Frisch was born in Zurich in 1911 to Franz and Lina Wildermuth Frisch. His father was an architect; his mother's family had immigrated to Switzerland from Württemberg. As a teenager he wrote several plays that were neither published nor performed. In 1930 Frisch began the study of German literature at the University of Zurich but left school after his father died in 1933 and became a free-lance journalist, mainly for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Frankfurter Zeitung. His first extended trip took him to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Greece. While making a living through his articles for Swiss and German papers he wrote his first novel, Jürg Reinhart (1934), the tragedy of a young man embroiled in a passionate love affair and undergoing a painful process of maturation. It is a novel written in the popular tradition of the bildungsroman, whose classical Swiss model was Gottfried Keller's Der grüne Heinrich (1879-1880; translated as Green Henry, 1960). Prominent in Frisch's novel, and in his story about a young man's attempt to conquer a mountain, Antwort aus der Stille (Answer from the Silence, 1937), is closeness to nature. Both works betray the "heroic" atmosphere prevalent in the 1930s, even in democratic countries. Frisch's reports on his trip to Nazi Germany in 1936 are rather ambivalent.
In 1936 Frisch enrolled at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich to study architecture. He had grown increasingly disenchanted with writing, and in 1937 he burned all of his manuscripts. During World War II he served intermittently in the Swiss army, usually as a border guard on the Austrian or Italian frontiers. Frisch could not keep his vow never to write again; in 1940 he published a diary from his military service, Blätter aus dem Brotsack (Pages from the Knapsack). The diary form emerged as a basic constituent of Frisch's narrative style. Blätter aus dem Brotsack is largely nonpolitical and reveals little understanding of the true nature of the war.
Frisch received his degree in 1941 and opened his own architectural firm. He married Gertrud Anna Constance von Meyenburg on 30 July 1942; they had three children. He won a competition for a big new public outdoor swimming pool in Zurich, the Freibad Letzigraben, which was built from 1947 to 1949 under his supervision. He pursued his writing career with equal vigor. In 1943 he published a revision of Jürg Reinhart titled J'adore ce qui me brûle oder Die Schwierigen (I Love That Which Burns Me; or, The Difficult Ones). It was followed in 1945 by Bin oder Die Reise nach Peking (Am; or, The Trip to Peking), a conversation between a young man and his imaginary alter ego during a journey to China. Two features stand out in these works: Frisch's proximity to surrealism, and the feeling of having to escape from conditions and places which threaten to become prisons for the self.
In 1944 the dramaturge and leading spirit of the Schauspielhaus in Zurich, Kurt Hirschfeld, invited Frisch to assist at rehearsals and write for the theater. The Schauspielhaus offered first performances of the plays of exile writers, such as Bertolt Brecht, as well as of the Western avantgarde. The influx of prominent German emigrés provided exceptional talent and high standards. Thus the Schauspielhaus was an ideal place for young writers like Frisch or Friedrich Dürenmatt to find inspiration for their own work. Frisch's first play, Santa Cruz , was written in 1944 but not performed until 1946; it was published in 1947. In Santa Cruz the arrival at their home of a vagabond each had known in the past leads a cavalry captain and his wife to think about opportunities they have missed and alternative lives they might have led. The play was not an immediate success, but his next two works, Nun singen sie wieder (1946; translated as Now They Sing Again , 1972) and Die Chinesische Mauer (1947; translated as The Chinese Wall , 1961), hit the nerve of the time. The surrealistic Nun singen sie wieder was written in January 1945 and premiered in March of that year. Its subtitle is Versuch eines Requiems (Attempt at a Requiem), and its prevailing mood is one of sorrow and mourning. The dead and the living both appear on-stage but cannot communicate with each other. Three aspects of the war stand out in the play: the German killing of Russian civilians, the Allied bombing of German cities, and the support that so many Germans gave the Nazis. Frisch does not mention Jews or concentration camps. He may have been too scrupulous in trying to be neutral; he did not want to accuse, only to express his sorrow and his conviction that a truly new beginning had to be made. Therefore, he distributes blame equally among the participants in the war. The main issue raised in the play is that of Nazi "nihilism": the disillusionment of young Germans who become Nazis not because they believe in the party's ideas but because they have grown disenchanted with the ideals of German humanism. For them, Goethe and Schiller have not stood the test of time. These young cynics kill because there is no reason not to. This image of the intellectual Nazi as nihilist has proven to be popular and durable in fiction, plays, and films about the period.
