RAIN HAS BEEN FALLING for nearly a week in the Swiss canton of Ticino as Max Frisch's short, fragmentary and deeply disturbing novel opens. "The news in the village is conflicting," we are told on the first page. "Some people say there has been no landslide at all, others that an old supporting wall has collapsed, and there is no way of diverting the highway at that spot." Whatever the truth may be (and truth -- as opposed to fact -- is elusive through most of the book), the mail has stopped coming and occasionally the electricity is briefly cut off. It is a time for turning in upon oneself, for cultivating in isolation the grim disciplines of survival.
Frisch's hero, Geiser, is an old man, living alone on an Alpine slope. Fifty years ago, he climbed the Matterhorn with his brother, found the view from the top rather mundane, and nearly lost his life through an error of judgemnt on the way down. Now, isolated by the storm, he passes the time by trying to build a pagoda of crispbread, part of his dwindling but still adequate food supply. It always collapses when he reaches the fourth floor. Another pastime is the exploration of memory, which is really an exploration of his own identity, his meaning. That collapses, too. So does a little wall that he once built out in his garden -- but that doesn't mean the mountain is coming down, does it? "All it is doing is raining."
Of course, disasters have happened in the region; Monte Crenone buried the village of Campo Bargigno in 1512, the village of Cumiasca was destroyed by a flood in 1868, and avalanches of snow have occasionally done great damage. bGeiser reads about these catastrophes; he rereads the Biblical account of the Flood, but doesn't believe it. He also reads, and naturally believes, the spectacular stories of past geological ages, vast stretches of time and enormous changes -- the emergence of continents, the rise of mountains, massive glaciers, volcanoes, the birth and death of entire species.
Too much of this reading makes one feel small and temporary. Max Frisch makes one feel small and temporary.
The present geological period is called the Holocene. Man in the Holocene is more secure than dinosaurs in the Cretaceous, because he has mastered nature; he has a mind; he can read and learn and remember; he can build walls and pagodas, and he has electricity.
Most of the time.
When the electricity is cut off, his freezer stops working and the meat threatens to go bad, Geiser goes into the nearest village and gives the meat away. Only later does he remember that he could have cooked and eaten at least some of it. "One is becoming stupid --!" He gives his last sardine to his cat (who doesn't like anchovies). He is not selfish. Later, after a period lost to his memory, he finds himself roasting the cat; but he cannot bring himself to eat it.But that is much later -- after his disintergration is well advanced.
A man of scientific interests, Geiser in his lucid moments does the kind of things that distinguish man from other species. He controls reality by analyzing it and giving it names. Acting on his current experience, he distinguishes and names "at least nine types of thunder" and later adds seven more. He browses through his collection of "factual books," looks up a mathematical exercise that he has forgotten, buries himself in accounts of the history, archaeology, geology and climate of his region. "What would be bad," he muses, "would be losing one's memory." To avoid this, he begins making lists of things he wants to remember and attaching them to the wall:
"At the end of the ice age the level of the sea was at least 100 meters lower than today.
"Always be prepared.
"Speed of lightning: 100,000 kilometers per second. Intensity of current:
20 to 180,000 amperes.
"Changing of human beings into animals, trees, stone, etc. See: Metamorphosis/Myth.
"Stone Age: 6000-4000 B.C.
"Neolithic Age: To 1800 B.C."
After a while, to save trouble, he begins to cut the key pages out of his books and tack them up beside his own lists. Many are reproduced in the novel -- some with pictures, mostly of dinosaurs.
Whatever may be happening in his own small corner of reality, Geiser tries to cultivate a cosmic sense. "In London the sun is shining." He repeats this to himself like an incantation. But it does not exorcise his visions of catastrophe:
"A lake, the color of brown clay, gradually filling the valley, a lake without a name, its water level rising day by day and also during the nights, joining up with the rising lakes in the other valleys until the Alps become an archipelago, a group of rocky islands with glaciers overhanging the sea -- impossible to imagine that." But of course, he has just imagined it.
Man endures through the power of his mind. But Geiser's mind is collapsing, like his pagodas and the wall in his garden. With an almost imperceptible accumulation of details, like the building of a glacier crystal-by-crystal, Man in the Holocene conveys this fact and more: that the old man's life itself is being eroded, as are all men's lives -- as is, perhaps, the life of the entire species.
Geiser is a symbol walking among symbols, mankind embodied in a 73-year-old, widowed, solitary, retired engineer. Max Frisch does not spell it out; he just presents the simple elements of the equation. Geiser's hot plate and freezer turn off and on as electric power is cut off and restored, like hot and cold geological eras alternating. He makes an abortive trip over the mountain, almost all the way to a railroad station from which he can go to Basel, rests for a while at a roadside chapel, and then goes back home -- like a whole species making a tentative step into outer space and then pulling back. He discovers that he has been wearing his cap indoors (how long? perhaps for days; his memory is flickering) like the obsolete armor or plumage of a species en route to extinction. He keeps track anxiously (in his lucid moments) of his dwindling food supply -- like a species mired in a Malthusian nightmare. When he has a stroke and dies, the reader is relieved at the novel's two final pages which give reassurance that life otherwise goes on as before.
But if he is a microcosm, Geiser is also a clearly delineated individual -- a bit fussy and literalminded but quite amiable and, at the beginning of the novel, obviously intelligent and capable. Frisch tells his story as Geiser might tell it himself, in a rather stolid, deadpan prose. Frisch's writing is a sort of poetry, but a poetry of the mind rather than the senses -- sparse and austere, with every detail chosen for its resonances. These resonances emerge, remarkably, from a style not unlike that of the dictionaries and encyclopedias which are an integral part of the novel and which also have a resonance.
Man in the Holocene is brief and very tightly focused -- one central character and a few shadowy figures in the background. The author makes no statement in his own voice, and many of his statements are taken bodily from the impersonal writings of others. Yet this brief, seemingly unimaginative account of a few rainy days in the life of an old man is an intensely personal statement, embodying vast epochs of time, a whole world and all the creatures that have lived and died in it, balancing the terror of unimaginable catastrophe with the serene reassurance that ultimately it doesn't really matter. Man in the Holocene is a small book but a major achievement.