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.”
As the novel unfolds Balz is revealed as not such a total failure, except in his own eyes. He has a Ph.D., is ready to take on his new job of teaching (although in that system it sounds like he will teach school-aged children), and is engaged to a woman named Barbara.
After a trek he arrives at an inn at the base of some mountains, and the reader learns he intends to climb one by a route never achieved before, the North Ridge. (The helpful afterward by Peter von Mott explains that Frisch’s contemporary readers would have recognized this as the North Wall of the Eiger Mountain which many had failed to climb yet, with upcoming tries much in the news.) Balz spends a day or two at the inn during bad weather, strikes up a relationship with Irene, a woman who has come to the inn with a married couple. He makes a practice climb on another rock face, one which we hear has been only successfully climbed by a few; clearly he is fit and experienced, not as wholly delusional as the reader might have feared from earlier descriptions. When he reaches the top of this climb he stands in the silence in an anticlimactic moment, an achievement with no self-evident meaning.
Balz sets out to climb the North Ridge. Irene follows, and turns out to be no innocent lured by the dashing young man. His fiancé Barbara arrives at the inn after their departure, gets the picture, reveals that she actually doesn’t really love Balz (nor he her). Yet she goes to the camp where Irene has stayed, and they have an agreeable conversation; at nightfall Balz has not returned and a rescue party is sent out.
Balz does return, changed. It’s safe to say he won’t feel the need to achieve the spectacular anymore, and he does have an answer of sort for his living the rest of his life. No need to reveal what forms those developments take. To me the resolution seemed satisfying, “correct.”
This novel is 100 pages and a quick read in an evening. It’s an entertaining book to see in the context of modernism in general and Frisch’s overall works specifically. As the Afterward points out, the themes in this novel are ones Frisch returned to frequently. I had read Man in the Holocene in college, and lent it out never to be returned. It’s good to find a great writer who holds up.
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