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When Ideas Refuse To Lie Flat

The moment I read this it became one of my favorite opening paragraphs from a novel – and the rest of the book doesn’t disappoint.

It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain, no splashing from the gutter, no gurgling around the house. Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.

I don’t know why I have never read Max Frisch before, but a Vertigo reader suggested I take a look at Man in the Holocene (Mensch erscheint im Holozän, 1979), and I will be ever grateful for the nudge.

Geiser, in his early seventies, retired to a remote village in the Swiss canton of Ticino, is trying to wait out a prolonged storm by reading and idling away his time through projects such as trying (and failing) to build a pagoda from the five packages of crispbread left in the house.  Aware that he is beginning to lose his memory, he cuts articles out of encyclopedias and books and tacks them to his walls, articles that are reproduced for the reader in gray.  Fearful that the rain will bring on landslides or other disasters, most of his reading centers on trying to comprehend his place in the vast geologic history of Earth.  In the end, the rain ceases, the village remains unharmed, the efficient Swiss postal system is again making deliveries, and the world is still spinning through its seasons and perhaps toward the end of another geologic era.

I’m a bit surprised that W.G. Sebald never wrote directly about Max Frisch (other than doing several reviews of books that dealt in part with his work).  Man in the Holocene, with its preoccupation with global warming, its depiction of geologic epochs as the true measure of time, and its visual appropriation of texts from other sources is an obvious precursor for Sebald’s work.


As the days pass, Geiser’s wall becomes a customized encyclopedia, a way of organizing and linking disparate bits of information, an attempt to find a unified theory of knowledge.

And this is only the beginning; the walls in the living room will provide nowhere near enough space, particularly since his paper slips must be affixed neither too high nor too low; otherwise, every time Geiser forgets what he so carefully cut out an hour ago, he will have to climb on a chair or crouch on his heels to read his pieces of paper.  This is not only laborious, it also prevents an overall review, and once already the chair has nearly capsized.  Where, for example, is the information about the conjectural brain of the Neanderthal man?  Instead, one finds oneself back with the drawing of the golden section.  Where is the information about mutations, chromosomes, etc.?  It is all so exasperating: Geiser is quite certain that there is an item somewhere about the quantum theory (as if it were not laborious enough, copying out texts full of scientific words, sometimes even two or three times in order to get them right).  What belongs where?  Some slips, especially the larger ones, start to curl when they have been on the wall for a while; they refuse to lie flat.  That presents another difficulty.  To read them, one has to use both hands.  Some curl at the bottom, others at the sides.  There is nothing one can do about it.  Each day they curl more and more (probably because of the humidity), and there is no glue in the house; otherwise he could stick them to the wall, though that would have the added disadvantage of making it impossible for him to substitute an item when a new and more important one was discovered.  The golden section, for example, is not all that important, and he can remember how many people are in the canton of Ticino, how high the Matterhorn is (4,505 meters above sea level), or when the Vikings reached Iceland.  He is not so decrepit as all that.  The paper slips will lie flat only if one uses four thumbtacks on each, but his supply is not large.  So they will just have to curl; when one opens a window, creating a draft, the whole wall flutters and rustles.

It’s hard to imagine a more apt image for our inability to fully grasp the nature of the universe in which we live than a wall full of ideas fluttering like fragile butterflies.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. how nice, a blog dedicated to “novels with embedded photographs”

    December 28, 2008
  2. P.T. Smith #

    Sometimes it makes me sad that my list of books to read grows faster than I can possibly read books, other times it thrills me. Today I think I found putting this book on my list to be thrilling. Thanks much.

    December 30, 2008
    • Well, at least this is a short book. Won’t take much time to read, but lingers much longer.

      December 30, 2008
  3. sroden #

    hi terry,
    frisch’s “i’m not stiller” and “bluebeard” were favorites years ago, when i first got into reading. i think at least here in the usa, he’s totally underrated. i hadn’t thought about him in relation to sebald because of his economy with words in the two books i’ve read (i associate sebald with hermann broch more in the language use dept.), but frisch does play with language and structure in ways i would think sebald might’ve been interested in, as well as a fuzzy relationship between fact and fiction. i’d never heard of this book by frisch either, but it sounds incredible in and of itself, as well as a sebald precursor or perhaps influence… as always, thanks for pointing one towards more literary goodness… and indeed the ‘to read’ pile by the side of the bed is nearing the window… soon the window will be covered, and these books will have double duty, not only to be read, but to act as artificial sunlight as well!
    happy new year.

    December 31, 2008
  4. Hello, first of all, sorry for my english. Sebald wrote about Max Frisch in On the Natural History of Destruction. It appears like one of the few writers that talked about de destruction of german cities after the world war II.

    November 21, 2013

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