Some comments about “Homo Faber” by Max Frisch
A great novel, a good surprise. At the beginning of the reading I was sceptical because the parallel between Camus and Frisch (maybe read in the preface, yes) seemed to me just a little strong. Camus, you know, is one of my favourite writers. I love Camus. “Lo straniero” and “La peste” were/are two milestones in my education. I read Camus in French and in Italian and the character – and the story – of Meursault is for me one of the pillars of the modern literature. So, approaching Frisch I had some reservations, I confess.
Later, just after three pages, not more, this writer charmed me and I didn’t stop until the end. Frisch is a great writer and the novel is a masterpiece, I think. There is a philosophy in the book, a good and interesting plot, not easy indeed, good characters, dialogues, and strange descriptions. The craft of writing and the dialogues are for me the most interesting elements.
However, going back to the philosophy, I don’t think that the key is existentialism and ‘alienation’ as in Camus, but I found that there is a sort of ‘inadequacy’ that Frisch wants to analyse, the modern man’s inadequacy, facing the complexity of nowadays life. The ‘engineer’ Faber is a man who finds his safety, his identity in mechanics, in engines and turbines, just because he has no other intellectual (or spiritual, or religious) tools to face life. It is a problem of ‘distance’, of gap more than alienation. That is the point that permeates the entire novel.
The result is however fantastic: the ‘engineer’ is so clear, so polished and coherent that the book took off with the same strength of its Super Constellations planes, no doubt about that. And also the matter of the incest (that in other circumstances would have killed any other author or book) is not the centre of the plot, is not the pivot, but part of a bigger drawing of existential inadequacy. The concept of responsibility in fact is not a nineteenth-century concept, but is related to the concept of individuality, or rather to the quite impossible search for individuality – something that in 1957 makes Frish a forerunner.
The concept of responsibility I’m talking about is well expressed by the story with the wife of a Faber’s teacher (“…I forced myself to visit her grave; I took a few flowers out of my briefcase, when no one was looking, and quickly placed them on the grave, which had no tombstone yet, only a number; at the same time I felt ashamed because I was always glad when it was over.”) and especially by the long relationship with Ivy (“I believe Ivy wanted me to hate myself and seduced me merely to make me hate myself, and that was her joy, to humiliate me, the only joy I could give her.”). In a nineteenth-century book the protagonist would have married Ivy (responsibility), and would have spent the rest of his life dreaming Hanna’s love.
So the account is thin, the paint has always the same tone, without tears. The decisions taken by Faber are coherent too, also if they are – consciously – not coherent with the previous path of the protagonist. About the title I have only to express my envy: it is strong and deep, related to the difference between the ‘homo faber’ and the ‘cursum honoris’ that marked two behaviours, two careers and two main philosophies of the Romans.
In the ancient Rome in fact there were two main choices for a noble man (the people, populus, didn’t have any room of dignity, at those times, even thought there were the ‘tribunes of the people’ and the emblem was SPQR, “Senatus Populusque Romanus”, the Senate and People of Rome). The first choice (first in terms of importance, of public dignity) was that so called ‘cursum honoris’, a political career that comprised military as well as territorial responsibilities – dux, governor, etc. The Roman culture was based essentially on that vision: the supremacy of intelligence, of speculation. Manual skills, manual abilities were a secondary, low level attribute. So a noble man who would chose the second path and would live as “homo faber” (generally taking care of big farms, breeding, etc) was considered a Cincinnato (in other terms, a Celestino V), a man who refused responsibilities to look for spiritual, personal goals. Not a bad concept in itself, but of secondary level. Only during the modern era (I would say in eighteen century) the concept of “homo faber” acquired an equal importance, also because “homo faber” deals with intelligence too.
Now, generally that kind of awareness and culture belongs to German people and not to Swiss people, especially from the area of Zurich that is very impermeable, but maybe Frish’s studies in German literature allowed him to close those aspects.
The area of Zurich is well known (at least in Italy) as a good place where to die (see James Joyce), but not where to create or to raise artists, maybe for their closed dialect, maybe for their prevailing passion for banks and money. The common thought is that in 500 years they were able only to create the cuckoo clock (relata refero, I tell as I was told, Herodotus). Herman Hesse was German. Carl Spitterel was born in Basel. Friedrich Durrenmatt in Bern. Jeremias Gotthelf (“The Black Spider”) was born in Bern. Robert Walser in Biel. Peter Bichsel (I love his ‘And really Frau Blum would very much like to meet the milkman’, 1967) was born in Lucerne. They are generally known as ‘Zurich writers’.
By the way, the Toblerone chocolate was created in Bern too.
Gottfried Keller (1819) and Johanna Spyri (1827), author of Heidi, icon of Swiss literature, are the only ‘Zurich writers’ with Max Frisch, in 200 years.
Discussing his craft of writing, the first element you can notice is a form of “distacco”, in Italian. I can translate it in “detachment” – however I’m not sure. Maybe for this detachment they found a parallel between Camus and Frisch. It is a strong point, I understand.
Let’s see how Max Frisch implements this detachment.
“He knew Ivan! He repeated this several times. You could only teach him with weapons, he said. Nothing else made any impression on Ivan…
I peeled my apple.
To distinguish between the master races and inferior races, as Hitler did, was nonsense of course; but Asiatics were always Asiatics…
I ate my apple.”
So there are two levels here. The level of the Düsseldorfer’s speech, and the level of Faber’s attention, of Faber’s involvement – or rather, of Faber’s lack of involvement, marked by the low profile, minute action he is doing. Again:
“The captain had obviously decided to make a forced landing, for fear the remaining engines might cut out. At all events we were loosing height; the loudspeaker crackled and spluttered, so that we could scarcely understand a word of the instructions we were being given.
