I have the great Swiss writer Max Frisch on the brain just now because I’m going to be moderating a panel about him next week at the Zürich meets New York Festival and am just reading his autobiographical (he says so himself) novel Montauk from 1974/75. The book is set in New York and Long Island and ostensibly recounts a long weekend spent in the company of a young American journalist named Lynn, though much of the narration is devoted to memories of other visits and other women, in particular the great Ingeborg Bachmann, who died tragically young and was, for a time, Frisch’s lover. Also that of Paul Celan. Bachmann is the sort of writer you can love madly, unreasonably, in a way that embraces her entire troubled life as well as her work. I wholeheartedly love her novel Malina, about a woman who withdraws so deeply into her own interior that no one can find her. My love of Frisch is perhaps less intimate, but damn can he put together a sentence. His prose is so gorgeous – every page is filled with pleasures. My favorite book of his is one of his shortest, the novella Man in the Holocene, about a very old man gradually losing his memory during a season of massive rainstorms in the Tessin region of the Swiss Alps. It’s barely over 100 pages of impeccably condensed prose, but the rough draft was 600 pages long, and in Montauk Frisch complains about how much trouble he’s been having getting that other book right. He also quotes a few lines from one of my other favorite texts of his, Fragebogen (Questionnaire) from 1966, a list of twenty-five questions that are as revealing as any answer might be. Here are a few of them (hastily translated by moi):
1. Are you sure that you are genuinely interested in whether or not the human race will go on existing after you and all the people of your acquaintance are gone?
2. Say why. A hashtag or two will suffice.
3. How many children of yours were never born because you willed it to be so?
4. Whom would you prefer never to have met?
5. Are you aware of any wrongdoing on your part towards some other person, who need not be aware of it, and does this make you more likely to detest yourself or the other person?
6. Would you like to have a flawless memory?
All right, fine, there were no #hashtags in 1966, but aside from the anachronism problem, the word is a not-bad equivalent for the German “Stichwort,” which might literally translate as “keyword” – it’s the word you use to look something up in a dictionary or encyclopedia, or the shorthand you might employ when making an outline. “Stichwort” is such a useful concept that it’s hard to imagine the English language managed to get along without a good equivalent until the age of Twitter. Though I guess I could have said: “It’s enough to list a few key points.” In German, question 2 reads: “Warum? Stichworte genügen.” That’s pretty elegant. Frisch in general gets by with far fewer words than most writers, and you can always tell exactly what he means. If you’re curious about the rest of his questionnaire, I found an anonymously translated online version here. Or look it up in a library, where I hope you’ll find a better translation.
And if you need some reading matter to entertain you on the way to the library, I can offer up a questionnaire of my own – on the subject of (no surprises here) translation – that I recently did for the website Full Stop, which is just now beginning to add interviews with translators to its other offerings. If you read it, you’ll see me talking my way through a translation problem that is just as gnarly as “Stichwort.” I hope you won’t be bored, and in any case, it’s short.
And if you’d like to come to the Max Frisch panel next week, I would love to see you there. I’ll be speaking with some folks who have intense personal knowledge of Frisch both as a writer and a person, and I’ll have lots of questions for them. “Max Frisch: The Writer’s Moral and Political Responsibility,” NYU Deutsches Haus, 42 Washington Mews, 6:30 p.m., reception to follow, admission free, rsvp recommended.