The unmaking of Man, the Maker: Homo Faber by Max Frisch

“We were leaving from La Guardia Airport New York, three hours late because of snow storms.”

Max Frisch’s 1957 novel Homo Faber begins with a matter of fact tone, an air of precision and efficiency. The narrator, Walter Faber, is a Swiss engineer traveling to Venezuela on behalf of UNESCO. Traveling is a way of life for him. But this trip, from the portentous delay on the runway onward, will mark the beginning of a systematic unraveling of a life bound to logic and technological certainty.

Faber’s account of his journey is spare and unromantic; he favours an exactness in his documentation, insisting that he is a practical, pragmatic man. He places, he tells us, no stock in “providence and fate”. Where others see chance, he relies on probability. Yet as a series of incidents appear to conspire against him, the laws and order of his heretofore measure of existence start to blur, to fall away in a stream of seemingly implausible circumstances. Even though he is obliged to admit that he has found himself caught in a flood of coincidences, he seems to hold to this as an excuse to absolve his part in the tragedy that ultimately unfolds. At least until that is no longer possible.

2016-03-09 18.31.00 During a brief stop over in Houston, Faber, feeling overwhelmingly ill and anxious, makes an attempt to miss his connection to Mexico City. He is located at the last moment and ushered aboard. Before long, the plane loses one and then two of its four engines and is forced to make an emergency landing in the desert where the passengers will remain for four days. During this time he will discover that his German seat mate is in fact the brother of his friend Joachim, a man he has not seen in 20 years. Even more surprising, he learns that this friend was, at one time married to Hanna, the woman he once loved.

This unexpected resurrection of ghosts from his past knocks Faber off balance but he still manages to describe the tedious and brutally hot days spent waiting for rescue in a manner so unaffected and matter-of-fact that some scenes take on an element of the absurd:

“Towards evening, just before dusk, the promised aircraft arrived, a sports plane; it circled around for a long time before it finally ventured to drop the parachute – three sacks and two boxes that had to be collected from a radius of three hundred yards – we were saved. CARTA BLANCA, CERVEZA MEXICANA, good beer, even Herbert, the German, had to admit as we stood around with our beer tins in the desert, a social gathering in brassières and underpants with another sunset, which I took on coloured film.”

Once they are finally on their way, Faber will opt to make a detour to seek out his friend and in the process learn of his unfortunate fate. After his intended stop in Venezuela he then returns home to New York where he finds that Ivy, his mistress, has ignored his attempt to break off their relationship. Dismayed at the prospect of a week in her company he makes the impulsive decision to travel to his next business engagement in Paris by ship, rather than plane. As the ship makes its way across the Atlantic he will meet and fall for the dynamic 20 year-old Sabeth, a young woman 30 years his junior. He has, he assures us repeatedly, no idea that she is his daughter.

“What difference does it make if I prove I had no idea, that I couldn’t possibly have known? I have destroyed the life of my child and I cannot make restitution. Why draw up a report? I wasn’t in love with the girl with the reddish ponytail, she attracted my attention, that was all, I couldn’t have suspected she was my own daughter, I didn’t even know I was a father. How does providence come into it? I wasn’t in love, on the contrary, she couldn’t have seemed more of a stranger once we got into conversation, and it was only through unlikely coincidence that we got into conversation at all, my daughter and I. We might just as well have passed one another by. What has providence to do with it? Everything might have turned out quite differently.”

Yet, from this point forward, he is on a collision course with a destiny of Oedipal and tragic dimensions.

With Walter Faber, Frisch has created a character who engenders empathy, in spite of the taboo circumstances in which he ultimately finds himself. He is defensive, he equivocates, and he expresses opinions that, especially to our more socially conscious ears, sound dated, racist, and chauvinistic. They are, of course, in keeping with a man of his times, especially one so inclined to black and white reasoning. However with respect to women, Frisch intentionally places very strong, independent women in his protagonist’s line of sight – and they are the women who hold the deepest attraction for him.

The prose is brilliantly tight and restrained. Repetition and rhythm combined with shifts forward and back in time create a remarkable tension. Faber, as a man making a report on these recent events in his life, a critical accounting as we learn at the end, hides from his narrative only that which is hidden to himself – the depth of his own personal, emotional engagement. The result is a book that resonates with the reader long after the final page is turned. As our hero realizes, far too late perhaps:

“To be eternal means to have existed.”

Originally published in English in 1959, Homo Faber: A Report by Max Frisch is translated by Michael Bullock.

