Wednesday, February 24, 2016

He has the arrogance to say nothing.

I keep thinking I'll translate a page of Max Frisch's Homo faber and post it here, and I keep not doing that. It seems that my bag has neither pen nor paper in it, and so during my lunch breaks I have no choice but to read rather than Englishify Frisch's novel. But I make the effort, for you, dear reader:
I thought about Ivy.

When I held Ivy I was also thinking: I should have my film developed, phone up Williams! I could solve chess problems in my head, while Ivy said I'm happy, o Dear, so happy, o Dear, o Dear! I felt her ten fingers on the back of my head, saw her epileptically happy mouth and the picture on the wall--it was hanging crooked again--I heard the elevator, I tried to figure out what the day's date was, I heard her question--You're happy?--and I shut my eyes, in order to think about Ivy, who I held in my arms, and kissed by accident my own elbow. After that it was all forgotten. I forgot to phone up Williams, even though I had been thinking about it the whole time. I stood at the open window and finally smoked my cigarette while Ivy left the bedroom to make tea, and it suddenly occurred to me what the date was. But it played no role in my life that day, the actual date. Everything happened anyway! Then I heard that someone had come into the room and I turned to find Ivy in her dressing gown, bringing our two cups in, then I went to her and said: Ivy! and kissed her, she's such a good fellow, even if she doesn't get it that I prefer to be alone--
The narrator continues on like this the whole while, declaring himself a loner while constantly clinging to the people around him, distracted and claiming his distractions are his real life, pointing out how rational and sensible he is, how grounded in reason and science his worldview is, all the while acting more and more irrationally. His employer has suggested that the narrator needs a vacation. The narrator wonders why his stomach hurts constantly, then assures the reader that he has never been in better health. I assume that "I forgot to phone up Williams, even though I had been thinking about it the whole time" means that the narrator was thinking about phoning up Williams the whole time he and Ivy were having sex.

Frisch, in his Paris Review "Art of Fiction" interview, says that the narrator's prose is deliberately flat, self-consciously overlooking details, colors, beauty, the messages of the senses. The narrator, Walter Faber, says nothing because he denies everything even as his denial crumbles around his ears. "He has the arrogance to say nothing," Frisch says of Faber. Frisch goes on to explain why so many of his protagonists lead similar lives, and have such similar personal habits. The short answer: laziness on the part of the author. I like Frisch's honesty. "I grab the things that are here in the living room; I'm too lazy to go look at what's in the kitchen."

Monday, February 22, 2016

people in transit

The smith stared at his son who stood wraithlike in that weird, dank mist. It took him a minute to see Duny's meaning, but when he did he ran at once, noiselessly, knowing every fence and corner of the village, to find the others and tell them what to do. Now through the grey fog bloomed a blur of red, as the Kargs set fire to the thatch of a house. Still they did not come up into the village, but waited at the lower end till the mist should lift and lay bare their loot and prey.

The tanner, whose house it was that burned, sent a couple of boys skipping right under the Kargs' noses, taunting and yelling and vanishing again like smoke into smoke. Meantime the older men, creeping behind fences and running from house to house, came close on the other side and sent a volley of arrows and spears at the warriors, who stood all in a bunch. One Karg fell writhing with a spear, still warm from its forging, right through his body. Others were arrow-bitten, and all enraged. They charged forward then to hew down their puny attackers, but they found only the fog about them, full of voices. They followed the voices, stabbing ahead into the mist with their great, plumed, bloodstained lances. Up the length of the street they came shouting, and never knew they had run right through the village, as the empty huts and houses loomed and disappeared again in the writhing grey fog. The villagers ran scattering, most of them keeping well ahead since they knew the ground; but some, boys or old men, were slow. The Kargs stumbling on them drove their lances or hacked with their swords, yelling their war-cry, the names of the White Godbrothers of Atuan: "Wuluah! Atwah!"

