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Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch
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Man in the Holocene (1979)

by Max Frisch

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This was my first experience with the Dalkey Archive, revered by many of my friends on Goodreads, and unfortunately the first impressions were very poor: can it really be, I thought, unwrapping this in front of my postbox and examining it, that they spelled the name of the translator wrong on the front cover of the fucking book?!

http://imgur.com/Icdn1aG.jpg

Geoffrey Skelton was one of the greatest German translators we had (he died in 1998). How many people, I keep thinking, must have looked at this cover design before it got approved and printed? I mean seriously! The only way it could be any worse is if the book had been called Man in the Plasticine by Mark Fish.

Anyway. A shame, because the book is very interesting and deserves to be kept in print. A sort of existential collage, it follows a few days in the life of 73-year-old Geiser, a German-speaker from Basel, a widower, who has retired to live in a valley in Ticino, in Italian-speaking Switzerland. The narrative is impressionistic, staccato, often quite striking:

A little wall in the lower garden (dry-stone) 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.


It is important to Geiser to take note of what he sees. His memory is failing him, and he's compulsive about hoarding his knowledge – creating lists of the food in his kitchen, or of the sixteen different types of thunder he has distinguished echoing around his little house. His walls are covered in handwritten notes or clippings cut from the encyclopaedia, with his interests tending to geology and palaeontology.

Geiser knew at one time what caused tides, just as he knew about volcanoes, mountain ranges, etc. But when did the first mammals emerge? Instead of this, one knows how many liters of heating oil the tank contains, the time of the first and last mail bus – that is, when the highway is not blocked. When did man first emerge, and why? Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, etc., but no idea how many millions of years the various eras lasted.

Man emerged in the Holocene – the epoch we're still in. This book thus deftly takes the scattered thoughts of one old man and locates them in the vast reaches of geological time. The disjointed style of his own reminiscences combines with the cuttings on his walls – excerpted here piecemeal from various Swiss reference works – to create a cut-up effect that juxtaposes the banal with the dramatic, dinosaurs with lettuces, continental drift with a fall down the stairs, and that ultimately becomes quite moving. Recommended, though possibly not in this badly-jacketed edition.

(One last quote to finish, because it didn't fit in the review and it demands to be shared.)

Ever since the young men have owned motorcycles, incest has been dying out, and so has sodomy. ( )
  Widsith | May 25, 2014 |
Today I went for a walk down the street and through the gate to the cement road, steeply inclined and overgrown in patches with thistles and weeds sprouting from the droppings of many cows, who roam the now yellowing hills that despite the overcast sky are impressively laid out for many miles, a winding valley through which a running creek cuts and crosses over grey and under green.

The cement road branches at its base, and if you follow the right path you will come to a gate and yet another branch, and if you continue to veer to the right you will walk down a wide and well-maintained construction, bounded by the base of a slope on the left and riotous growth on the right. If you walk down far enough, you will see a small area that slopes and suggests the beginning of one of those cow trails that cut into the hills in a zigzag shape, treacherous and sometimes humiliating to take when thinking on how creatures much larger and more unwieldy than yourself not only forged the road but unwaveringly maintain it.

Except that is a trap. It would not have been a trap fifteen years ago, when the stream was a mere two feet wide and barely six inches deep and even my six-year old self was able to jump across it with relative ease, six-year old eyes recording the sight of sunny gold burbling along as six-year-old feet readied themselves at the bottom of a gentle slope to jump across with six-year-old legs and land on the sandy shore across. Now, that slope cuts off a foot from its origin, and what greets you is a drop that would break both legs and maybe a neck, across a creek that has carved itself into a sizable expanse that rapidly spills and churns volumes into a deep basin that could easily swallow you down, should you lose your footing. A while back I heard from a surveyor that it had been measured at sixteen feet, surrounded by loose walls of mud and flimsy roots that could no more support a grasping hand than a daisy could resist the pull of eager six-year-old fingers.

I have no six-year-old memories of that landscape gullet.

The creek that chewed out that deepening hollow as well as the surrounding valley and hills is called Sabercat Creek, and if you went back and back and farther back to the first fork in the road and took the left path, you would walk along a road similar to its mirror, albeit more overgrown and more steep in its slopes, a high yellow slope pocked with trees and shrubbery on your left and a deep green gorge massed with fallen branches and poison ivy on your right. At the end of this path there is a gate, and beyond the gate is the place that the creek was named for, where 70 years before I was born they excavated the bones of monumental felines that returned to earth entirely 1.6 million years before humans gained their modern physiology. You can hike up the cliff that was left, look down at the long yellow grasses and tall thin whips of pink and green that healed the gouges left by the archaeological endeavor long ago, and wonder if there are any bones still resting in shapely divots, cool and dry under the earth that hasn't seen anything but a light rain for many weeks.

