From the Berlin Journal by Max Frisch (1974): A brain grinding itself down
The Swiss novelist’s journal is preoccupied with death, cognitive decline and drinking
Max Frisch. Photograph: Pfeiffer/Ullstein Bild via Getty
Even before life became a primarily online phenomenon, some literary commentators were noticing a shift in interest away from the novel towards textual forms traditionally considered supplementary: journals, diaries, notebooks, correspondence.
This trend has only accelerated as we become habituated to observing one another’s lives in unprecedented detail. The immediacy of the connected world stokes an impatience with fictive artifice; we are disinclined to read about invented people when the real ones around us are so very interesting.
More cynically, it might be said that the culture of oversharing, aestheticised selfhood and personal branding has infiltrated literary production – writers have never been more fascinated by themselves. Whatever the cause, there is a distinct drift away from fiction, as the novel mutates toward forms bearing resemblances to the journal, memoir and autobiography.
Max Frisch is among the most respected of Swiss novelists, and he may be one of the best too, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve only read his journals and sketchbooks. Anticipating our 21st-century reality hunger, Frisch regarded the journal (qua diary written for a public audience) as a literary form, and when he moved to Berlin in the 1970s at the age of 61, he began one that he intended eventually to stand among his oeuvre (because of the sensitive nature of some of the entries, he put a 20-year retention period after his death on the Berlin Journal’s publication).
There seems to be something in the practice of journal-keeping that encourages a gloomy tone, as if turning the gaze inward to dwell on one’s thought processes stifles levity and amplifies morbidity.
From the outset, Frisch is preoccupied with death and ageing: “The awareness that I have three or four years, decent years, left.” Booze is another worry: “The battle against alcohol, no week without a defeat on that front.”
Above all, Frisch is obsessed by intimations of creative and cognitive decline; From the Berlin Journal is a claustrophobic document of a brain grinding itself down observing its own progressive entropy, real or imagined.