Wednesday, March 9, 2016

the author's sense of doubt: a report on Max Frisch

A few evenings ago I finished reading Max Frisch's 1957 novel Homo faber; ein Bericht. The novel is the tale of Walter Faber, an engineer employed by UNESCO to build hydroelectric dams and other things in third-world countries, who discovers that the world is not a rational and carefully-built machine, and neither is his own life. Yes, that's a good way of putting it, I think. The irony is that Faber himself has never been rational; he's been blindly selfish, objectifying everyone around him; he is given to outbursts of irrationality (on a flight from New York to Mexico City, Faber's plane suffers engine trouble; he lectures his fellow passengers on the safety of airplanes--and as an engineer he knows something about this--but he himself suffers a panic attack; in fact, during an earlier short layover in Texas, Faber collapsed in the men's room and then hid in a broom closet to avoid getting back on the plane) and continually misunderstands the simplest emotions of those around him.

This is by now fairly familiar comic territory, the aging man who has no understanding of real life, whose blindness about himself leads him to carry on with much younger women (he ages, of course, but his romantic targets are always young women and, to Faber, signs of aging are signs of ugliness). Faber makes declarations about the women ("she knows of course that I won't ever marry, and she accepts that") that are usually inaccurate and he disingenuously declares that he "has no idea what she meant--sometimes she talks as if she is crazy" when a woman accuses him of selfishness. We all, I think, know this character, and Frisch's protagonist is well drawn and entertaining, even if painfully so.

The plot of Homo faber is a network of coincidence, an almost Kafkaesque carnival of absurdity where Faber keeps running into people from his past, and through his blundering he wreaks havoc in their lives. The comic novel is generally tragic, you know, the failure of the clown to find happiness in a world whose rules he cannot understand. Walter Faber is a traditional clown character in this respect. Home faber is a traditional comedy in this respect, a fine book full of irony and pathos, until about 3/4 of the way through when Max Frisch, our intrepid author, unfortunately loses his way.

This is the point in the book where the story really ends, where the timelines all collapse, where Frisch has reached the end of his comic sympathy for the engineer-clown Walter Faber. The tragedies are deadly and perverse, and even Faber is emotionally affected, shaken to a core he didn't know he had. This is also fairly familiar territory in a novel, a common spot in which an author will find himself 75% of the way through a story. In the fiction business we call this the end of the second act, the hero's lowest point, the point-of-no-return, etc. This is also the point in Homo faber where the narrative transforms and Faber's dry delivery of the "facts" dissolves into figurative language, sometimes overwhelmed by passages of powerful beauty where author Max Frisch has pushed fictional Walter Faber to the side and picked up the pen himself:
I will never forget how she sat on this rock, her eyes closed, how she stayed silent, letting the sun shine on her. She was happy, she said, and I'll never forget: the sea that became visibly darker, blue, purple, the sea of Corinth and the other, the Attic sea, the red color of the fields, the olives, verdigris, their long morning shadows on the red earth, the first heat and Sabeth, her arms around me, as if I have given her everything, the sea and the sun and everything, and I'll never forget how Sabeth sang!
There is a later passage, describing a summer thunderstorm in Havana, that is equally rich and beautiful, equally not in the voice of our man Faber. Another passage later where Faber rides a passenger plane over the Alps and describes the mountains, the glaciers and the valleys and the clouds, the black shadow of the plane rippling across the ice and snow ("like a bat!"). Reviewers of the novel when it first came out pointed to these passages as a triumph of prose writing but a failure of the novelist's art, a cheating escape from the prison of the first-person narrator. I think those reviewers were correct about that. I think that Frisch got to this point in the narrative and had no idea where to go next, and you feel the author's sense of doubt on every page as he stumbles forward, throwing pages from Faber's diary at us alongside Faber's retelling of his physical/emotional/vocational collapse alongside the updates on his health (stomach cancer). It is a mess.

Perhaps Frisch knew exactly what he was doing. I would like to think he did, and that my desire for Homo faber to be a more unified--or at least less uneven--work is my own shortcoming as a lazy reader. I tend to believe that a sudden shift in style/approach at the end of a novel is a sure sign that the author had no idea what to do with his material in order to bring things to a close, and has panicked.

There is a lot to admire in Homo faber despite the awry ending pages. The passages where Frisch lets go of Faber's limitations and lets himself write beautifully are very fine, well worth reading. The bulk of the book, the tragedy of the clown, is very good indeed. I feel like I'm giving a report but I don't mean to be. I really wanted to talk about the fracturing of the narrative caused by the author's mistrust of his own creation, which in itself was worth seeing, was instructive.

11 comments:

  1. Faber means maker, same as Smith, so Homo faber would be maker-man, yes?

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    1. Yes, that's right! Walter Faber narrows life down to single characteristics, for example claiming that men are essentially their jobs and nothing more, that a civilization is its technology, etc. He denies most of life, denies the value of experiences. Facts and machines, that's what he wants to know. Meanwhile, he's having a psychic breakdown.

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  2. it sounds like faber wanted to write a book of contrasts, describing selfishness and relating that to a wider, more universal truth of some sort; but he maybe just got disoriented about the transition...

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    1. Certainly you can mix comedy and tragedy, certainly you can contrast ideas, but the change in the narrative is quite abrupt, as if Frisch forgot what book he was writing. The last fifty pages aren't the most important thing about the book, though. I seem to be making too much of it in this post, and other readers will read it differently than I did. Still, I have my suspicions about what was going on in the fashioning of the novel.

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  3. Frisch, not faber; darn. i got disoriented...

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    1. The names of people you don't know can often look identical.

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  4. Reminds me of the arguments about Huckleberry Finn...

    I do like to assume that authors know what they are doing, and that a book has an integrity, if only I can find it. Of course, writers hope for the same kindness in regards to their own paper children.

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    1. This was one of those posts where I put together a long argument and then discovered that I think my argument is wrong. Which is useful, at least.

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    2. Unusual for a person to admit such a thing... no doubt good for you!

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    3. The older I get, the more often I find myself starting to make pronouncements and then realizing that no, I don't believe what I'm saying at all. Hopefully that means I'm questioning my unexamined opinions more often.

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  5. i don't think there's any "wrong", just interestingly different wasys of looking at it. the world would be pretty boring if everybody thought just like me...

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