Frisch's message was well received by his audiences, especially in Germany. There was widespread longing for radical renewal and a new beginning, and an acceptance by many Germans of shame and responsibility. Frisch's play appeared at about the same time as plays on similar themes by Thornton Wilder, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, and T. S. Eliot. Along with Carl Zuckmayer's Des Teufels General (1946; translated as The Devil's General , 1962) and Wolfgang Borchert's radio play Draußen vor der Tür (Outside the Door, 1947; translated as The Man Outside, 1952), Nun singen sie wieder, although written by an "outsider" living in comfortable Switzerland, became part of German Trümmerliteratur (literature from the ruins).
Die chinesische Mauer, which premiered in October 1946, is an allegorical farce expressing grotesque humor on the question of the survival of humankind. Set in China in 200 B.C. but including characters from other eras and places, it is one of the first reactions to the atomic bomb. It is also an inquiry into the question whether history and the life of the individual are predetermined repetitions of the same patterns, or whether humanity or the individual can really change and make a new beginning. The answer is a pessimistic one: the overthrow of the Chinese dictatorship merely replaces one violent regime with another. "Der Heutige" (the Modern Man), with his knowledge of the fatal consequences of such violence, is unable to stop the destruction. Love is merely a faint hope; truth is drowned out by propaganda and false pretenses; historical figures such as Napoleon will appear again and again. In his later versions, Frisch even toned down the faint hope of the first version. The play became a grim indictment of the destructive nature of government.
Als der Krieg zu Ende war (When the War Was Over, 1949), the third of Frisch's plays on the postwar situation, is the most realistic one. A German woman and a Russian officer fall in love while the Russians occupy the woman's house in Berlin in 1945; the officer is transferred and leaves. The woman recognizes the groundlessness of her prejudices against "Bolsheviks" and also the guilt of her husband, who had taken part in the attack on the ghetto in Warsaw. The lovers cannot speak to each other except through a Russian soldier of Jewish extraction who knows Yiddish. In the end the woman's communication with her husband, the guilty soldier, is cut off; there is nothing left for them to say to each other. The Marxist Brecht objected to this play because he felt that it merely touched on social and political issues instead of focusing on them and thus remained too much a private love story. The play once more demonstrates Frisch's reluctance to be ideological. In its attempt to escape the alternatives of the cold war, Als der Krieg zu Ende war is a typical product of its time. It tries to undercut the stereotypes of propaganda with human realities and individual truths.
As a neutral Swiss, Frisch was invited to writers' congresses and other public events in both West and East, and he traveled widely to attend first performances of his plays. Thus he gained firsthand experience of the growing separation of East and West Germany between 1945 and 1949 and of the Communist takeovers of Czechoslovakia and other countries. These experiences form part of his Tagebuch 1946-1949 (1950; translated as Sketchbook 1946-1949 , 1977), his first publication with the new Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt, which was his publisher from then on. The diary contains three main elements: the description of Frisch's experiences in postwar Europe, his thoughts on life and art, and sketches for most of the works he was to write until the early 1960s.
