling it would have been published and I would never have reached the point I could reach. You’re awfully dependent on that critical sense. When I was young, around thirty, it took me much more time to get the feeling of a scene, to know whether it worked or not, and to be able to give up on it if it didn’t. I would work for half a year sometimes on something that didn’t work—I couldn’t give up.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose when you’re young you’re not sure that if you cut those flowers others are going to grow in their place. 

FRISCH

Yes, that’s right. Later you say, “I’m not sure, but I have a right to hope.”

INTERVIEWER

What would your advice be to a beginning writer?

FRISCH

For someone who is serious and who already has a sense of his or her own talent, I would say to continue without involving too many people who think in commercial terms. When I was younger I felt it was dangerous to talk about my work with others. In the beginning, I didn’t inform anybody at all, not my wife, not friends, not my publisher. I remember my publisher asked me when I came back from the United States, “Are you working?” “I’m working, I’m working. Wildly,” I told him. He didn’t ask what it was and I didn’t tell him whether it was a play or a novel. Then one day I arrived in Frankfurt and said, “Here it is.” “What is it?” “It’s a novel.” That was Stiller. I would also say to measure yourself by very high standards. The greatest help is to have a friend who can criticize you from high standards. I had that with Peter Suhrkamp. He had courage and another marvelous quality, which is that his judgment didn’t change according to whether something was a success or failure. In some cases he would say, “Well, well, that’s great. It got marvelous reviews, and now you think, Max, that it is a good book? I don’t think so.” He was a great man, but not an easy man. In general I’ve had more help from writers than from critics. A writer is not less critical, but he knows about empty paper. A writer like Friedrich Dürrenmatt knows, for example, “Oh, you have great possibilities here.” A critic doesn’t see the chance you have in a project. If Shakespeare had talked about the project of Hamlet with a critic, he would have been told, “Look, man, you’d better write a novel. That’s a man who can’t act. You want to do theater with that? The hero is not special; his only special quality is that he hesitates, that he can’t act and so finally he gets killed. That’s not good for theater!” 

INTERVIEWER

What did you find most valuable about working in the theater—and do you still value it? 

FRISCH

You mean what’s important for me? As a young man I was fascinated by the theater and not by the drama. That means the body on stage, the voice, et cetera. In the last play I wrote—that was Triptych—I didn’t want to give a plot or action, but rather bodies in situations on the stage. What you have in the living theater, for example. So I am still attracted by the theater, by the magic presence of the body and the voice, and the contradiction that develops between the image given by the word and the visual image—that’s still interesting. The drama, no. The problem with theater today—this is not my personal problem but a general one—is that we are no longer in a time or social situation where power can be shown. Now things are much more anonymous and collective. It would be wrong, for example, to show fascism only by Hitler on the stage. It doesn’t fit. If the play is only about human relationships, then yes, you can do it. But if it has political implications—I tried to do it with the parable in the way Georg Büchner, who was my master, did. I used the parable in Andorra and The Firebugs. With the parable you think—you hope—you can get a complicated reality. Nowadays I doubt that too, because the parable always has the tendency to prove something, to teach something, and I found out that I don’t have to teach. I just want to show the thing—and so I have stopped using parables. 

INTERVIEWER

Andorra and The Firebugs are both meant to be lessons, aren’t they?

FRISCH

Yes, the first one tried to show how a prejudice is born. I wanted to show how it becomes a common disease in Andre’s community—a projection of behavior they themselves have, and which they hate. It’s how to get rid of self-hatred. Andorra is a model, and it gets read in German, French, and English schools. It’s something they can learn—but it’s not theater, though it has elements of theater. Well, if it’s important I’m proud that I did it, but it’s not theater. 

INTERVIEWER

You did a short sketch of The Firebugs in the 1940s, didn’t you?

FRISCH

Yes, actually, many of the later books have their first sketches in that diary. That was at a time when I was an architect. I had time, but not a lot of time. I had a morning or a Sunday or so, but I couldn’t start a whole novel. But I had ideas so I made sketches. I didn’t know at all that I would come back to this material.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your books involve events that are fantastic or difficult to believe. Do you feel it necessary for a reader to believe that events you describe could actually have taken place?

