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Latest Review: "An Answer from the Silence" by Max Frisch

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Grant Barber on Max Frisch’s An Answer from the Silence: A Story from the Mountains, an early work of Frisch’s just now translated into English for the first time by Mike Mitchell, and published this month by Seagull Books.

Along with Robert Walser, Max Frisch is one of Switzerland’s greatest writers. He’s most well known for Homo Faber and Man in the Holocene, but I’m Not Stiller, Montauk, and Gantenbein are all worth checking out. (Stiller and Man in the Holocene were recently reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press.)

An Answer from the Silence was Frisch’s first novel (and, for the Wiki haters out there, isn’t reference on his entry), which he subsequently shunned and “refused to allow it to be included in his Collected Works in the 1970s.” This was a book that we tried to get the rights to, but alas, Seagull beat us to the punch. (What Seagull is doing is very admirable, and not receiving near the attention it deserves from American critics.)

In his own words, Grant Barber is “an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston and a keen bibliophile. Maybe by the time he retires his Spanish will be good enough to try his own translations of Latin American fiction.” And here’s the opening of his review:

Ah, the storied Swiss Alps: snow capped mountains, fields of wild flowers, burbling streams of clean water, simple folks out doing what simple folks do in such settings. Take for example the flock of sheep accompanied by blond haired girl along a winding path. Especially of note is how she picks up a rock and wings it at errant sheep.

In this, his second novel, Frisch gives a modernist take on the heroic quest for meaning by the solitary man in nature. Balz Leuthold, 30 years old, is a sorely disappointed man. Seventeen years ago he had accompanied his older brother (himself 30, soon to be married) in these same mountains. He had vowed then not to settle for the ordinary, but instead achieve the extraordinary in . . . something.

“You could still tell yourself: you’re only twenty, everything’s still possible. And how proud you are when everything was still possible! Later it was: twenty-five’s no age at all, and you like reading about people who had achieved nothing at twenty-five, which was something out of the ordinary, and those around them who did not believe that they had this or that achievement in them. True, you still didn’t know in what field your future achievements would lie, but in the meantime you wore ties and hats of a style that would never occur to a ordinary citizen, and even at times you were afraid you might be ridiculous . . . and worthless and worse than anyone else on earth, it was a painful thought but not without its comfort; at least it gave you the feeling that it made you a special person, perhaps a criminal, and it was only when you failed to achieve anything by way of misdeeds that others could not do equally well, that a new and more despairing fear set in that your extraordinary achievement might not happen.”

Hipsters beware! As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “nothing new under the sun.”

Click here to read the full review.

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