Frischin' For Luckies

on Thursday, April 28, 2011
Only a month or so after stumbling across Krakatit, a previously unknown (to me at least) book by one of my favourite authors, Karel Capek, it seems I've done it again. And this time it was even weirder. Every now and then I do an Amazon search to see if any 'new' books by my favourite obscure European authors have popped up in translation. Capek, Bernhard, Bjorneboe, Frisch, Hrabal, Lem. I know they all have works that have either never been translated or the English editions of which have long been out of print and so I hold out continual hope that spiffy new copies will magically appear in the field of search results. It is a generally fruitless endeavour. Once I found Capek's The Absolute At Large. Another time it was Bjorneboe's play Amputation. But for the most part I come up with bubkes.

Two days ago, for no particular reason, I did a search for Max Frisch and was glad to see a collection of his plays that I have not yet read. Naturally, I ordered them but, truth be told, it was a hollow victory. I don't really like reading plays. Stoppard aside, unless I'm watching them or acting in them I just don't see the point. My sudden inexplicable bout of Frischination had not been sated. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled across a newly published, hardcover edition of a novella of which I had never even heard sitting on the shelf of the bookstore around the corner from my office. The very next day! Wrapped in plastic, no less!!

An Answer From The Silence, newly translated by Mike Mitchell (he of Kafka, Bernhard and Goethe fame), tells of young Balz Leuthold's quest to live at the very edge of existence. Leaving behind a fiancee and a lover, he sets off on a hike into uncharted mountain wilderness and disappears. Like always with Frisch, the narrative floats around in time and space, utilising flashbacks, shifting perspectives and sudden schisms between frivolous naturist ponderings and outbursts of intense despair. While Balz takes in the beauty of all that surrounds him, his fiancee and lover, forced to come together in the hope he might be found, must fashion an unnatural accord. In the great swirl of the narrative, Balz becomes something akin to Schrodinger's Cat, with Frisch seeming to posit that we might all be thought of as alive and dead until we rise above the challenge of merely existing. Balz's eventual reappearance is a hard-fought redemption. He has frostbite, will probably need his arm and foot amputated, and will have to sort out his love life. But, he is finally happy.

This short work, Frisch's second, has all the hallmarks of what made him such a great figure in modern philosophical literature. Resting on the twin Frischian pillars of existentialism and nature, it serves as an accessible, if discomforting, introduction to his longer novels or, for those of us who are already fans, a welcome alternative to having to read plays and pretend we like them. I'm now going to play in traffic.


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