Of Frisch's next three plays only one is open to a direct political interpretation. Biedermann und die Brandstifter (translated as The Fire Raisers , 1962), was first written as a radio play, Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter , in 1952 (published in 1955), following a sketch in the Tagebuch 1946-1949. The stage version followed in 1958. The plot remains the same: the hair-lotion manufacturer Gottlieb Biedermann is bullied into allowing two vagrants to move into the attic of his house; the vagrants, who are actually terrorists, fill the attic with gasoline tanks and finally ask Biedermann for matches to destroy the entire city. Biedermann is a brutal capitalist, but he has a guilty conscience because he dismissed the real inventor of his hair oil, who then committed suicide. The destruction of this idyllic capitalist city--including Biedermann and his wife, who die in the blaze--is due to Biedermann's cowardice. This parable is open to several contradictory political interpretations: it may refer to the Communist takeover of Eastern European countries, the Nazi seizure of power, terrorism in general, or the inner weakness of capitalist society. Frisch endorsed the last of these interpretations through an afterpiece set in hell for the stage version. Like Dürrenmatt's Der Besuch der alten Dame (1956; translated as The Visit, 1962), Biedermann und die Brandstifter contains a chorus, a parody of Greek tragedy. Frisch points out that the events in the play are not Schicksal (fate) and thus inevitable; they are rather Zufall (chance) or the fault of the people themselves.
Frisch's play Graf Öderland (1951; translated as Count Oederland , 1962) is the story of a public prosecutor who dreams of freedom and a life beyond the bureaucratic order. He becomes the legendary anarchist Graf Öderland, overthrows the government, and becomes the head of a new one. At the end it is not clear whether the prosecutor's adventures as Graf Öderland were real or a dream. The play points to a central dilemma of contemporary society: the complexity and rigidity of order provokes more and more violent outbreaks in the name of freedom. One of the least "finished" of Frisch's works even in its last version, the play has never been popular with audiences.
The recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Frisch spent 1951 and 1952 in the United States and Mexico working on the play Don Juan oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie (1953; translated as Don Juan; or, The Love of Geometry , 1967) and on a novel which underwent many changes until it appeared in the fall of 1954: Stiller . He was separated from his wife in 1953; they were divorced in 1959.
Don Juan offers a new version of one of Europe's most artistically productive myths. Don Juan is a mathematician; he loves geometry. But women are attracted to him. To escape the fatal repetition of events--seduction, duels with husbands or fathers, and so forth--Don Juan stages his own "death" and descent into hell. But the rest of his life is not what he expected: he only exchanges the repetition of seduction for the repetition and boredom of married life.
Stiller turns an implausible plot into an authentic picture of life in Switzerland in the early 1950s. Anatol Ludwig Stiller, a struggling sculptor, is torn between his wife Julika, a dancer suffering from tuberculosis, and his lover Sibylle, the wife of a public prosecutor. Stiller disappears and returns to Switzerland from America six years later with a forged passport in the name of James White. He is recognized and arrested at the border; he is suspected of having worked for the Communists in Switzerland because he had fought as a volunteer in the Spanish civil war. In prison in Zurich Stiller's attorney confronts him with his past: friends, relatives, dental and military records, his wife. Claiming not to be Stiller, the prisoner tries to establish his American identity with sensational stories from Mexico and the United States but convinces nobody except his guard. The novel is largely told through Stiller's journal, jotted down in seven notebooks he keeps during his confinement. These notebooks leave the defense attorney bewildered and angry but establish a relationship of trust with the prosecutor Rolf, Sibylle's husband. When the court rules that he is indeed Stiller, Stiller stops writing. It is the prosecutor who describes, in an epilogue, Stiller's attempt to start a new life with Julika, which ends in failure and Julika's death after an operation. The book ends anticlimactically with the words "Stiller blieb in Glion und lebte allein" (Stiller remained in Glion and lived alone).
Stiller is characterized by irony and parody. Many passages echo well-known works of literature, from Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg (1924; translated as The Magic Mountain, 1927) and Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, (1940) to Frisch's own previous works; Frisch declares such parodies and "repetitions" or "reproductions" to be inevitable. The narrative structure is complex, as it is Stiller who records what the other characters say about the former Stiller and how they react to the present Stiller / White. Stiller likes to blur the line between reality and fiction, so that it will never be quite clear what he really did and saw in America. Archetypal figures abound; the influence of C. G. Jung's psychology is evident. The central statement in the book is the commandment "Du sollst dir kein Bildnis machen" (Thou shalt make no image). Stiller warns his visitors not to see him as Stiller; but he seems to see them as stereotypes, not as individuals. The book makes it clear that problems cannot be solved through development, through an inner change of the person; hence, it is a destructive parody of the bildungsroman and a final farewell to the illusions of youth contained in Frisch's earliest works. Stiller is a novel about the disillusionment of middle age. Stiller fits neither into the order and love of tradition of Switzerland nor into the isolation and ahistoric life of the United States, although at the end he lives in Switzerland as if he were in America.
