Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Re-reading Homo Faber


Max Frisch’s novel was not on my re-reading list, and I cannot remember why and how I decided to re-read it, but I know that it was an important book when I was young so it should have been on the list.

Once again, I know it was important, but I had rather vague memories of it. The strongest memory was of the final call at the airport, which, in my memory, was the final scene in the novel, while it actually happens right in the beginning. I remembered it contained incest, which was disturbing and fascinating. I remembered a particular reflection on human reproductive act that I could have sworn came from the girl, while it actually is Faber’s. That’s it. A general theme and two details, both wrong.

I did not remember at all the Conradesque adventure in the jungle. I did not remember Faber’s betrayal of his girlfriend, and I didn’t remember that he meets her again under dramatic circumstances. I winced at a casual remark by the narrator early in the novel, “if… then Sabeth would be alive”. I did not remember that she dies, still less how she dies, which right now strikes me as implausible, something from a TV thriller rather than a highbrow novel. When I was young I probably thought it was romantic. I didn’t reflect on why male authors always need to sacrifice female characters to redeem their male protagonists.

I don’t think I had read Lolita before I read Homo Faber, but now I see similarities, although Sabeth is twenty and not a minor. The similarity is in the narrator who is trying hard to exculpate himself, repeating again and again that he didn’t know, that he couldn’t resist, that it was Sabeth who seduced him, that it wasn’t his fault at all that he abandoned Sabeth’s mother, that they had agreed that she would get an abortion… and so on, over and over again.  And he is confident that he is objective - the novel's subtitle is "Report". I am sure I didn’t understand this fifty years ago, any more than I understood that Humbert Humbert was trying to acquit himself. But today I find such unreliable, self-delusive narrators one of the most interesting features of contemporary fiction. (I keep saying “contemporary” about books published seventy years ago because they were contemporary back then. By now, they are vintage if not classics).

Another thing that I enjoyed about Homo Faber is that it didn’t feel as translation. I am sure I could have read it in German, but I didn’t, and not once did I stop to consider that I was reading a translated book, which otherwise is for me a good reason to put a book aside. Fifty years ago I read it in Russian, and apparently that was a good translation too.

I strongly recommend this book if you haven’t read it – or if you have, but like me have forgotten.


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