FRISCH

In the early days I thought it was a condition sine qua non that you had to believe, otherwise it’s a bad book. Then I think it changed. Actually, with Gantenbein I took the position that everything was offered as a hypothesis, and that it was not important for you to believe it. It’s playing with possibilities. I don’t believe that one’s biography can only have been this way—your life could have been quite different. Literature should show possibilities and avoid the idea that what happened had to happen. I don’t believe this aphorism. 

INTERVIEWER

If you’re going to allow the reader his own disbelief, do you also have to change the form of the work? That is, can you have unbelievable things happening within a classic form?

FRISCH

I don’t think one has to change the form. One has to—as I tried to do with Gantenbein—show the different possibilities.

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes it takes another person to tell you what has happened to you. 

FRISCH

Yes, and I’m still blind. I don’t know what it’s about and they tell me, and I’m happy that I don’t know. Because if you know what you’re writing about, the danger is very great that it will fall into clichés, or into Freudianism, or other things. But if you don’t know, in a way you’re blind, groping your way; then when you look back you see you have made your road. 

INTERVIEWER

The opening sentence of Man in the Holocene reads, “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain . . . Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.” One accepts it upon first reading. Then suddenly, it strikes one, “What is this man thinking of?” It’s a remarkable image, a weird image. How did you come upon it? 

FRISCH

I think you’re right; reading it for the first time it’s a little unusual, a little crazy. A person with strange problems, obviously; we feel he’s doing nonsense, he’s bored, and we understand he has to wait because of the rain. Later when you know him it acquires a different meaning even if one doesn’t go back to read the book again, but simply remembers the sentence. A pagoda is a full, complete picture of the world. That’s what he tries to have because he’s afraid that the world will get lost. And what he’s doing with this crispbread, of course, is just the opposite. So it’s a dream that the world should be perfect, that we should be able to view it as a whole in its perfect, clear beauty. I started only the last version of the book with that sentence. Before then I had it later on, on the second page. It was important to have it for the beginning; otherwise you get the description of the painful weather, so what? Only this pagoda sentence brings it immediately onto another level. There must be something else. That’s, of course, what you call craft, isn’t it?

INTERVIEWER

Nearly all of your characters think of or attempt suicide—why is this?

FRISCH

First I have to check and see if what you’re saying is true . . . Stiller, no.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, do you remember, two years before the narrative starts.

FRISCH

The angel, yes. Homo Faber, no. Gantenbein, I don’t know. But it’s true. Bluebeard, yes, of course. Man in the Holocene, it was a kind of suicide, a liberating suicide, not an act of desperation, or despair. Obviously it has to do with the author himself, that I was thinking about it, though I never tried it. I have it also in the first Sketchbook, that’s right, in a more comic sense—that group of old people who form a society for voluntary death. But for them, suicide comes from a fear of losing—again the word comes up—identity, of losing their personality. To be just a body, half animal, no longer capable of making your own decisions. It’s also a problem with fading—fading hope, fading health, getting weaker. It alters the capacity to do something like that. Many people say, “If I knew I had cancer, I’d commit suicide,” but they don’t. Because very soon the point comes where the willpower is no longer strong enough. They lose their capacity of choice. Obviously I’m afraid of that, of losing this sovereignty.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your characters say that what they fear most is repetition. Your own work seems to mirror this fear. There’s one big novel, a variety of plays, and recently, a novella. You, too, seem not to have wanted to repeat yourself in your art. 

FRISCH

Right, right. It’s a fear; it’s difficult to keep yourself really alive, or genuine, or open for new experience. It doesn’t have to do with age. In my case I was afraid that if I worked for a long time in the same way, I’d no longer be creative, I’d be getting comfortable, mentally lazy. And I had to change; I was afraid of living without being alive. That’s a very personal fear I have. And it’s a fear I have for other people, people I love, that they might get comfortable, get so used to things that life will fade. 