In 1955 Frisch abandoned architecture to embark on a career as a full-time writer. That year he won the Schleussner-Schüller Prize from the Hessian radio network and the Wilhelm Raabe Prize from the city of Brunswick.
Homo faber: Ein Bericht (1957; translated as Homo Faber: A Report , 1959) is the first-person account of Walter Faber, a Swiss engineer working for UNESCO, and of how he was confronted with his repressed past: his Jewish-German girl-friend Hanna and their daughter, Sabeth, whom he loves incestuously. The title is both a play on Faber's name and a Latin term meaning "technological man." This new kind of man, represented by Walter Faber, is shown not to be an advance on homo sapiens. The novel is the report of a man who begins to realize that he may die and who wants to exclude death from his life--as Americans do, according to Frisch. In this last period of his life, characterized by a growing awareness of human existence, he not only comes into contact with his own past failures and their longterm consequences but also begins to see the truth of nontechnological realities--especially the myth of Oedipus, which he is fated to repeat in reverse. In 1958 Frisch was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize by the German Academy of Literature, the Literature Prize of the City of Zurich, and the Veillon Prize of Lausanne. Around this time he moved to Rome, where he lived until 1965.
The sketch for Frisch's greatest success on the stage, Andorra (1961; translated, 1964), can be found in the Tagebuch 1946-1949. The play is an indictment of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, according to Frisch, is a projection, the creation of a "Bildnis" (image) of another person. The boy Andri is mistakenly thought to be a Jew. He dreams of being a normal citizen of Andorra--a fictional country modeled on Switzerland, with no connection to the real Andorra--but is constantly confronted with stereotypical prejudices: the Jew is intelligent but has no feelings; the Jew cannot be a good craftsman but must be a salesman, because he always thinks about money; he cannot be a good soccer player; cannot be patriotic, and so forth. Finally, Andri accepts this image and declares himself to be a Jew. At this point it is revealed that he is not Jewish after all, but the illegitimate son of the teacher Can, who invented the story of Andri's Jewishness to conceal his true parentage. But Andri does not believe the truth about his origins; and when the neighboring country, a totalitarian state, invades Andorra and demands a Jewish sacrifice, he dies willingly.
Andorra is not only a play about prejudice; it also shows the destructive nature of politically convenient lies, such as Can's lie about Andri's background. The twelve scenes of the play are separated by monologues by some of the characters, who appear in a witness box and comment on Andri's death; except for the priest, they all proclaim their innocence and goodwill. Frisch is saying that even catastrophic events do not lead to a change in people; the expectation that World War II would change history was an illusion. Although Frisch was sympathetic to socialist ideals, he was not willing to concede that even socialism would change people. Like Brecht, whom he had met in 1947, Frisch uses the devices of Epic Theater to bring his audiences to the awareness of social evils; but unlike Brecht, Frisch has no real hope that these evils can be remedied. In 1962 Frisch received the Great Art Prize of Rhineland-Westphalia.
The novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein (Let My Name Be Gantenbein, 1964; translated as A Wilderness of Mirrors , 1965) returns to the theme of escape. The unnamed narrator imagines different roles that he might play, giving them different names. The most extended role is that of Theo Gantenbein, who pretends to be blind. Thus Gantenbein is a role in a double sense: an imagined persona who lives by role playing. Gantenbein and the other aliases of the narrator, Felix Enderlin and Frantisek Svoboda, live in a world of make-believe, of games and imagination; a world which may be created or canceled at any time. The novel represents an impossible attempt to find out the best way of life before living it. In 1965 Frisch won the Schiller Prize of Baden-Württemberg and the Jerusalem Prize. That year he moved back to Switzerland.