2016-03-09 18.29.26As a postscript, it’s worth noting that this book has no North American rights and, in Canada at least it is as rare as hen’s teeth. I ordered a copy from the UK in early February which has yet to arrive. The ante was upped when I was asked to provide a short “trailer” about this book for the upcoming Spring issue of The Scofield Magazine (Max Frisch & Identity). I ordered a second back up copy for $1, also still missing in action, and placed an inter-library loan request for one of the two copies held in this entire province. Apparently that route has an expected 5-6 week turn around, so getting desperate I finally had to have a librarian from the central branch coax the U of Alberta to find it on their shelves and courier it (at my expense) so I could read it and get my requested piece off by the end of last week.

Ah, but some day I will own two copies of this book! Good thing it’s a keeper.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

22 thoughts on “The unmaking of Man, the Maker: Homo Faber by Max Frisch”

    1. I am not familiar enough with Oedipus Rex to know but I do believe that there are some references. Appropriately though, the trajectory of Faber’s journey with Sabeth takes them to Greece where tragedy strikes.

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      1. As I recall, it’s pretty loaded up with references to the original. I’d have to dig out my copy and sit with it for a while to list them. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing to do some time. I enjoyed the book a lot. And even the film Voyager (based on Homo Faber, with Sam Shepherd) isn’t bad. I have an old VHS copy of that.

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      2. I think it has been over 30 years since I last read the play, so revisiting that before re-reading Homo Faber myself would likely reveal a lot. Anthony had tweeted a youtube link to the film (with Italian subtitles I think) and I bookmarked it. I did want to read the original before writing my short entry for The Scofield, though for a while there I was afraid I’d be pulling it together with movie and Wikipedia!

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  1. It sounds extremely good. I have his Man in the Holocene which I’m hoping to read soon. Are you familiar with that at all?

    As you probably know, Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed has been engaging a lot with Frisch recently.

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    1. I thought it was excellent. A book I see myself returning to without the time crunch (once I finally get my own copy). It was Anthony’s focus on Frisch that reminded me of the fact that I had bookmarked this in the past, intrigued largely by the fact that it is not readily available here.

      I have an early novel on hand and definitely plan to read more including Man in the Holocene. His other major works are much easier to find here.

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    1. At first I am always intrigued by a book that is “hard to get” if you like. I ordered it knowing it would take time (a matter of Canadian customs I think) but the pressure was on when I agreed to write a piece on this particular book for an upcoming literary publication. Having my writing “published” builds my resume, plus it is an honour, literary geek that I am!

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  2. Ironically, given your struggle to find a copy, this is a novel I have often seen without really knowing anything about it or the author – thanks for putting that right. I’m unassuming the tone is darkly comic; it may well be my kind of thing!

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    1. That’s what was so frustrating, in the UK I could even bought it as an e-book. Within Canada I found only a few copies in English, all too expensive. In German or French I would have fared better. It is customs that slows things down. But even then, if it wasn’t for a commitment to write 5-8 sentences for another publication I would have been content to wait. Instead it became a panic.

      I do think you would like this book. I don’t know if it is darkly comic exactly, but the narrator’s flattened way of writing about himself does take on a humorous tone. I would want to say that it is more on the lines of tragedy in the classic, even Shakespearean sense – but told in a very spare, precise way. It is quite remarkable how Frisch pulls it together and makes you really care for poor Faber.

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      1. Thinking about this today concerning Oedipus. It’s been a few years since I’ve read Homo Faber but in my stirring memory I remember references to various Greek myths and not just Oedipus. I have to go back and read it. Between you and Anthony you’ve reawakened a yen for Frisch. And now The Scofield headed that way.

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      2. I blame Anthony. 🙂 Between his posts, books,yo and yours, my friend, I am forever adding to my reading list! I hope to read more Frisch prior to the publication of The Scofield in May. I have An Answer from Silence on hand and most of his other major novels are quite readily available here.

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  3. It’s hard to imagine for someone living in Switzerland that it could be difficult to get a copy if this book. I remember that I was so surprised when I read this. The prose is so polished it’s almost crisp. And you are right, it’s one of those books you think about long after having closed it.

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  4. I quite liked the film, dated though it is. It succeeds in bringing out the dark and sinister notes of the book. Frisch is by no means a humorous writer, even of dark comedies, and Homo Faber is so very brave in creating a protagonist who may be guilty of one of the most heinous crimes yet is likeable, to a point.

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    1. I started watching the film when you posted a link, but decided to wait until I read the book. This is a novel that I prepared to read as far as I reasonably could because my timeline for the Scofield was coming and the book I ordered was (still is) nowhere in sight. So when I finally sat down with the book I could not help but marvel at how spare and intense the writing is – this is my absolute favourite style, the kind of writing that makes me wish I could write fiction.

      I agree, it is not a comic novel in any sense, but the juxtaposition of such an emotionally distant narrator with such a surreal series of coincidences creates a level of absurdity – and I might even argue that is what allows the reader to care about a narrator who would, under other circumstances, be unbearable. When I finally get my own copy, one I can underline and mark up, I look forward to re-visiting this work.

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