Posted by: Corri van de Stege | May 7, 2008

Max Frisch – Homo Faber


‘The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is a biennial award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today.

The Prize consists of $50,000, a replica of an eagle feather cast in silver, and a certificate. A generous endowment from the Neustadt Family of Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas, ensures the award in perpetuity.

The prize was established in 1969 as the Books Abroad International Prize for Literature, then renamed the Books Abroad / Neustadt Prize before assuming its present name in 1976, The Neustadt International Prize for Literature. It is the first international literary award of this scope to originate in the United States and is one of the very few international prizes for which poets, novelists, and playwrights are equally eligible.’ (The Neustadt International Literature Prize website)



One of the winners of this prize is Max Frisch, who was given the award in 1986.

Max Frisch was born in Switzerland in 1911 and he died in 1991.  He was an architect but also a novelist who won a number of German literature prizes as well as the Neustadt international Prize. 


Homo Faber was first published in 1957 (in German) and this translation into English is by Michael Bullock in 1959.  As mentioned previously I found the book a page-turner.  The story takes off from La Guardia Airport in New York, literally, and takes us into skin and life of Walter Faber, a Swiss engineer who is really only taken by the tangible and verifiable world.   His life and work is about the technological world and he is therefore nicknamed Homo Faber (man as the maker).  A chance encounter on that plane followed by the plane having to make an emergency landing, cause Walter’s life to change irrevocably.  His past comes back at him as he is unwittingly making choices and decisions that will make him more and more examine the choices he made earlier on in his life. 


The writing is terse and beautifully evokes the changing moods, the sceneries, and the relationships, unpicking the interactions until the moral decisions he has made and makes become somehow inextricably linked with the cancer that is destroying his body.


The terseness of the writing exhibits itself in the very short sentences, and the paragraphs that at times are no longer than one such short sentence, for example

            Later I slept.

            The gusts of wind fell off

These two sentences/paragraphs are followed by a slightly longer paragraph in which Walter tries to work out why he is so irritated by this chance encounter with a German, on the plane.  And this is followed by

            He was already eating his breakfast.

            I pretended to be still asleep.

            As I could see out of my right eye, we were somewhere……etc. [a longer paragraph describing what he sees and where they are].


This style of writing is sustained throughout the book, like thought processes, urging the character on and with him he reader. 


The horror of the crime Walter Faber unwittingly commits, and then the moral question whether it can therefore really be called a crime is one that stays with you after you finish the book.  This is writing about moral dilemmas, alienation, identity and how one makes choices.  Yes, Faber is human, and this is a story about what it is to be human and make choices that sometimes lead to desperate anguish.


This, I think, was a good start to the Neustadt Reading Challenge, hosted by Wendi.




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