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‘Den beiden Schweizern zum Geburtstag’:

Commemorating Max Frisch and
Friedrich Dürrenmatt

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There is a long-established precedent to marking the one hundredth anniversary of Max Frisch’s birth and the ninetieth anniversary of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s together. As Frisch once remarked, they had little choice in the matter of being friends, and it has been suggested more than once that it was precisely the public perception of the Frisch-Dürrenmatt phenomenon that put such pressure on their friendship. They were both resigned, it seems, to joining the long tradition of literary ‘dioscuri’, as Hans Meyer put it, alongside Goethe and Schiller, Grabbe and Büchner, Gottfried Keller and C.F. Meyer. And to a degree, their similarities are undeniable: they were both Swiss, wrote plays and novels, were born within ten years of one another and died within months of each other. They lived through some of the most significant events of the twentieth century, and they engaged with many of them in their writings. On undergraduate syllabus courses they have become synonymous with post-war German literature and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘mastering the past’), and most German A-Level students will be familiar at least with Andorra (Frisch) and The Visit (Dürrenmatt). Both writers have come to stand for a concept of literature which demands the active participation of their readers and audiences. It is hard to conceive of these figures as being anything but friends.
 
The correspondence in English
(Seagull Books)
Letters between the two authors
(Diogenes)


 
And yet their correspondence – published by Diogenes and due out in English translation in May 2011 – fills a very slim volume. It is full of long gaps between letters, which bear witness to an increasing distance and estrangement, fuelled by disagreements, misunderstandings, rivalry and the awareness that their friendship had run its course. This suggests that their friendship was as much a creation of their reception as anything else. Furthermore, the tendency to categorise them together as politically engaged, outspoken Swiss authors obscures any differences regarding their backgrounds – Frisch was born in Zurich, the son of an architect, and Dürrenmatt spent his early years in the small municipality of Konolfingen in the canton of Bern, his father the parish priest. The importance placed on their shared nationality also overshadows their often complex and ambivalent relationship with their native country, and their controversial status within Switzerland.
 
Frisch in particular was very vocal in public debates on culture and politics in Switzerland. Whilst his early journalistic writings show him to have been conservative and nationalistic in his views, his later writings indicate a distinct move to the left. This tendency led to Frisch’s involvement, in 1966, in a heated literary debate with the literary critic Emil Staiger, who was suspected of having national-socialist leanings; and it underpinned his sympathy with the youth protests at the end of the 1960s, his criticism of Switzerland’s treatment of guest workers and, in the last few years of his life, his protests against the continuation of the Swiss army. In 1989, Frisch was directly implicated in Switzerland’s ‘Fichenaffäre’, when he discovered that he had been under surveillance for over forty years. At the end of his life he stated that the only thing linking him to Switzerland was his passport. Yet the fact that Frisch still chose to live out his last years in Zurich, where he died of cancer on 4 April 1991, just weeks before his eightieth birthday, suggests an enduring, deeply personal connection to a country he loved to hate in public. The fact that all but one of his plays had their premiere at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich is also indicative of a loyalty which endured in spite of his international reputation and success in other Germanspeaking countries.
 
Dürrenmatt mainly kept himself at a distance from such public debates and controversies, and was therefore never such a vocal, public figure as Frisch. This is in keeping with his refusal to tie himself to one particular position, whether it was artistic, religious or political, stating that he was ultimately only concerned with the ‘human’. In later years he did however voice his position on matters such as the Israel conflict, although always with the refusal to define and commit to a specific world-view. Like Frisch, he was also critical of the idea of a Swiss army and once likened Switzerland to a prison.
 
Both writers considered being an author as much a profession as a calling. For both Frisch and Dürrenmatt, the decision to make a living as a writer was not always straightforward. Initially, Dürrenmatt was undecided whether to make a living as a painter or a writer. And although he finally chose to be a writer, and earned a living in his early years as a journalist and theatre critic, his love of painting remained, and he continued to paint and exhibit during the 1970s and 80s. He enjoyed financial success before international literary fame as the writer of radio plays and crime novels. His life as a writer is documented in pictures in the forthcoming volume Dürrenmatt. Sein Leben in Bildern (Diogenes, 2011).
 
A pictorial biography of
Dürrenmatt’s life
A brand new biography of Max Frisch (KiWi)


 
Similarly, after a few years as a newspaper journalist, and a few early writing successes, Frisch decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and study architecture, and in 1940 he got his first job in an architecture firm. In 1943 he won a competition to design a swimming pool, the Freibad Letzigraben, which is still in use today and recently underwent complete restoration to return it to its original condition. Frisch eventually returned to being a fulltime writer, but he continued to write and lecture on architectural themes for the rest of his life. In their own ways, both Frisch and Dürrenmatt bridged the gap between literature and politics, high culture and low culture, Swiss insularity and global politics, all of which are indicative of a refusal to allow art to be an insular practice unconcerned with matters of the real world.
 