INTERVIEWER

You have said that you wrote the first five pages of I’m Not Stiller here in Zurich all at once, but that six hundred pages had already been written, in New York. So that basically when you wrote those five pages the book had already been written. Is that correct?

FRISCH

That’s a bit of an anecdote. When I was in New York that year I wrote a novel. It was not a good novel; it was a very autobiographical, half-private novel. But it had a lot of material in it. Then when I got home I had the so-called Stiller idea, about a man who returns home, a person with my taste, and he doesn’t want to be at home and so on. The idea was very simple. Then I wrote that book. After the book was already in galleys I wrote the first two pages. I started with the simple sentence, “I’m not Stiller.” But the title in German is only Stiller. It was the translator who had the idea to take the first line, “I’m not Stiller,” and use it for the title in America. It’s a very funny beginning. But I thought of this line in the very last hours before the book got printed; it’s like tea—it makes eating the whole meal easier.

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to bring up the question of Stiller’s finding God. I was frankly disappointed in this because I felt that Stiller, through his suicide attempt, was changing, evolving, on his own. Why does he need this God, this angel, to sanctify his self-recognition? 

FRISCH

That’s a very good question, and a very painful question. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the whole religious element in the book is not honest, but it’s rather an influence I had at that time from reading Kierkegaard, and it was more a reading experience than a real one. I tried to live up a little bit to something—I don’t know what—so I made a grave mistake. And I couldn’t change it. The book was published and was already known. The book should have ended with the six notebooks by Stiller and not this epilogue written by the prosecutor—who is all of a sudden a writer, too. It’s silly, isn’t it? In the epilogue it gets more objective. Stiller knows that his notebooks are subjective, and then comes this Holy Ghost, the narrator. He takes the whole thing and puts it on a religious pillow. I don’t feel comfortable with that. To defend myself, I will say that that was one of the very few times when I seriously tried to find out whether I could become religious or not. I was trying it out, you know. And as my other books showed, I couldn’t retain it. I had started to read Kierkegaard because of this great feeling. I took a passage from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or to use for the epigraph for I’m Not Stiller—and if I could change the book I would remove it. But at the time I was so happy to read in a few lines what I had tried to deliver over pages and pages. I should have had a good friend who could have warned me not to follow the Stiller notebooks with that epilogue, but the book is there; I can’t change it now . . . Actually, I did get warned. 

INTERVIEWER

Who warned you?

FRISCH

Dürrenmatt. He read it; he was very excited about it, about his Frisch friend. “Now you have it and now you smash it!” It was not easy to tell me that. When it was still in manuscript, if somebody had told me, “Come, stop it, forget about it,” I wouldn’t have listened. I didn’t want to know. Later—it was some years later—I saw. There has been a lot of criticism of Stiller but this is the essential point. It’s strange that the critics—there were a lot of them, from the socialists to the Christians—never mentioned this thing. Until our meeting. Until now.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed that a central concept for you, both in this novel and elsewhere, is the idea that it is a sin to form a fixed image of a person. What Stiller does to Julika, for example.

FRISCH

I wrote that little piece first in Sketchbook—before Stiller. I said that you shouldn’t form a graven image of man. And I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a key point for my thinking and feeling. It’s found again in Andorra. An image means a prejudice. I don’t think I could as yet describe your appearance or your character, but if you came again tomorrow I would not be perfectly open; I would already have some prejudices—perhaps good ones—but I would have some. That will happen. That has to happen. It is against the tendency we have to petrify things. It’s an invitation to keep you alive, to keep you ready to rethink things and not to repeat. Of course, it’s not meant that one has to keep this openness all the time. But it’s a warning. When you meet someone for the first time, or fall in love, you say to yourself, “I’m not supposed to be able to do this, but here I am.” I could start to fly and she’d say, “That’s not at all surprising.” That’s something marvelous. That’s a real honeymoon. Later: “I know that. I know that in a difficult discussion with your father, you’re a coward. I know it, come on. I’m sick of it.” 

