Max Frisch is a figure so seminal that he’s ironically also easy to miss: Frisch’s Homo Faber is the first full novel I ever read in German (in a 200-level undergraduate class) and, as unfortunately so often happens with masterpieces subjected to the classroom treatment, I never thought much more about it, despite the author’s frequent passing mention in other contexts. It was therefore particularly inspiring to encounter (or re-encounter) the constellation of people, works, and ideas that surrounds Max Frisch in the fascinating conversations that comprised the panel “Max Frisch: The Writer’s Moral and Political Responsibility,” part of Zürich Meets New York: A Festival of Swiss Ingenuity, which was co-presented by the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York, the City of Zürich, ETH Zürich, and the University of Zürich. Inarguably, the history of twentieth-century letters is unthinkable without Max Frisch, but more striking still is how broad and deep his tentacles reach: how much, indeed, I have already “read” Max Frisch in his friends and descendants, and how much his style and ideas have underwritten the most relevant and recurring conversations in literature and culture today.
The constellation extends in multiple directions and on multiple planes: backwards to Berthold Brecht and Robert Walser, sideways to Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Peter Suhrkamp, Siegfried Unseld, Christa Wolf, and countless other luminaries of German literature, across the ocean to American friends like Renata Adler (whose humor and insight added much to the panel and whose Speedboat and Pitch Dark Frisch’s wife Marianne translated into German for Unseld at the press founded by Suhrkamp—still with me?) and Donald Barthelme (with whom Marianne had an affair). And then forward, of course, to authors and in ways that are too varied to begin naming.
Just as a constellation is something expansive, a web that extends outward, the idea of breadth seems to me an important factor in this conversation. The evening had noticeable and refreshing cross-disciplinary threads. Both the panelists and the subject are anything but traditional literary or academic figures: Frisch himself was trained as an architect; Adler, best known as a novelist and film critic, graduated from Yale Law; and Thomas Strässle, President of the Max Frisch Foundation, also heads the trans-disciplinary Y Institute at Bern University and holds a concert diploma in flute performance. Susan Bernofsky, the moderator, is an eminent translator from the German—by definition a career that seeks to bridge distances literal and metaphorical. Even Robert Cohen, the final panelist, who would seem the most traditionally academic, displays in his bio wide-ranging interests. Nor should it be forgotten that the panel itself was part not of a literary festival, but a cross-disciplinary celebration of ingenuity, a word that connotes expansiveness of intellect and willingness to break with traditions and boundaries.
Moral. Political. “Are they related?” Cohen asked at one point, in reference to the panel’s ostensible theme. That the very premise of the panel should be brought under scrutiny is very much in keeping with another crucial theme in the Frisch-constellation: that of ambiguity and the attendant understanding of questions as ends rather than means. The panelists were ambivalent about understanding Frisch as political figure. According to Strässle, Frisch’s literary (what in German would be referred to as Belletristik) works cannot be seen as littérature engagée in the traditional sense. Instead of writing from a particular political stance or agenda, Frisch saw literature as a counterpart or counterpoint to power. For him the job of a writer was to raise questions, not to give answers. “Ich frage,” (“I ask”) was, as Cohen pointed out, an important formula for him, and among the most important continuations of that sentence would certainly be the fundamental yet indirectly expressed one: “How much power do writers have?”
But Frisch’s questions were directed not only outward, but also inward. The panelists were united in seeing him as a relentlessly honest man and writer, who scrutinized and interrogated his own character, which was sometimes not pretty, particularly as far as women were concerned. It is precisely because of this struggle for honesty, and because of some personal moral ambiguities, that Frisch was a great moral force. In autobiographical novels like Montauk, he plays with the audience: Just who is the “I” character who shares the author’s name and history? The answer here is also ambiguous. Like Christa Wolf, the panelists suggested, Frisch turns himself into a literary character—thereby building a complex relationship with so-called “truth.”
And here at last we come to another of Frisch’s most well-known qualities, and one that is inextricable from his questioning, his morality, and his ambiguity: his humor. Adler referred to a line where Frisch says that if one does not take a complete political position, one supports the regime. “But was he joking?” she then asked. “He knew that wasn’t true.” She followed this with an anecdote from one of Frisch’s novels where a character, returning home from years of war to a disappointing welcome, becomes so angry that he shoots . . . a buttercream cake. It is in moments like these, it seems to me, that Frisch’s essential value and influence makes itself known. With Frisch, and fittingly also in this discussion of him, nothing cannot be laughed at, nothing wraps up neatly, the forces of banality override totalizing impulses, and questions go without answers. In this spirit, I offer in conclusion, the beginning of Frisch’s own Fragebogen (“Questionnaire,” 1966), in Susan Bernofsky’s updated translation (further discussion and links to a full version can also be found here):
1. Are you sure that you are genuinely interested in whether or not the human race will go on existing after you and all the people of your acquaintance are gone?
2. Say why. A hashtag or two will suffice.