They were there long before us, and should the creek continue its destructive path and course itself into landslides that cause the houses to slip and slide and batter themselves into oblivion, possibly with their inhabitants within their walls, they will be there still.

One of those houses is mine, and in that house I have a laptop, and in that laptop there is a word document with which I have been keeping a collection of names, words, phrases, poetry, quotes both categorized by book and miscellaneous by necessity, and more recently reviews that differ from their lettered brethren in being of my own design. The document is 360 pages long, and is a boon for someone who could never keep a diary yet still wishes to have some record on hand, that both absorbs the new and cradles the old for rediscoveries by a brain that may still be young but is not infinite. It has survived three computers, four years, and countless accidentally closed windows and abruptly errant shutdowns. By it, I see myself, and slowly but surely, the changes of said self.

There may come a time in old age or even younger, when in the throes of Alzheimer's or some other decay of the brain I will open this document and forget words as soon as I read them, or forget it for long periods until a sudden retrieval reassures me that all is not lost, or delete it unknowingly and forget that such a thing ever existed.

If you keep in mind: the ceaseless biting and gnawing of water in a fierce erosion that can wear away the physical and make one question the mental; the monumental backdrop of time that one plays a blip of a part upon in this period that in the spirit of the Triassic and the Jurassic and the Cretaceous is termed the Holocene; the quickening sink and slippage of layers of the mind that jerks and shudders towards a broken record of a living that forsakes the straight road of the present for the drop into the deep waters of memory, no matter how many words are written on the wall.

You'll get a sense of what this book is like. ( )
9 vote Korrick | May 28, 2013 |
Man in the Holocene (German: Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän, 1979) first appeared in the New Yorker in 1980 and garnered lofty praise from the New York Times: "masterpiece" and one of the "Best Books of 1980". It's very short, about the time it takes to watch an episode of James Burke's Connections, and has lots of pictures and blocks of text pasted in from old Encyclopedia's (original fonts and all) giving it a heightened sense of realism, a realism which matches the beautifully evocative descriptions of mountains in a rainstorm. It concerns an old man, alone in a cottage, in a remote Swiss valley, whose grasp on himself and time begins to erode, for reasons that don't become clear until the end. It's a philosophical novel about time, age, permanence of type versus the temporary individual. For example he considers the extinction of dinosaurs while watching a salamander crawl across the floor (salamanders probably descended from dinosaurs). At the end of his life, he is watching his body and mind erode and near extinction, yet he is also "aware", in a way that is physically expressed by pasting encyclopedia articles on the wall, that life continues onward through the epochs even while the individuals die off. Writing, then, becomes for Max Frisch -- who was also near lifes end and in a remote Swiss valley when he wrote the story -- a vehicle for expressing immortality, not because the individual text will last forever (it doesn't), but text is a symbolic way of expressing the idea of immortality which ensures it continuance. It's a beautiful book, although I can't figure out why he roasted the cat.

--Review by Stephen Balbach, via CoolReading (c) 2011 cc-by-nd ( )
2 vote Stbalbach | Mar 21, 2011 |
A book about a Swiss civil servant’s retirement and descent into Alzheimer’s disease. He develops, ominously, a passion for organizing, and ends up lost in a long walk in the woods. ( )
  neurodrew | Jun 15, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156569523, Paperback)

Frisch charts the crumbling landscape of an old man’s consciousness as he slips away from himself toward death and reintegration with the age-old history of our planet. A “luminous parable...a masterpiece” (New York Times Book Review). Translated by Geoffrey Skelton. Illustrations. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:32:03 -0400)

A stunning tour de force, Man in the Holocene constructs a powerful vision of our place in the world by combining the banality of an aging man's lonely inner life and the objective facts he finds in the books of his isolated home. As a rainstorm rages outside, Max Frisch's protagonist, Geiser, watches the mountain landscape crumble beneath landslides and flooding, and speculates that the town will be wiped out by the collapse of a section of the mountain. Seeking refuge from the storm in town, he makes his way through a difficult and dangerous mountain pass, only to abandon his original plan and return home. A compelling meditation by one of Frisch's most original characters, Man in the Holocene charts Geiser's desperate attempt to find his place in history and in the confusing and fragile world outside his window.… (more)

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