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Man in the Holocene (1979)

by Max Frisch

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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446940,176 (3.74)13
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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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Bit sick, don't seem to have the wherewithall to write about this, so I thought I'd let Frisch do that. A few extracts from a Paris Review interview, the entirety of which can be found here: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2367/the-art-of-fiction-no-113-max-fris...

INTERVIEWER

When did you first decide to create the flat, cold, “affectless” hero we have been discussing?

FRISCH

Hard to know. I think I made it not all at once, but slowly; gradually it felt more and more comfortable. Just now I think—I don’t know if it’s right or wrong—that if you describe emotions, or the hero describes his emotions, as in the work of Dostoyevsky, for instance, or Melville, or other great writers, the danger that you will fall into the conventional is very great. It was Goethe who told us how we feel if we are in love with a girl—there are forms for that. But suppose you try to establish a situation, a movement, to show gestures and faces, and not talk about it. This is closer to film than old literature was. We have learned a lot from movies about what can be expressed without words. I would be proud or happy if a reader could feel the essential situation of, say, the man in Man in the Holocene, to feel how it is to be wet in your pants, how it’s getting colder, the feeling of growing tired, of melancholy or despair. That you get without using all those words. That you feel sensually and see with your eyes. I want to give that, or I try, anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a kind of control that is not within your conscious grasp?

FRISCH

Yes, I have this control that tells me when to cut something, improve it, or give it up, often without knowing why. But just how much of this capacity you have is important in determining, I think, whether you’re a writer or not. If you criticize what you’re doing too early you’ll never write the first line. Then, if you don’t have this capacity at all, that’s also a danger. Before I published Man in the Holocene, it was not a bad book, but I had an uncomfortable feeling about it. That’s criticism. Then after I wrote a second draft I had the feeling, “Now it works, now it’s okay.” And afterwards, again this shock that it didn’t work. If I hadn’t had that feeling it would have been published and I would never have reached the point I could reach. You’re awfully dependent on that critical sense. When I was young, around thirty, it took me much more time to get the feeling of a scene, to know whether it worked or not, and to be able to give up on it if it didn’t. I would work for half a year sometimes on something that didn’t work—I couldn’t give up.

INTERVIEWER

The opening sentence of Man in the Holocene reads, “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain . . . Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.” One accepts it upon first reading. Then suddenly, it strikes one, “What is this man thinking of?” It’s a remarkable image, a weird image. How did you come upon it?

FRISCH

I think you’re right; reading it for the first time it’s a little unusual, a little crazy. A person with strange problems, obviously; we feel he’s doing nonsense, he’s bored, and we understand he has to wait because of the rain. Later when you know him it acquires a different meaning even if one doesn’t go back to read the book again, but simply remembers the sentence. A pagoda is a full, complete picture of the world. That’s what he tries to have because he’s afraid that the world will get lost. And what he’s doing with this crispbread, of course, is just the opposite. So it’s a dream that the world should be perfect, that we should be able to view it as a whole in its perfect, clear beauty. I started only the last version of the book with that sentence. Before then I had it later on, on the second page. It was important to have it for the beginning; otherwise you get the description of the painful weather, so what? Only this pagoda sentence brings it immediately onto another level. There must be something else. That’s, of course, what you call craft, isn’t it?
………….

With the parable you think—you hope—you can get a complicated reality. Nowadays I doubt that too, because the parable always has the tendency to prove something, to teach something, and I found out that I don’t have to teach. I just want to show the thing—and so I have stopped using parables.

…………….

Literature should show possibilities and avoid the idea that what happened had to happen. I don’t believe this aphorism.

FRISCH
Yes, I do. I always try, but I never succeed. Between us, I would say my favorite book, at this time, is Man in the Holocene.


A few months after our interview, I called Mr. Frisch to see if he had any final corrections or comments to add. “Yes,” he said. “Tell them that for just a brief moment I flew. Only for a moment—to the kitchen and back—but that you saw me fly.”


( )
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
Bit sick, don't seem to have the wherewithall to write about this, so I thought I'd let Frisch do that. A few extracts from a Paris Review interview, the entirety of which can be found here: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2367/the-art-of-fiction-no-113-max-fris...

INTERVIEWER

When did you first decide to create the flat, cold, “affectless” hero we have been discussing?

