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Max Frisch as a nature writer

By Geoff Wisner

In 1986, when the Swiss novelist and playwright Max Frisch won the Neustadt Prize, the New York Times described him as a “perennial Nobel Prize candidate.” Frisch died five years later, still without the Nobel, and these days he seems largely forgotten.

I first read Max Frisch — a novel called I’m Not Stiller — for a college course in existential literature. As the title of that book indicates, his plays and novels revolve around questions of personal identity and choice.

Frisch is not usually thought of as a nature writer, but this passage from his Sketchbook 1946-1949 (translated by Geoffrey Skelton) is one of the most exact and moving descriptions of autumn I’ve read. Written in the fall of 1946, it comes at a time when the 35-year-old Frisch is achieving some success as both a writer and an architect. Frisch had attended the final rehearsal of his play The Chinese Wall not long before, and a few months later he is inspecting a building site in a workers’ district of Zurich, having won a competition to create a swimming-pool complex that can handle 4,500 visitors.

Pfannenstiel, near Zurich

Another series of golden days, the last of the year. The mornings, when I ride to work on my bicycle, are cold and damp; the leaves cling to the road surface, the lake is silver-gray, and all one sees are buoys floating in a shoreless waste, lonely and empty of boats, unreflecting, white seagulls on the railings. Usually the decisive moment comes at about eleven o’clock, when the bells are ringing. There are still no shadows to betray the sun; but one can feel its presence; the clockfaces gleam on the church towers. Mist, when one looks up into the sky, glitters like bronze-colored dust; then suddenly it is gone, leaving only blueness; suddenly a strip of watery sunlight falls across the drawing board —

And now, once more, there it all is: the fermenting wine and the wasps buzzing in bottles, the shadows in the gravel, the golden silence of decay with all its magic, clucking hens in the meadows, a teeming mass of brown pears scattered over the highway, asters hanging over a wire fence, starlike shapes of blood-red fire dissolving in all directions, a bluish light beneath the trees. It is as if everything were now taking leave of itself; the rustling foliage of a poplar, the metallic sheen on the fallen fruit, smoke from the fields, where they are burning shrubs. Below, behind a trellis of vines, the lake glitters. The sun is already rusting in the haze of midafternoon. Then the journey home without an overcoat, hands in pockets, a damp carpet of leaves which no longer rustle, wine presses in the vineyard, the dripping barrels in the twilight, the red lamps on a landing stage shrouded in mist —

“And now, once more, there it all is...” Frisch’s satisfaction at feeling the sensations of autumn once again reminds me of the lovely, melancholy passage in Thoreau’s Journal in which the coming of the autumn is likened to one of the 19th century traveling panoramas painted on canvas, which slowly unrolls to show the banks of the Mississippi or the Nile.

The November twilights just begun! It appeared like part of a panorama at which I sat spectator, a part with which I was perfectly familiar just coming into view, and I foresaw how it would look and roll along, and prepared to be pleased.

Published Oct 22, 2010   Copyright 2010 Geoff Wisner

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