The imaginary characters of Mein Name sei Gantenbein are trying to avoid the inevitability of fate. Frisch dwelt on this possibility of thwarting fate in two further works. In 1966 he published Zürich-Transit , the script of a film project that was not realized. Returning by plane to Zurich, Theo Ehrismann reads in the newspaper that he has died in a car accident. Instead of interrupting the funeral and revealing his identity as he at first intended to do, he merely observes his wife, his relatives, and his friends from a distance. People he meets on the street, believing that he is dead, fail to recognize him. After withdrawing money from the bank and paying a nighttime visit to his home, where his family is asleep but he is recognized by his dog, he disappears into the Orient; Zurich, his former home, has become a mere transit station. In the comedy Biografie: Ein Spiel (1967; translated as Biography: A Game , 1969) Kürrmann, a dying professor of behavioral science, is given the opportunity to live his life over again and alter past events under the direction of a Registrator (Recorder). The experiment reveals that the alternative lives would have been no more satisfactory than his actual one. Kürrmann is selfish and opportunistic but stubbornly clings to useless principles. Most of all, he cannot establish a lasting relationship with a woman--not with his black American girlfriend; not with his first wife, who commits suicide; not with his present wife, Antoinette. In this play Frisch reveals his horror of the one definite and inevitable ending. He used to say that he found plays, including his own, boring; he only liked rehearsals, where everything was still open.
Frisch took part in the political struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s in speeches and essays, in his Tagebuch 1966-1971 (1972; translated as Sketchbook 1966-1971 , 1974), and in two little books on Switzerland. The Tagebuch 1966-1971, however, is not merely a political document. It does record conflicts and revolts in Europe and the issues arising from the Vietnam War; but it also dwells heavily on the problem of aging and death, and contains literary items such as sketches and notes of encounters with other writers. There are long passages on the United States, New York in particular. He married Marianne Oellers in December 1968; this marriage ended in divorce a few years later.
In 1971 Frisch published Wilhelm Tell für die Schule (William Tell for Schools), a reformulation of the myth of Tell and the foundation of Switzerland. The hero is depicted as a dim-witted murderer; the Austrian administration appears progressive compared to the stubborn and narrowly provincial conservatism of the Swiss peasants; the Austrian "atrocities" are shown to be either normal legal practice or mere fabrications. Frisch does not claim that his version is the truth; he is merely showing how implausible the official Swiss legend is.
Frisch, who lived in Berlin in the early 1970s, questioned Swiss attitudes during World War II in his Dienstbüchlein (Service Booklet, 1974). Remembering his military service between 1939 and 1945, Frisch describes the rigid class system in the Swiss army and the shallow basis of Swiss patriotism. While the Swiss, according to Frisch, were determined to defend themselves should the Germans try to invade Switzerland, they had no clear political ideals to fight for and no understanding of National Socialism. Frisch's own Blätter aus dem Brotsack had contained a good deal of criticism of the organization of the Swiss army, but within the context of a moderate yet unquestioned Swiss patriotism. There is hardly any mention of the Germans or the Italians in the earlier book, in which Frisch does not look beyond the Swiss borders. It is just this attitude that Frisch attacks in his Dienstbüchlein: self-centered Switzerland never asked what was really at stake in the war; therefore, the war did not bring any social change for Switzerland, only added wealth. Even the Dienstbüchlein is very discreet about Switzerland's shameful handling of the refugee problem; it merely mentions the existence of internment camps. But this matter was still so sensitive in the 1970s that even these mild comments caused harsh criticism of the book in Switzerland. In 1974 Frisch received the Great Schiller Prize.