INTERVIEWER

So many of your heroes have bad consciences. What sins have your characters committed in order to have such bad consciences?

FRISCH

Actually, I don’t know sin. I know guilt.

INTERVIEWER

So there’s no connection between sin and guilt?

FRISCH

You know the awful thing—I know I’m not answering your question—is that we in this neo-Christian age still have some fixed ideas about believing in the whole thing, the whole Christian church. For instance, let’s take sexuality. As a very young boy I was very upset when I realized I had an erection. A sin. This goddamned erection, and so on. I didn’t know who had told me about that. I wasn’t even three years old yet and already there was this burden of judgment. Everything was so unclear, it was so disturbing. The idea that by birth you are born a sinner. Why? I didn’t ask to be born. Why do I have to be born on a blacklist? 

INTERVIEWER

But is it religious mores or something else that’s eating away at your heroes? 

FRISCH

It’s a bad conscience. I think I have it without knowing why, or what it is. Of course there is one positive thing that came out of this religious education, and that is Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. That’s brotherhood, piety, antifascism. Not “the strong is right,” but “I can kill that person but I shouldn’t.” That’s the origin of socialism. But living for an examination, just to take another examination at the end . . .

INTERVIEWER

Another Frisch questionnaire . . . 

FRISCH

So awful! It’s just an awful idea. But let’s take another approach to your question about sin. For me, I think sin would be a lack of capacity for love. If I’m not able to love anybody, not even myself, or my dog, not my mother, or you—this inability to love would be a sin. Perhaps not the word sin, but disaster. Therefore, the heaviest accusation I can imagine is the one I have in Triptych—that someone would tell you you are incapable of loving. So you’re a liar, you’re cruel, you’re possessive—these are minor details compared with that. Not being able to love, for me that means not being allowed to exist. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you identify with Switzerland in the question of sin and taking responsibility for guilt, specifically in relation to the last war? 

FRISCH

I always hate to be reduced to being only Swiss or European. But something about this is right. There’s a German expression, “the guilt of the guiltless.” Having not acted doesn’t mean being free from guilt. In Bluebeard there’s guilty thinking—or guilty feeling. Guilt starts before the act. In a society that is theocratic, highly structured by religion, I don’t think you could have this Schaad syndrome, this feeling of guilt without knowing why.

INTERVIEWER

I know you object to being called a “Swiss writer,” but do you think you would have posed the problem of guilt in the same way had you not been Swiss?

FRISCH

It probably would have been different, yes. What especially gets to me is the way the official part of this country believes in its innocence. Italy doesn’t. Italy’s beautiful, Italy’s poor, Italy’s great—but not innocent. But here we are, rich and guiltless. So you’re right that you’re stamped to a certain degree by your nationality.

INTERVIEWER

In a nuclear age such as ours, when countries have the power to kill each other several times over, is the question of guilt and responsibility a relevant one?

FRISCH

That’s a good question. Of course it’s cynical, it makes us cynical. I hate the idea that we are free from obligation, the normal, man-size obligation to try to fight something—to try to fight dullness, the public’s dullness. But I’m not a good example at the moment. My generation, with its belief in socialism, whatever that is, we are perfectly defeated. Ernest Bloch and the others, they’ve all gone, gone with the times. There’s nothing left. It’s been only ten or fifteen years since Berkeley and the free speech movement, or the demonstrations in May ’68 in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin—but it’s Roman history. “What did Cicero say?” “Oh, I don’t know, he was a great man of some sort.” Imagine if Jean-Paul Sartre came and spoke today, in front of a real audience here. 

INTERVIEWER

It would be very sad. 

FRISCH

It would be Don Quixote fighting windmills. They wouldn’t know what he was talking about. “I know I’m dead—but . . . how long has it been?” Now, as an old man, it makes me sad. 

INTERVIEWER

If there were a nuclear holocaust, who would be around to ask who was guilty, who was to blame?

FRISCH

After? Nobody. The rats. And they’ll be fine.

INTERVIEWER

You developed a friendship with Bertolt Brecht toward the end of his life. What influence did this friendship have on you and on your work? 

