Max Frisch

I have begun a re-translation of Max Frisch's well-known "Sketchbooks" for Seagull Books, with financial support from the Goethe-Institut in Munich and the Dietrich-Schindler-Stiftung in Zurich, starting with the "Tagebuch 1946-1949" in 2020 and followed by the "Tagebuch 1966-1971" in 2021.

Geoffrey Skelton did the original English translations, in discussion with Frisch, in 1977 and 1974 respectively — Frisch was of course a famous playwright when the second volume was published, whereas he was just starting out when the first appeared.

I have opted only to look at Skelton's text when I have completed my first draft so as not to be unduly influenced. That will be an exciting and intimidating day.

In the meantime, I aim to provide occasional updates here about some of Frisch's wide-ranging thinking about post-war Germany and writing, his outlines for future plays and observations on the performances he attended, and his descriptions of everyday life as an architect living in Zurich.

3 September 2021   Exhibition "Max Frisch und das Schauspielhaus Zürich", 23.08.2021 – 31.03.2022

Photo of Max Frisch & Kurt Hirschfeld at rehearsals for 'Andorra', 1961
© ETH-Bibliothek, Bildarchiv

6 February 2021   Max Frisch at Paradeplatz in Zurich in 1966

Spotted at the wonderful exhibition of Swiss photographer Pia Zanetti's works at the Fotostiftung Schweiz, 23 January – 24 May 2021

© Pia Zanetti/ Fotostiftung Schweiz / Codex Publisher, Produktion: Linkgroup /Printlink

16 December 2020   Sketchbook I – extra material

Whereas the 1976 second edition of "Tagebücher 1966-1971" re-included passages that had been omitted from the original publication, there was no change to "Tagebücher 1946-49" in German.

My translation will however be the first complete English rendering of the Sketchbooks 1946-49. Max Frisch and translator Geoffrey Skelton worked closely together on the text and chose to leave out a total of 45 pages or just over 11 per cent of the first diary.

Of the twelve passages they omitted, all but two run to less than one-and-a-half pages. The first exception is a period fantasy about a diplomat arriving in Prague to deliver a petition for peace and being forced to return with the message that it is to be war. The second is a draft treatment for a film (aborted before it could enter production) about a man who makes a pact with a "harlequin". Half Faust, half Graham Greene's "The Bomb Party", it charts a slide into tyranny and terror.

21 November 2020   Brecht

As the foremost German-language dramatist of his time, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) naturally casts a long shadow over Frisch's diaries – primarily the first (1946-9), but recollections also feature in the second (1966-71).

The German dramatist is the model of an engaged artist, as Frisch notes in Genoa in October 1946:

"A letter from a friend raises the question once again of whether it is the duty of any artistic enterprise to engage with the demands of the time. There is little doubt that it is our duty as citizens and human beings. But art, he writes, ought to rise above this. He may be right; but his decisively negative response to his own question is no less dangerous than a positive one. Bert Brecht gave the best answer I have so far heard to this nagging question:
‘What kind of times are they, when a talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors?!’"

When Frisch accuses German poetry of being antiquated, who is the exception?

"One of the very few people whose poems stand up to this scrutiny is Brecht. If this poem is to touch me, I must be neither ecstatic nor tired, which is what so many people regard as interiority. It remains a poem even if I read it aloud in the kitchen: with no candles, without a string quartet and oleander. It concerns me. And above all: I don’t need to forget something to take it seriously. It doesn’t require a particular mood; nor must it fear a different mood."

Brecht knows how to deliver his poetry too – matter-of-factly, as part of the real world.

"The way Brecht read this poem to us: timidly but naturally [...] showing the words as you show pebbles, fabric or other things that must speak for themselves; the behaviour of a man obliged to read out a text, while smoking his cigar, simply because not everyone has a copy; more or less as you would read out a letter: to inform people."

In 1948/9, when Brecht spends a year in Herrliberg, on Lake Zurich, between returning from exile in the United States and founding the Berliner Ensemble, Frisch sees him regularly. He feels a little intimidated by Brecht's intellect and preaching style. Yet unlike other interlocutors in whom Brecht seems disappointed, Frisch's architectural practice always gives him something concrete to fall back on. He provides the facts, Brecht the interpretations.

We also get to see Brecht in non-political, non-professional settings:

"Yesterday we went swimming together, the first time I’ve seen Brecht in natural surroundings, that is in an environment that cannot be changed and therefore interests him little. (‘And nature I looked at without patience. So passed my time which had been given to me on earth.’ ) So much needs to be changed that he has no time to praise the natural world. Like so much else about Brecht, this is a typical gesture, second nature of course, when he says nothing about nature. His only concern is whether we’re going to be caught in the looming thunderstorm or not. The lake is green, churned up by the wind, the sky purple and sulphur-yellow. Brecht, sporting his grey peaked cap as usual, leans against the slightly rotten wooden banister, smoking a cigar; it is the rottenness he notes: he cracks a joke about capitalism. Only when I’m already swimming does he go into the shed. There are flashes of lightning over the city, slanting plumes of rain drift in front of the distant hills, the birds dart around, the leaves of the tall beeches rustle, and dust is swirling on the road. A while later, I see Brecht get into the water, swim a few strokes and soon vanish back into the shed. His wife and I swim for a little longer in the urgent, splashing waves. By the time I step back onto land, Brecht is standing there in his grey jacket and grey cap again, praising the refreshment as he lights his next cigar.
‘You know,’ he says in a tone of voice that suggests we’ve interrupted our conversation barely long enough to catch our breath, ‘I think that’s absolutely right. The actor who plays Puntila must in no circumstances give the impression—’"

