January 31, 2007

Max Frisch: Homo Faber

Posted in Frisch Max, Penguin Modern Classics at 11:38 am by John Self

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.

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17 Comments »

  1. This is the only book I ever read in German (when I was living out in Berlin) and that was only because I was trying to impress my German girlfriend. It was about the time Max Frisch died (from memory) and so there was a tremendous interest in the media about him.

    Anyway, perhaps it was just my interpretation of stereotypical German characteristics, but in German, the emotionless, often literal language of the ‘engineer’ seems to work a lot better (coupled with the generally higher status of the engineer in German society). It certainly heightens (for me anyway) the growing dawning, horror and inability (emotionally) to deal with his eventual discovery.

    When I read it in English, I still enjoyed it, but that’s probably because it conjured up happy memories of my time in Berlin, rather than the book itself.

  2. John Self said,

    Yes, I can see how that could be the case, from what I can remember of my schoolboy Deutsch. I also confess I was getting rather fed up with the book toward the end and rushed it, while realising from the content of the closing pages – his eventual discovery, as you say – that it would have read better taken at a more measured pace.

    Thanks for calling by, Mark: you have the dubious honour of the first comment on my blog!

  3. Noel Murphy said,

    I’d recommend another book by Frisch, I’m not Stiller, which is IMVHO a bit of quiet masterpiece. Difficult to get hold of an English copy in the UK but Amazon.com is still a good source.

  4. John Self said,

    Hi Noel, thanks for dropping by. Yes I remember seeing I’m Not Stiller in some US editions with white covers in larger bookshops, a few years ago – in fact it was recommended too by a friend of mine. I might have to look it out as I feel I haven’t really given Frisch a fair run.

  5. tia o'connor said,

    I’m not Sytiller and Gantenbein are quite different from “Homo Faber” in therms of style, more challenging, original writing. You should try both of them, although the discourse is similar they will be both rewarding.

  6. John Self said,

    Thanks tia. Three recommendations for I’m Not Stiller make it a must-have on my next trolley dash through Amazon. Now if only a UK publisher would bring out a stylish reissue…

    I still have my copy of Home Faber and am more and more inclined to give it another go at some point. The ‘review’ above was made in the early days of my blog and I think since then, with the benefit of comments by other readers, I’ve learned with a little humility to understand that because a book doesn’t immediately float my boat isn’t necessarily a good reason to dismiss it wholesale.

  7. Christiana Mygdali said,

    Hi! I am currently working on the translation of Homo Faber in Greek as part of my phd and I think it’ s a really significant book, in the sence that the obviously fictitious objectiveness of the narrator is a critical comment on everything he sees and his lack of emotional responce is emotionally efficient to the reader.I was really excited when I saw that the book was discussed in your blog and wanted to drop a line and say what I thought about it.
    christiana

  8. John Self said,

    Thanks for visiting Christiana. As I mentioned above, I’m certainly open to revisiting Homo Faber as I gave it a bit of a cool reception above, but everything everyone has said in praise of it seems perfectly convincing. Am also looking out for I’m Not Stiller.

  9. Steve Foot said,

    Are you serious? I think maybe you should re-read this book. For a start, try thinking of the title as “Home Faber : A report”, by Max Frisch, rather than “A report by Max Frisch” – cos Mr Faber is writing a report about himself – a scientist who think in terms of reports. Also, i think its pretty clear that the whole thing is basically Faber’s recollection of recent events, from his point of view, and the whole irony thing is about Mr Faber having no idea what a total asshole he is – he stalks and then fucks his own daughter, before causing her death. None of it is hallucination. Where did you get that idea? Or maybe you saw the movie, which makes a mockery of the book, by making out that all those meetings really were chance events.

  10. John Self said,

    Am I serious? Oh, I don’t know Steve, but the cumulative effect of the comments above would be in agreement with your suggestion that I need to give this book another go. Your comments are very helpful and I will be sure to keep them in mind when I tackle it again – thanks!

  11. JRSM said,

    Well, I’ll come out in support of you, Mr Self. It seemed like specious nonsense for the most part. I know that renowned translator/poet Michael Hofmann gave Frisch a severe carpeting somewhere–I remember enjoying it at the time, and now can’t remember where I read it.

  12. Richard said,

    Hey, John, it happens that I just read this novel and looking around for reviews, came across yours. Contra Mr. Steve Foot, I think the irony is that Faber was such a pro-technology, hyper-rational positivist (as many assholes are, of course), yet his story is dominated by bizarre coincidences, as if he were fated. Now, that said, I can’t say I loved the book. I did sort of laugh a couple of time, but I thought it was merely ok, and by the end I was ready for it to be over. Also it never was clear to me why the book is structured the way it is. (And it didn’t seem to me, by the way, that he “stalked” his daughter.)

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks Richard. How I wish I could engage with or respond to your points, but the brief comments above are all I can remember about this book. I don’t rule out a rereading though, despite your lukewarm feelings and JRSM’s antipathy. Of course if I do reread it, I’ll likely feel the same way again, but at least I’ll feel better about not liking it.

  14. Richard said,

    Hi John – I should say, I wasn’t expecting you to engage with my comment, since obviously it’s been some time now since you’ve read the book. I figured, since others are just as likely to happen upon your review as I was, I’d throw my two cents in for posterity, if only to counteract Steve Foot’s (in my view misleading) points. Cheers!

  15. Steve Foot said,

    (And it didn’t seem to me, by the way, that he “stalked” his daughter.)
    Oh didn’t it? On the ship she told him she liked going to the Louvre, and he’d never been, but once he gets to Paris he turns up there every day in the hope of meeting her… by chance, perhaps? If this isn’t stalking, what is?
    I’d throw my two cents in for posterity, if only to counteract Steve Foot’s (in my view misleading) points.
    Not in everyone’s view. A friend of mine, a retired German philosophy professor, was of exactly the same opinion…
    And not surprisingly, it is clear to me why the book is structured as it is, presumably because I have some idea what Frisch is writing about…

  16. […] Makss Frišs (1911-1991) ir šveiciešu rakstnieks, pēc profesijas žurnālists, vēlāk izmācījies par arhitektu. Frišu pamatoti uzskata par vienu no labākajiem – un ne tik tādēļ, ka nedaudziem – šveiciešu autoriem; viņa tēmas ir cilvēka identitāte, individualitāte, atbildība, morāle un politiskās saistības, tātad gana vispārīgas tēmas, kuru izdošanās vai neizdošanās vispirmāmkārtām ir atkarīga no autora rokraksta. Frišs tiek vērtēts visai dažādi (1 un 2). […]

  17. I read Homo Faber in school – in my time he was on the reading list of German literature classes. Although it is maybe not exactly on the same level as his masterpieces Stiller and Gantenbein, Homo Faber is a very interesting novel in my opinion. Allusions to Greek mythology, the contrast between a life devoted to art (Hanna) and technology (Faber), the attitude of Switzerland to Nazi Germany, the question of identity, technology and progress as a form of ideology are just a few of the themes on which Frisch is touching in this novel. In general an excellent author and worth to be discovered.


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