January 31, 2007
Max Frisch: Homo Faber
It’s hard not to be intimidated by a book where none of the words in the title or author’s name seem to make sense. And so although I bought Homo Faber last year in the middle of a flurry of Penguin Modern Classicquisition, I’d put off reading it until now, and it was with more a “to get it over with” intention than anything more honourable. Certainly the cover, showing a still from the 1991 movie starring Sam Shepard and Julie Delpy (also referred to as Voyager or The Voyager), sets a new aesthetic low for these normally handsome paperbacks.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find the book rather enjoyable for the first 40 or 50 pages. Subtitled “A Report by Max Frisch” (pretension alert?), Homo Faber, first published in 1957, is narrated by Walter Faber, an engineer who deals only in the hard and real, and eschews emotion and feeling. “I can only report what I know.” So we get long paragraphs of animated description, broken by single lines of stark statements set alone, which could be immensely irritating but doesn’t affect the flow significantly. We also get some amusing (or not so amusing) examples of his autistic hyper-maleness:
Her supposition that I was melancholy because I was alone put me out of humour. I’m used to travelling alone. I live, like every real man, in my work. On the contrary, that’s the way I like it and I think myself lucky to live alone, in my view this is the only possible condition for men, I enjoy waking up and not having to say a word. Where is the woman who can understand that?
The book opens with Faber in an aeroplane which carries out an emergency landing in the Mexican desert. After that everything becomes somewhat nebulous, and I was never really clear from that point on how much of the narrative was happening thereafter, how much was memory, and how much was hallucination. Certainly there are few markings (and no chapter breaks) to distinguish time and place, and increasingly as the novel proceeds, Faber becomes obsessed with the three women in his life: lovers Hanna and Ivy, and his daughter Elisabeth, known as Sabeth. He dwells on love lost and seems to find love with his own daughter – but then again whether this was all really happening was quite unclear to me.
Some reviews on Amazon suggest it’s a story of a cold man thawing, a sort of This Book Will Save Your Life: but I found it much more introspective and gloomy, with more or less no humour in it, despite claims by some Frisch readers of his wonderful “irony.” I found it, after an interesting and even exciting opening, obtuse and impenetrable, ponderous and unsatisfying. So close to min points for Max.