Some of the band stopped when they felt the land grow rough underfoot, but others pressed right on, seeking the phantom village, following dim wavering shapes that fled just out of reach before them. All the mist had come alive with these fleeting forms, dodging, flickering, fading on every side. One group of the Kargs chased the wraiths straight to the High Fall, the cliff's edge above the springs of Ar, and the shapes they pursued ran out onto the air and there vanished in a thinning of the mist, while the pursuers fell screaming through fog and sudden sunlight a hundred feet sheer to the shallow pools among the rocks. And those that came behind and did not fall stood at the cliff's edge, listening.
I'm reading Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the "Earthsea" trilogy. I have heard that there are actually more than three novels in this series now, but I've only read the first three. A Wizard of Earthsea was originally published in 1968. I don't know when I first read it, but it must've been in the early 1970s. I think I read these books before I read Lord of the Rings. I've always remembered "Earthsea" fondly, and when I found a set on the bookshelves at a house I was sharing eleven years ago, I read them and I was pleased to find them as fine as I'd remembered. Mighty Reader got me a set (in the original covers, hurrah!) for Christmas last year, and this seems to be when I've decided to read them again. I report that the books remain as good as I'd always thought they were.

The prose is quite rhythmic and propulsive, as you can see from the above excerpt. It has both the flavor of the tale-teller's art and of Modernism, I think. The surface simplicity of fairy tales and the angular rolling along of Fitzgerald or Hemingway. It's also a compact story, each volume being more a novella than a novel, not at all what one imagines nowadays when one thinks of a high fantasy trilogy.

The other thing "Earthsea" contains is the entire Harry Potter story, in compressed form. There's the proud boy whose mother died when he was a babe, the school of wizardry, the connection/battle with a dark half of himself, and even the scar on the boy wizard's face. What Rowling takes 7,000 pages to do, LeGuin managed in about 400. But I am not here to compare the two works. LeGuin's novels, I assume, have in some way informed my own novels. I recognize the sparse prose, the brevity of the action, the intimate focus on a single character, and the movement. LeGuin's characters are always leaving home, going somewhere, traveling. It came as a shock to me when I saw how every novel I write is essentially about someone on a journey. Not the hero's transformative journey, but by gum my protagonists are not at home. All of the novels I have planned for the future are also about people in transit. Huh, I say. Huh. I will have to write something soon about people who stay home.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seven Years, Six Words, no Hat

Today is the seventh anniversary of this blog, which is not about hats at all, but is plenty about words. I created this online presence, back in February of 2009, because I had completed a novel and was just beginning to shop it around to literary agents. Literary agents, I had discovered, expect an author to have an online presence. Preferably, an author will have a blog, a Facebook page, a twitter account, an Instagram account, a Pinterest page, a MySpace account, and a million-and-five loyal followers foaming at the mouth to buy the author's novel as soon as it hits the stands (or, better yet, to pre-order the novel on Amazon as soon as it's available). So I got a free blog on this thing called blogger, which is apparently owned by Google or something, because I wanted to get a literary agent to represent my novel. I do not have a million-and-five online followers, loyal or otherwise. But I did get this blog.

Time flew, as it does, and I got an agent and blogged about it, and I wrote more books and blogged about that, and then I parted ways with that first agent and got a new agent and I blogged about that, and I blogged about books I was writing and gave a lot of bad and simplistic advice about writing novels to nice folks I'd never met and then my second agent shopped two of my novels around to a couple of dozen publishers who admired the writing but not, alas, the novels themselves and then my second literary agent wished me well and we parted company. Eventually that original novel was published, and then republished, and has so far sold a few thousand copies (and like every other novel these days, there are scads of pirate digital editions all over the internets and who knows if anyone even looks at those). You can read all about this on the blog. It is not a particularly interesting or useful tale, so you'd be better served looking at other people's Instagram accounts. I do not, I pause to reveal in dramatic fashion, have accounts with Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or MySpace. I may be lying about Pinterest, but I'll be darned if I know how to access it if I have that account. I digress.