FRISCH

First of all, he was the first great writer I knew personally. That makes a difference. He gave me an idea of how serious art-making is, and also how great a part rationalism has in art. He was not a romantic writer. So I had a master. And then I saw truly great theater for the first time, theater that he made first here in Zurich and later in Berlin. He taught me about what we were talking about before, about narrative. That I don’t have to show the feelings of the character on stage. I understand his feelings, and I judge his feelings. This distance is what he called alienation. You don’t need to make theater or art reproduce normal life. 

INTERVIEWER

What other advice did Brecht give you? 

FRISCH

He wrote me a letter; it’s a marvelous letter. In it he wrote that I have ein Grossentod, a great thing in my hands, but that I don’t have the courage to use the great forms. The great play, the great essay. Well, then Brecht left for Berlin and I met him from time to time, but rarely, while he was in Zurich just coming from interrogations—it was the time of McCarthy. He was living here, in the country, for a year and a half, in a very cheap apartment. I took my bicycle to visit him and I had the feeling that I had been of no use to him, but then he would call and say, “Why don’t you come visit?” and he had to invite me again and again. 

INTERVIEWER

He must have liked you.

FRISCH

Yes, now I know that in a way he liked me. I was, of course, a bourgeois for him, but not hopeless, not hopeless.

INTERVIEWER

Did he criticize your politics?

FRISCH

Yes, certainly, but not with anger. I was simply not advanced enough. But I was on the right course. He wanted us to write a play together, but I got scared. I had the feeling that if I did this play I’d lose my identity. I would have learned a lot, but I would have lost myself. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you see a connection between your earlier political education with Brecht and the writer you eventually became? Your fiction does not seem particularly political.

FRISCH

I think of it in another way. I used the theater for the more political material because the theater is a public event. The so-called private material—father-daughter, father-son, man-woman relationships—that, for me, is the novel.

INTERVIEWER

I read an interview you did with Michel Contat of Le Monde in which you said that literature contradicts the discourse of the dominant class. At the end of the interview, however, you said, “The nobility of literature is simply to exist.” Which is it?

FRISCH

I think the ruling class in any system has a language. The ruling language. And this language is full of prejudices. It’s a bourgeois prejudice to say “a poor but honest man.” You could also say, “a rich but honest man.” Literature is subversive in the sense that it has another language. It’s not a counter power, but a counter position to power. To write political books that are intended to have the power of a speech on the street is a misunderstanding of the importance of art. But on the other hand, I can’t imagine a really good writer not having a political awareness. In your country I was shocked and frightened by the lack of political awareness on the part of intellectuals.

INTERVIEWER

Does the artist have to have a political conscience? Is it valid for an artist simply to create?

FRISCH

I don’t believe so. You may not know what can be done politically, but it is important that you do not accept the way it is now, nor accept the lies. At the very minimum, challenge the lie. If you write a story, or a poem, you are in a state of mind of having no good reason to hope; you’re powerless, you have lost a lot of hopes, and it is in this landscape that you write.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t there a way of getting around this hopelessness? 

FRISCH

I’m not optimistic. One doesn’t have to be a pessimist, but most of those who seem to be optimistic—they’re just dull, or they’re hypocrites. If you see somebody falling from the twentieth floor and you call out, “Be optimistic, be optimistic!”—you can do it until the second floor: “How are you, John?” “Still optimistic!” “See you later.” Bam.

Later, Frisch presented me with a monograph on himself, printed in German. He pointed to its many photographs, one by one

FRISCH

This is me as a young boy, surrounded by women, surrounded by the feminine presence. My God! I don’t even know who they all are. Mothers, aunts, all these women. And this is me next to my brother, who is eight years older, and this is my father whom I didn’t like and my mother whom I didn’t like either . . . And this is me on skis, wearing a tie. I had married a grande bourgeoise and was trying that life for a while. That’s what turned me into a Marxist [laughs]. This is me with Brecht. Here I am again with Brecht, my trousers are tied at the ankles since I came on my bicycle. I’m explaining the laws of statics to him. Afterwards he said to me, “Max, you’ve an honest profession.” Just like that, a simple statement. And here I am with Günter Grass, and here, Ernst Bloch, at ninety. And here I am with Herbert Marcuse.