The one hundredth anniversary of Frisch’s birth on 15 May 2011 is being marked by numerous publications and events which serve as a reminder of the breadth and diversity of his work and impact. A new biography by Volker Weidermann, Max Frisch. Sein Leben, seine Bücher (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2010) acknowledges from the outset the paradoxical undertaking of writing a biography of a man who regarded a life as one version of many possible stories. Weidermann does not shy away from those aspects of Frisch’s writing – his early conservative, nationalistic journalism – which previous biographers have preferred to neglect.
 
A further publication was a source of controversy even before its release. The publication of Frisch’s third diary, Entwürfe zu einem dritten Tagebuch (Suhrkamp, 2011), the existence of which was only discovered in 2009, has triggered a debate on the moral justification of making public a diary which Frisch never clearly intended to publish. It is a debate which has caused a rift within the Max Frisch foundation, of which the editor of the diary, Peter von Matt, is president. The publication of the diary was decided upon by a vote; and all members, with the exception of the writer and literary scholar Adolf Muschg, voted in favour of the publication. Muschg’s reasoning that the third diary is a weak and tired piece of work held no sway against the excitement of the discovery. Peter von Matt’s view of the diary is that the work is not simply the jottings of Frisch in his later years, but is as much a product of work and self-stylisation as his previous two diaries and thus has a place in Frisch’s oeuvre, providing new and original insights into his work. There is no doubt that with the opening this year of the safe which contains unpublished material such as the so-called ‘Berliner Journale’ and other sensitive writings, which Frisch himself asked to be sealed until the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the debate on the rights of posterity over authors’ materials will continue.
 
Entwürfe zu einem dritten
Tagebuch
Frisch’s Zurich Transit in English for the first time (Seagull)


 
The anniversary has also been marked by several Englishlanguage publications which introduce some of Frisch’s less well-known works to non- German readers. Two texts from the late 1960s, Zurich Transit and Biography: A Game, were published last year by Seagull Books, in English translations by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, and will no doubt be new to most readers. They are less political than his best-known plays Andorra and Biedermann und die Brandstifter; and in their intensive engagement with themes of identity, causality and fate they are much closer thematically to the better known novels Homo Faber and Stiller. Nevertheless, they are important works in themselves, not least because they show Frisch experimenting with new genres. Zurich Transit is the outline for a film based on an episode from the novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein of 1964, which tells the story of a man who, on a business trip away from home, reads his own obituary in the newspaper and returns home to attend his funeral without revealing his presence to the mourners.
 
 
Biography

The play Biography: A Game, revised again in 1984, continues with some of the themes from the film script but is at the same time a real attempt to create a new form of drama. In Frisch’s view, theatre offered what life did not: the chance to experiment, repeat, go back and undo. The play shows the main character using the script of his life to return to scenes and re-act them, thereby changing the outcome of his life. The play shows his failure to re-act a scene that might have prevented him from marrying his future wife, which resulted in an unhappy marriage. Whilst this might seem to suggest that it is not impossible to change one’s fate, it is clear within the play that this failure lies with the protagonist’s character and not with the power of the gods. At the end of the play, the wife is offered the chance to return to the scene in which she met her future husband and prevent their eventual marriage, which she accepts. The play thus remains a statement on the potential for free will and freedom of choice.
 
Both publications by Seagull are beautiful editions and the translations convey the modernity and enduring relevance of Frisch’s language. Although by no means necessary, a translator’s preface would have been useful for situating these relatively unknown works within the context of Frisch’s oeuvre for the benefit of their English-speaking readers, and for addressing any translationrelated issues. It is perhaps to their credit, however, that these Seagull publications do not present Frisch’s works as scholarly texts, but allow the works to stand on their own. Perhaps these publications will be followed by further translations of Frisch’s lesser-known works, including his diaries, the second of which contains his ‘Fragebogen’, eleven questionnaires based on themes such as marriage, friendship and money, the answers to which are left up to the reader. Quite apart from being excellent dinnerparty conversation fodder, the partly unsettling, partly infuriating experience of reading a work which raises questions and offers no answers is one with which the reader of Frisch will be familiar.
 
Anniversaries are busy times for publishers and academics, but aside from their purpose as a useful marketing tool, they also offer an opportunity for reflection and evaluation. The fear that the deaths of Frisch and Dürrenmatt signalled the death of Swiss literature has proved unfounded. Nor have their deaths resulted in a decline in their impact and popularity. Their plays remain a standard feature of most theatre repertories, they are part of the school canon in German-speaking countries and in Britain, and their works continue to be republished and translated. Whilst the rush of publications celebrating Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s one hundredth birthday are yet to come, there is no doubt that they will; just as there is little doubt that Max Frisch will also feature amongst Dürrenmatt’s anniversary celebrations, as they continue in many ways to be inseparable, ‘die beiden Schweizer’ to the end.
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Carly McLaughlin
completed a doctorate on the poetry of Richard Dehmel in the German department at Queen Mary, University of London in 2008. Since then, she has worked as a lecturer in the Department of British Culture at the University of Bamberg, where she has taught courses on Cultural Studies, Northern Irish literature and religion in Modernism.
 
 
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