Frisch's works since the mid 1970s reflect his preoccupation with aging, death, and the past. One of his most harmonious, unpretentiously satisfying stories is Montauk (1975; translated, 1976). The narrator, Max, recounts a weekend spent near Montauk, Long Island, with a young American woman named Lynn. This uneventful yet fulfilling weekend, which is not intended to lead to a lasting relationship between the couple, gives Max, a famous writer, an opportunity to reflect on his experiences with women, on his two wives, on the writer Ingeborg Bachmann (with whom Frisch had lived during his years in Rome), on his problems with his daughter, on a problematic friendship with a rich Swiss man, and on himself as writer and man. The seemingly simple style of the story, the smile which accompanies the entire episode, hides the deep melancholy of aging. The writer takes stock of himself and begins to say farewell to his manhood.
In 1978 Frisch published Triptychon: Dreiszenische Bilder (translated as Triptych: Three Scenic Panels , 1981). Though intended for the stage, it is not really a play but three "scenic pictures" reminiscent of medieval altar paintings. There is no "action." The first picture depicts the embarrassed mourners at a widow's reception after the funeral. In the second picture a group of dead people stand before the river of the underworld and ruminate about their unfinished lives on earth. Regrets, reproaches, repetitive formulas, and unpleasant memories prevail. The last scene is devoted to the regrets of Roger, who cannot stop thinking about his love for the dead Francine. A horror story of futility and of total lack of communication, Triptychon was not successful when it premiered in Vienna in 1981. It is melancholy, bitter, and pessimistic.
Not much more comforting is Frisch's story Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän (1979; translated as Man in the Holocene , 1980). Mr. Geiser, a retired industrialist in his seventies, lives alone in an isolated valley in the Ticino. Torrential rains which disrupt traffic on the only road to civilization cause Geiser to reflect on nature and the human race. He immerses himself in the geological and early human history of the region and finally becomes fascinated by dinosaurs, cutting out information on them from books and pasting the clippings on the walls. In a moment of panic Geiser tries to see if he could escape through a mountain pass should the valley really be cut off. The road and electricity are soon restored, but Geiser has drifted into a new frame of mind. He does not answer the doorbell or the telephone, and his daughter, who finally comes to see him, considers him senile, a danger to himself. Geiser has discovered that humankind is merely an episode in nature and may be on its way out.
Frisch's story Blaubart (1982; translated as Bluebeard, 1984) returns to more familiar themes. Felix Schaad, a specialist in internal medicine, is accused of murdering one of his former wives, a prostitute. After a year of imprisonment, he is tried and acquitted. The experience causes him to start his own introspective investigation of his guilt or innocence. When he finally decides that he is morally guilty, the real murderer has been found, and his confession is rejected. A suicide attempt by means of a car crash is unsuccessful. Schaad ends as a failure.
After Montauk Frisch's works reveal few good memories. The past seems heavy; former relationships cast shadows of reproach over the present; loneliness pervades the atmosphere. While in Montauk numerous quotes from Frisch's earlier works indicate self-acceptance, the past has become threatening in the last works. Old age and death are dominant themes, but even more prevalent may be regret of the past-one's own and that of the human race. And there is little to look forward to. Even the short moments of bliss that occasionally appeared in Frisch's earlier works are lacking in the late ones.
Frisch's work shows a remarkable continuity. It has an unmistakable style, discernible since the early 1940s, and several central themes which reappear in ever new contexts: reality and imagination, the problem of determinism, the difficulty of relations between man and woman, life in familiar but confining Switzerland as opposed to life in vast lands such as America, personal and social responsibility, and the quest for self-fulfillment and truth. Frisch never seems satisfied; he is always open to new experiences. He prefers an open structure for his works: the mosaic of diaries and notebooks, plays that experiment with different endings. Frisch's work fights valiantly against an inevitable fate; it is a constant search for alternatives. Frisch takes his responsibilities as a writer seriously-perhaps too seriously. There is the element of Überforderung (demanding too much) in his own efforts as well as in those of his protagonists. He is trying to achieve the impossible. Disquieting, always surprising, controversial, rarely completely satisfying himself or his readers, he is one of the most highly regarded writers of the age.
From: Koepke, Wulf. "Max Frisch (15 May 1911-)." Contemporary German Fiction Writers: First Series, edited by Wolfgang Elfe and James N. Hardin, vol. 69, Gale, 1988, pp. 91-103. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 69.