Monday, February 24, 2014

Rerun: Spotlight on ... Max Frisch Man in the Holocene (1979) (orig. 06/03/08)


Man in the Holocene is a favorite novel of mine. Even though it was highly acclaimed in its time -- both The New Yorker and the New York Times named it the most important novel of 1980, for instance -- it, like much of Max Frisch's work, has slid off the radar of most contemporary readers. So, guessing that many readers of this place haven't yet come across the novel, I thought I'd give it the blog today. -- DC

The Story

'The aged Mr. Geiser is bored in his Tessin house during torrential rains. He is so bored that he tries to make a pagoda out of crispbread and categorizes thunders (into rolling thunders, banging thunders, etc.). Rumors report a landslide, and that the valley is cut off. Fearing a total mountain slide that would bury the village and man’s knowledge, Geiser reads his encyclopedia, the Bible, history books, and cuts out/transcribes important information for posterity. He attaches the notes to the walls of the house.  Despite the weather, he wanders around. But, while wandering, he feels his physical limits, and the limited importance of man’s knowledge too. Geiser slowly loses his memory. The question arises: is memory needed or not -- "the rocks do not need my memory". Towards the end, Geiser suffers a cerebral apoplexiy that attacks his memory. Now it turns out that the fear of a mountain slide was the fear of cerebral apoplexiy; fearing the loss of man’s knowledge was fearing loss of his own memory. That is the parabolic aspect.'  -- Wikipedia

The Book

The Excerpt

It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain, no splashing from the gutter, no gurgling around the house. Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.

Somewhere a tapping on metal.

It is always with the fourth floor that the wobbling begins; a trembling hand as the next piece of crispbread is put in place, a cough when the gable is already standing, and the whole thing lies in ruins—

Geiser has time to spare.

The news in the village is conflicting; some people say there has been no landslide at all, others that an old supporting wall has collapsed, and there is no way of diverting the highway at that spot. The woman in the post office, who ought to know, merely confirms that the mail bus is not running, but she stands behind the little counter in her usual care-laden fashion, keeping usual office hours, selling stamps, and even accepting parcels, which she places unhurriedly on the scales and then franks. It is taken for granted that state and canton are doing everything in their power to get the highway back in order. If necessary, helicopters can be brought in, unless there is fog. Nobody in the village thinks that the day, or perhaps the night, will come when the whole mountain could begin to slide, burying the village for all time.

Somewhere a tapping on metal.

It is midnight, but still no pagoda.

It started on the Thursday of the previous week, when it was still possible to sit out in the open; the weather was sultry, as always before a thunderstorm, the gnats biting through one's socks; no summer lightning, it just felt uncomfortable. Not a bird in the grounds. His guests, a youngish couple on their way to Italy, suddenly decided to leave, though they could have spent the night in his house. It was not actually cloudy—just a yellowish haze, such as one sees in the Arabian desert before a sandstorm; no wind. Faces also looking yellowish. His guests did not even empty their glasses, they were suddenly in such a hurry to be off, though there were no sounds of thunder. Not a drop of rain, either. But on the following morning it was drumming on the windowpanes, hissing through the leaves of the chestnut tree.

Since then, not a night without thunderstorms and cloudbursts.

From time to time the power is cut, something one is used to in this valley; hardly has there been time to find a candle, and then at last some matches, when the power is restored, lights in the house, though the thunder continues.

It is not so much the bad weather—

The twelve-volume encyclopedia Der Grosse Brockhaus explains what causes lightning and distinguishes streak lightning, ball lightning, bead lightning, etc., but there is little to be learned about thunder; yet in the course of a single night, unable to sleep, one can distinguish at least nine types of thunder:

The simple thunder crack.

Stuttering or tottering thunder: this usually comes after a lengthy silence, spreads across the whole valley, and can go on for minutes on end.

Echo thunder: shrill as a hammer striking on loose metal and setting up a whirring, fluttering echo which is louder than the peal itself.

Roll or bump thunder: relatively unfrightening, for it is reminiscent of rolling barrels bumping against one another.

Drum thunder.

Hissing or gravel thunder: this begins with a hiss, like a truck tipping a load of wet gravel, and ends with a thud.

Bowling-pin thunder: like a bowling pin that, struck by the rolling ball, cannons into the other pins and knocks them all down; this causes a confused echo throughout the valley.

Hesitant or tittering thunder (no flash of lightning through the windows): this indicates that the storm is retreating over the mountains.

Blast thunder (immediately following a flash of lightning through the windows): this is not like two hard masses colliding; on the contrary, it is like a single huge mass being blasted apart and falling to either side, breaking into countless pieces; in its wake, rain comes pouring down.

At intervals the power goes off again.

What would be bad would be losing one's memory—

An example of something Geiser has not forgotten: the Pythagorean theorem. For that he does not need to drag out the encyclopedia. On the other hand, he cannot remember how to draw the golden section (A is to B as A + B to A; that he does still know) with compasses and set square. He knew once, of course—

No knowledge without memory.

Today is Tuesday.

Still no horns sounding in the valley.

Field glasses are no use at all in times like these, one screws them this way and that without being able to find any sharp outline to bring into focus; all they do is make the mist thicker. What can be seen with the naked eye: the gutter on the roof, the nearest pine tree in the grounds, two wires disappearing into the mist, raindrops gliding slowly down the wires. If one takes an umbrella and trudges through the grounds on a tour of inspection despite wet and mist, one can no longer see one's own house after only a hundred paces, just brambles in mist, rivulets, bracken in mist. A little wall in the lower garden (drystone) has collapsed: debris among the lettuces, lumps of clay under the tomatoes. Perhaps that happened days ago.