INTERVIEWER

Would you like to have a perfect memory? 

FRISCH

Of course not. 

INTERVIEWER

If you could remember only one thing, what would it be?

FRISCH

A landscape or a man-woman relationship.

INTERVIEWER

If you could have written only one book, which would it have been?

FRISCH

It should have been a very excellent one, but since I didn’t succeed in that, I had to write many. Actually, my feelings about that change from time to time. I think it would not be theater but one of the narrative works. And if I’m still allowed to have a wish, I’d say none of the books but a poem. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you write poetry?

FRISCH

Yes, I do. I always try, but I never succeed. Between us, I would say my favorite book, at this time, is Man in the Holocene.

INTERVIEWER

What is your greatest regret?

FRISCH

[long pause] . . . Yes, but of course, not to be wise, not to be as wise as I pretend to be. That I’m not a little bit more serious—yes, I would say that’s it. That I’m capable of understanding the phenomena of things but always a little bit too late.

INTERVIEWER

And if you had only one wish?

FRISCH

That those liars who are lying or holding power over others die of a soft, normal, natural disease.

INTERVIEWER

What have you found most satisfying about your achievements?

FRISCH

Not only the so-called success, but that this success created a partnership, a communication with a lot of people whom I don’t know personally, people of different generations and nationalities—that’s a great satisfaction. I’m astonished about it and very grateful. 

INTERVIEWER

What have you been the least satisfied with?

FRISCH

I would say . . . you know, it changes all the time. Sometimes, for instance, what bothers me is that I never had a real overview on my abilities, my capacities. I’m always a little bit blind.

INTERVIEWER

So it is the lack of the ability to see things as they are, at the moment?

FRISCH

Yes, but I have grown used to the idea that at any moment I never know exactly where I am. It may be fortunate.

INTERVIEWER

If you could have only one photograph to pass on, with whom would you be pictured, and what would you be doing?

FRISCH

First, I know it wouldn’t be a photograph of the young man, but a photo of the old man. Smoking a pipe, or not smoking a pipe, and not in action. Not posing, if possible.

INTERVIEWER

What does capturing an image on film mean to you? It’s a device you use quite often in your work.

FRISCH

I’ll tell you that I was never correctly photographed. My wife did it, my former wife. I hated to look at photos, even good ones, even of a beloved person. It’s so bad for me, and so I didn’t collect them. And I rarely take photos of things I really love—persons and landscapes. And that’s the film—as you said—that is sometimes in my narrative work. I had a very strange early experience. A cousin of mine lost his wife. She was young, he was rather young—previously it was not as usual as it is today—and he had made a little movie during the holidays. And he wanted to show it to us. It was a month or so after the funeral. So we looked at it. Well, she was walking in a meadow, taking a few steps. That was all, that was all. It was very short. Then he wanted to see it again, and again, and of course he kept hoping the the next time there would be just a little bit of a different movement. It was exactly the same movement, and that was more dead than her body was dead. And I used that experience; it comes up again and again in Homo Faber. Most recently I used the same thing—one can get obsessed with those things—in Triptych, when the pilot who had an accident dies and finds his child over there in Hades and they’re playing ball. And then again they’re not. And it’s like a Kodachrome; they’re doing the same thing, always the same. What they did, again and again. This is the wrong kind of movement. And for me that’s more dead than a body. That’s one of those fundamental experiences and it appears again and again in my work. 

INTERVIEWER

If you could remember, could keep forever, just one story, what would it be? 

FRISCH

Which one? It would not be the story of my life, or a story I have heard, but a myth. I think it would be the myth of Icarus.

A few months after our interview, I called Mr. Frisch to see if he had any final corrections or comments to add. “Yes,” he said. “Tell them that for just a brief moment I flew. Only for a moment—to the kitchen and back—but that you saw me fly.”

 


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.