FRISCH

Hard to know. I think I made it not all at once, but slowly; gradually it felt more and more comfortable. Just now I think—I don’t know if it’s right or wrong—that if you describe emotions, or the hero describes his emotions, as in the work of Dostoyevsky, for instance, or Melville, or other great writers, the danger that you will fall into the conventional is very great. It was Goethe who told us how we feel if we are in love with a girl—there are forms for that. But suppose you try to establish a situation, a movement, to show gestures and faces, and not talk about it. This is closer to film than old literature was. We have learned a lot from movies about what can be expressed without words. I would be proud or happy if a reader could feel the essential situation of, say, the man in Man in the Holocene, to feel how it is to be wet in your pants, how it’s getting colder, the feeling of growing tired, of melancholy or despair. That you get without using all those words. That you feel sensually and see with your eyes. I want to give that, or I try, anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a kind of control that is not within your conscious grasp?

FRISCH

Yes, I have this control that tells me when to cut something, improve it, or give it up, often without knowing why. But just how much of this capacity you have is important in determining, I think, whether you’re a writer or not. If you criticize what you’re doing too early you’ll never write the first line. Then, if you don’t have this capacity at all, that’s also a danger. Before I published Man in the Holocene, it was not a bad book, but I had an uncomfortable feeling about it. That’s criticism. Then after I wrote a second draft I had the feeling, “Now it works, now it’s okay.” And afterwards, again this shock that it didn’t work. If I hadn’t had that feeling it would have been published and I would never have reached the point I could reach. You’re awfully dependent on that critical sense. When I was young, around thirty, it took me much more time to get the feeling of a scene, to know whether it worked or not, and to be able to give up on it if it didn’t. I would work for half a year sometimes on something that didn’t work—I couldn’t give up.

INTERVIEWER

The opening sentence of Man in the Holocene reads, “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain . . . Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.” One accepts it upon first reading. Then suddenly, it strikes one, “What is this man thinking of?” It’s a remarkable image, a weird image. How did you come upon it?

FRISCH

I think you’re right; reading it for the first time it’s a little unusual, a little crazy. A person with strange problems, obviously; we feel he’s doing nonsense, he’s bored, and we understand he has to wait because of the rain. Later when you know him it acquires a different meaning even if one doesn’t go back to read the book again, but simply remembers the sentence. A pagoda is a full, complete picture of the world. That’s what he tries to have because he’s afraid that the world will get lost. And what he’s doing with this crispbread, of course, is just the opposite. So it’s a dream that the world should be perfect, that we should be able to view it as a whole in its perfect, clear beauty. I started only the last version of the book with that sentence. Before then I had it later on, on the second page. It was important to have it for the beginning; otherwise you get the description of the painful weather, so what? Only this pagoda sentence brings it immediately onto another level. There must be something else. That’s, of course, what you call craft, isn’t it?
………….

With the parable you think—you hope—you can get a complicated reality. Nowadays I doubt that too, because the parable always has the tendency to prove something, to teach something, and I found out that I don’t have to teach. I just want to show the thing—and so I have stopped using parables.

…………….

Literature should show possibilities and avoid the idea that what happened had to happen. I don’t believe this aphorism.

FRISCH
Yes, I do. I always try, but I never succeed. Between us, I would say my favorite book, at this time, is Man in the Holocene.


A few months after our interview, I called Mr. Frisch to see if he had any final corrections or comments to add. “Yes,” he said. “Tell them that for just a brief moment I flew. Only for a moment—to the kitchen and back—but that you saw me fly.”


( )
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
This was a very strange reading experience: a loose sequence of descriptive and narrative sections, encyclopaedic articles, bible excerpts and memories. It takes a while before you realize that the book revolves around the older man, Herr Geiser, a confused loner who lives in a valley in southern Switzerland, not far from the Italian border. Geyser is clearly intrigued by the signs of decline in his environment (landslides due to constant rain, ants in his house, bus connections that have been interrupted), but also in himself: he has difficulty remembering things and doing the most basic actions. He tries to hold on tightly to what he once knew and focuses on geographical and historical articles and bible fragments (from Genesis) about the earliest geological and biological history; Frisch also inserts these articles and fragments into the text, with the original layout (up to and including texts in gothic lettering).
Geyser also ventures into a rather perilous trip through the mountains, trying to resume a journey that he used to undertake. We also get a flashback to a rather difficult climb of the Matterhorn, 50 years before. Certainly towards the end there seems to be something seriously wrong with the man, he sometimes seems unconscious for hours, and eventually people (including his daughter) appear who speak to him like a child.
As a writer, Frisch keeps himself in the background, but his seemingly purely descriptive report harshly portrays the dementing process of an old man who is more or less aware of what is happening. And also the broader metaphor, the reference to the ruthless power of erosion, to the nullity of man, (which only ‘appeared in the Holocene’, so very late in the history of the earth) finally becomes clear. What is a human life? What is man himself and can he withstand the enormous power of nature and time? Frisch makes his reader sweat in this philosophical parable. ( )
1 vote bookomaniac | Jul 15, 2019 |
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. ( )
1 vote 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 |
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Skelton, GeoffreyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.

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