My first worry: what to do with the lunch.”
So Fisch is putting in writing the same trick you can use to find safety in some topic moments: forget the scenery, pay attention to the little and repetitive things, concentrate on it. This sort of counter-attraction is usual in Frish’s pages.
“I noticed that we were not flying parallel with the coast, but had turned inland. So we weren’t making for Tampico. I was amazed, and wanted to ask the air hostess what was going on.
Permission to smoke again.”
Again: “From the corridor in front the captain announced:
THERE IS NO DANGER WHATEVER.
The life-jackets were just a precaution, our plane could have gone on flying even with two engines, we were eight and half miles from the Mexican coast, heading for Tampico, all passengers were kindly requested to keep calm and for the moment not to smoke.
Another mean to deploy that detachment is to taking refuge in the engineering discipline. This element is obviously present along the whole novel, since Faber is an engineer and the title is “Homo Faber”.
“I don’t deny that it was more than a coincidence which made things turn out as they did, it was a whole train of coincidences. But what has providence to do with it? I don’t need any mystical explanation for the occurrence of the improbable; mathematics explain it adequately, as far as I’m concerned…”
“But the occasional occurrence of the improbable does not imply the intervention of a higher power, something in the nature of a miracle, as the layman is so ready to assume. The term probability includes improbability at the extreme limits of probability, and when the improbable does occur this is no cause for surprise, bewilderment or mystification…”
One of the best pages for me in term of detachment is that one of the description of the night in the desert: yes, this was really like Max Firsch!
“I’ve often wondered what people mean when they talk about an experience. I’m a technologist and accustomed to seeing things as they are. I see everything they are talking about very clearly: after all, I’m not blind. I see the moon over the Tamaulipas desert – it is more distinct that at other times, perhaps, but still a calculable mass circling round our planet, an example of gravitation, interesting, but in what way an experience? I see the jagged rocks, standing out black against the moonlight; perhaps they do like the jagged backs of prehistoric monsters, but I know they are rocks, stone, probably volcanic, one would have to examine them to be sure of this. Why should I feel afraid? There aren’t any prehistoric monsters any more. Why should I imagine them? I’m sorry, but I don’t see any stone angels either; nor demons; I see what I see – the usual shapes due to erosion and also my long shadow on the sand, but no ghosts…”
Firsch describes using negation – and that underlines the detachment. But the description is vividly perfect. You see the Tamaulipas desert, the people abandoned there; you imagine the feelings, the experience.
Another “trick” or “tip” is to use two different paces, two different levels in the description, alternating them according to the goal. It is usual also in other authors, but here it is an important element of the detachment itself:
“… The distance from Palenque to the plantation was barely seventy miles as the crow flies, which meant about a hundred miles by car – a negligible journey if there had been anything approaching a road, which of course there wasn’t; the only road going in that direction stopped at the ruins, simply disappearing into moss and ferns.
Nevertheless, we made progress.
Thirty-seven miles the first day.
We took turns driving.
Nineteen miles the second day.
Flashes of lighting.
Rain never fell…”
Again: “My stay in Venezuela (two months ago today) lasted only two days, for the turbines were still at the doks, all packed up in crates, and there could be no question of assembly.
April 20th – Flew from Caracas.
April 21th – Landed at Idlewild, New York.
Ivy hooked me the moment I stepped off the plane, she had found out when I was arriving and there was no escaping her. Hadn’t she received my letter? She kissed me without replying and already knew that I had to fly to Paris in a week on official business; she smelled of whisky.
I didn’t utter a word.”
Another thing I appreciated so much are the dialogues, the development of the story using the dialogues in a superb manner. One of the topic points of the novel is for example the discovery that Faber loves his ex girl friend’s daughter.
“At one point I asked:
‘What is your Mamma’s first name?’
She didn’t allow herself to be interrupted.
‘A few minutes further on stands the tombs of Caecilia Metella, the most famous ruin of the Campagna, a circular structure sixty-six feet in diameter, resting on a square base and clad with travertine. The inscription on a marble tablet runs: Caecilia Q. Cretici filiae Metellae Crassi, of the daughter of Metellus Cretius, step-daughter of the triumvir Crassus. The interior contained the burial chamber.’
She stopped and thought.
‘I asked a question.’ I said.
‘I beg your pardon.’
She shut her Baedeker with a bang.
‘What did you ask me?’
I took hold of her Baedeker and opened it.
‘Is that Tivoli over there?’
There must be an airfield on the Tivoli plain, even if it wasn’t on the maps in this Baedeker; the whole time we heard engines, just the same vibrant hum as I used to hear above my roof garden on Central Park West, every now and then a DC7 or a Super-Constellation flew over our pine tree, its undercarriage out ready to land, and disappear somewhere in the Campagna.
‘The airfield must be over there,’ I said.
I really wanted to know.
‘What did you ask?’
‘What your Mamma’s name is.’
‘Piper,’ she said. ‘What else should it be?’
Of course I meant her first name.
Great, superb. So, using other dialogues in the same way there is the discovery that the girl is his own daughter and so on: fantastic indeed.
The only critique I could make – but it is just a little specious – is about the end of the novel. There wasn’t any need to make Faber die (it could look like a Greek tragedy: after the incest, the death of both the sinners – and so dated), and maybe that choice is the only thing in the book that is not coherent with the entire philosophy, since the concept of responsibility is not a nineteenth-century concept, as I said at the beginning of the essay, but a more modern one. However we have to consider that the sensitivity in 1957 was very different from nowadays perspectives and sensitivities: this matter could be a good debating point.