Still, one can get tomatoes in cans.

Lavender flowering in the mist: scentless, as in a color film. One wonders what bees do in a summer like this.

There are provisions enough in the house:

three eggs
bouillon cubes
vinegar and olive oil
a jar of pickled gherkins
Parmesan cheese
sardines, one can
spices of all kinds
crispbread, five packages
raspberry syrup for the grandchildren
bay leaves
salted almonds
spaghetti, one package
one lemon
meat in the icebox

Later in the day there is more thunder; and shortly afterward, hail. The white stones, some of them the size of hazelnuts, dance on the granite table; in a few minutes the lawn is a white sheet, all Geiser can do is stand at the window and watch the vine being torn to shreds, the roses—

There is nothing to do but read.

(Novels are no use at all on days like these, they deal with people and their relationships, with themselves and others, fathers and mothers and daughters or sons, lovers, etc., with individual souls, usually unhappy ones, with society, etc., as if the place for these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time.)

No horns sounding in the valley.

What would be bad is losing one’s memory---

There is nothing to do but read.

Today is Wednesday, (Or Thursday?)

Weakness of memory is the deterioration of the faculty of recalling earlier experiences. In psychopathology a distinction is made between this and deterioration of the faculty of adding new experiences to the store of memories, though the distinction is only one of degree. In the brain diseases of old age (senility, hardening of the arteries in the brain) and other brain diseases, it is the latter faculty that deteriorates first.

At the moment he does not need his passport, but he could do with an aspirin for his headache, which is not raging, just irritating, and it would also be a good time to clean out his medicine chest, to throw away all the things of which he no longer knows the use: whether for itching or for acid in the urine, for heart troubles or for constipation, for gnat bites or for sunburn, etc.

The headache is gradually fading.

He cannot resist looking at his watch again; it reads seven minutes past six.

This evening will also pass.

He has plenty of time.

Ten years ago and in sunshine, it had been just a pleasant walk, an outing of two and a half hours there and back.

Nobody will ever hear of his outing.

--man emerged in the Holocene.

Geiser wants no visitors.

Geiser knows the year of his birth and the first names of his parents, also his mother’s maiden name, and the name of the street in which he was born, the number of the house—

That was seventy years ago.

Nature needs no names. Geiser knows that. The rocks do not need his memory.

Apoplexy, known popularly as a stroke, is a sudden loss of brain function, combined usually with paralysis and loss of consciousness, and often accompanied by loss of speech. The usual cause is the bursting of a cerebral blood vessel due to arteriosclerosis or hypertension, and the extent of the hemorrhage may be slight, or located in parts of the brain where its presence gives rise to little disturbance. Unless the vital areas of the base of the brain have been affected, in which case, death is likely to occur within a short period, a fair measure of recovery is possible. Another cause of the loss of brain function is the blocking of a cerebral blood vessel, preventing blood from reaching the brain. The paralysis usually affects only one side of the body. The paralyzed limbs are at first slack and immobile, but eventually they pass into a spastic stage.

In August and September, at night, there are shooting stars to be seen, or one hears the call of a little owl.

The Elsewhere


The Videos

Max Frisch - Die Schweiz als Heimat? (Rede)

Max Frisch - Eine Biographie

Max Frisch Citoyen 1/10

Max Frisch - Selbstanzeige

The Pipe


p.s. Hey. Today Zac and I are scheduled to arrive in Ushuaia, Argentina where we will then spend a day and a half or so seeing what's what around there before we haul our stuff down to the city dock and board the ship bound for Antarctica. Gulp. While we're doing that, show your appreciation for Max Frisch, won't you?


DavidEhrenstein said...

Max Frisch used to be a name to conjure with when I was a lad. Now he's been forgotten -- along with practically everything else of value.

That's why I love this site.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As for Argentina. . .

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Voynich Manuscript

Pisycaca said...


You are in Argentina, wow! Sounds like you're having a hell of a trip.
Sorry for not saying hi in ages. I wanted to check your day in Man in the Holocene because I still haven't read it and a Spanish press, Alpha Decay, is publishing it soon here and then I read about your trip.
Well, don't want to make this too long. I'll get back in touch soon. I miss you, my friend. Keep having an amazing time down there.



James said...


I hadn't heard of 'Man in the Holocene' -- thank you for another interesting recommendation. I'm currently reading 24/7 by Jonathan Crary, have you heard of it? It's basically about how capitalism has destroyed all semblance of the concepts of day and night, since anything, anyone and anywhere can be purchased anyplace and at any time. A short book, only 120 pages or so, but it is very dense, and I have to re-read passages again because the writing is so cerebral. I thought of you when I bought it; I think you'd like it. Hope Argentina is being an amiable host to you and Zac.

Much love Dennis!


DavidEhrenstein said...

Latest FaBlog: Genetic Provenance” Your Magic Spell is Everywhere

Toniok said...

Hello Dennis!

I want to read this book (I didn't even know that it's in Spanish, thank you, Pisycaca). I've only read one book by Max Frisch -I'm Not Stiller- and it's one of my favorites.

Related to your cold trip:

Take care and bundle up!

Pisycaca said...

Hey Toniok!

I've just realised that the book just came out. It's called "El hombre aparece en el Holoceno".

Take care

Toniok said...

Hey Pisycaca!

Thank you. I'm going to buy it as soon as I can. Alpha Decay is doing a great job: Max Frisch, Denton Welch, Blake Butler, Tao Lin…

Take care.

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