When Brecht visits the building site of the Letzigraben open-air swimming pool complex that the architect-playwright has designed in northern Zurich, Frisch notes:

"Brecht has an incredible eye, his intelligence a magnet for problems, teasing them out even from behind existing solutions. Explaining to him how, for instance, a diving platform came about, how the architectural form grew out of the structural engineering requirements; but not only grows: how it is incumbent on form not only to meet those requirements but also to present them to the eye—explaining this becomes an absolute pleasure, a shared pleasure. We tramp around for over two hours, up and down, in and out, round about; in addition, there is what inevitably separates the creator from the connoisseur—the fraternal aspect, the living consciousness born of experience: in the beginning there was nothing! . . . For example, when they see a drawing, connoisseurs hark back to Dürer or Rembrandt or Picasso; creators, whatever their field, are conscious of the blank sheet of paper."

1 November 2020   "Als der Krieg zu Ende war"

This diary entry is based on a story Frisch heard from friends in Berlin about a love affair between a German woman who is hiding with her Wehrmacht husband in the cellar of their house in Berlin when it is occupied by a Russian unit. The commanding officer – so the couple, Agnes and Horst Anders, are told by the Jewish soldier who finds her while searching for wine – would like to meet Agnes. And to save her husband's life, she agrees to meet the Russian officer punctually at seven every evening. To stave off her husband's jealousy and concern, she invents conversations about literature and Russia that she can never have with the Russian officer — because they do not share a language.

— Language
— Love
— The battle against stereotypes

— "Eine Frau in Berlin" ("A Woman in Berlin") by Anonyma

17 October 2020   Story

"Someone tells a purportedly true story that took place near Stuttgart: – On a small farm lived a woman whose husband had been taken prisoner by the Russians as a young soldier during the First World War. People thought the woman was mad because she was still counting on the return of her husband many years later; her neighbours told one another that she regularly put fresh sheets on his bed and, even though she had had no sign of life from him, her belief that he was alive remained unshaken ten years, twenty years after the First World War. Then came the Second World War. The woman survived it; she seemed utterly reasonable in all matters not pertaining to her missing husband. The Second World War did nothing to change her silent, unspoken delusion, apparent only in her behaviour, that one fine day her husband would come back. Once again, hundreds of thousands of women waited, expectantly or not, for their husbands to return from Russia. One of the first who did actually come back was a very old man the neighbours immediately recognized as the crazy woman’s husband when he knocked on their door; he asked whether his wife was still alive and was told that she had never believed him dead. Only after receiving this news did he dare approach his house. The neighbours waited until the next morning before going over to see and hear how the woman had coped with this unlikely event. They found her completely calm, unchanged, and it was clear that she knew nothing about the man who had turned up the previous day. She refused to believe a word her neighbours told her until investigations revealed that the neighbours had not been trying to fool her and that, having believed for 28 years that her husband would return, she was not out of her mind; he was found dead in the cesspit outside the back door."

4 October 2020   Punctuation

Frisch uses lots of dashes in his diaries. I’m a big fan of dashes, and Frisch employs them conventionally — in lieu of brackets, for example — but he also loves to put them at the end of sentences, not only to allow dialogue to trail off or signal uncertainty or interruption, but as a slight pause before a full stop: ‘I’m a wrestler; defend myself any other way and you’ll be dead -.’ (p. 651)
(It’s worth noting the semicolon too; Frisch’s use of semicolons is consistently excellent.)

He will also use dashes near the start of a sentence, for example in this passage on page 647 headed ‘Unterwegs’: Die Affen im Zoo - Eindruck: die hocken gerade an der Grenze wo die Langeweile beginnt.’ Or sometimes floating loosely at the end of a paragraph to signify an incomplete thought or action –


Page numbers refer to the Suhrkamp 'Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge'

1 July 2020   Zurich

Reading Frisch's novel "Stiller" in parallel with translating the first sketchbook, I came across this lovely description of Zurich:

"Zurich could be a charming little town. It lies at the lower end of a pretty lake whose hilly shores are not disfigured by factories but very much so by villas . . . I am especially enchanted by the location of its little town which is embraced from both sides by placid hills and natural forests that tempt you out on country walks, and in its centre sparkles a small green river, which indicates the direction of the great oceans (as every water course does, of course) and thus it always inspires a sensation of life, a yearning for the wider world, for coastlines . . .

There are also, as you hear in the streets, foreigners from all over the world. It is no accident that Zurich's coat of arms is blue and white; in the stark light of its föhn-fueled blue, which, adorned with the white of the gulls, is said to cause even the locals frequent headaches, this Zurich really does have a magic of its own, a "cachet" that is to be sought more in the air than anywhere else, simply a sparkle in the atmosphere, which stands in sharp contrast to the moping nature of the local physiognomy, and something out-and-out festive, something sonorous, something neat and tidy like its coat of arms, something blue and white with no conspicuous characteristics. It is, you might say, a town which derives its charm largely from the scenery, and at any rate you can understand the foreigners who get out on the embankment and take some pictures before they travel on to Italy, and you can understand the locals, who are proud when lots of pictures are taken. Its narrow lake, roughly the width of the Mississippi, curves glinting like a crooked scythe cutting through the green, undulating landscape. Even on weekdays, it is teeming with little sailing boats. Amid all the bustle, there is something spa-like about this Zurich, a traders' meeting place. The Alps are not as close as they are on the postcards, luckily; at a seemly distance they cap the swell of the foothills, a crowning surf of permanent white snow and bluish cloud."