Time continued to flew, as it sometimes ungrammatically does, and here I am. I have learned to stop giving advice to aspiring novelists, especially as my own standing as a knowledgeable writer is sketchy at best, and for the last several years I've been mostly blogging about the books I've been reading. This harmless change in the direction of the blog resulted in the loss of most of my regular readers. I miss them, whoever they were. Now I only blog about the books I write when I am weak or overly excited about something, which is still far too often. I rarely look at blogs written by other writers (though there are a couple of exceptions). I do look at a number of blogs written by some very perceptive and interesting readers, and I attempt to model my online work on theirs, because they seem to know what they are doing, and I don't know what I'm doing. To those perceptive and interesting bloggers: thanks.

What I do at six words for a hat is, I tell myself, write about the experience of reading a book; I don't write reviews, and usually by the time I've finished reading a novel I have lost all enthusiasm for writing about it, because most of the book's mysteries have gone away and I am attracted to--excited by--the mystery of the experience, not by the sum of the work, the conclusions drawn by the author, etc*. I don't care how novels end; I am a huge fan of middles, however, and I tend to start blogging about a book when I've reached the end of the first act. That's where the good stuff is usually found. S/he's going to do what? I expect to be amazed, and I frequently am. A good middle is a good book, and vice versa. Despite my abnormal enthusiasm for mostly middles, I think I've done some okay work here, especially that weird and pointless series on Chernyshevsky and the posts I've written about D.H. Lawrence. If I keep writing this blog, I might come up with a few other posts that are worth reading. That would be good, I think. To anyone who's ever left a comment here: thanks.

Today is also the feast of Blessed John of Fiesole, whom you might know as Fra Angelico. I add this note for no particular reason except that I like Fra Angelico's paintings.

* Also, usually, I'm too busy being excited by whatever new novel I'm just started to read.


  1. Congratulations! In the sense that congratulations are appropriate with this enterprise. "Congratulations - your folly house has not collapsed yet!"

    My impression is that you write far less about your experience of reading and far more about the book itself than 90% - 99%? - of book bloggers. You often, for example, use an example from the text to support what your claim, a rare and surprising move.

    I emerged from the Convent of San Marco thinking that Fra Angelico was the greatest painter of the Renaissance, and that the pre-Raphaelites were right, dang it. Then I thought, well, no, but talk about the mystery of the experience!
  2. I think of this blog as a hot air balloon: I have to stand underneath and constantly fill it with hot air to keep it up. I seem to have plenty of hot air.

    I am--or at least I like to think I am--more interested in the books themselves than in myself as the reader. I confess that I consciously began to model my posts on yours, and regret when I'm too hastily assembling a piece to quote anything from the book.

    A good painter can always convince a viewer, at least for a little while, that his personal vision is the only way to look at the world. Maybe that's a commonplace idea, but I still think it's true.
  3. why am i thinking about the frenchman who decided to go to the north pole via hot air balloon in the late 19th c. and the hot air got cold and the balloon collapsed and him and his partner wound up on spitzbergen and starved to death but only after catching trichonosis from eating raw polar bear? because i'm gullible that's why; my brain comes up with images to match what i read or hear and same gets regurgitated. i've not been seven years commenting, but i've greatly enjoyed both of you poster persons; please keep it up so my mentation has some where to go...


    1. That's good: I've begun plenty of posts which crash, my air not so hot as I'd thought, me frozen to death on the ice floes of literature (or perhaps devoured by the polar bear of literature; bears gotta eat, after all).
  4. I always wish I could write all this insightful stuff like what you produce, but that doesn't seem to be something I can do, so I admire from afar. But then I find the writing to usually be the most painful part of being a book blogger. I was not very good at being a lit major, either. :D Happy blog birthday!


    1. Thanks! What my blog sadly lacks is the enthusiasm, the sense of enjoyment, you have over at Howling Frog Books. You're always so happy to be reading, whereas I look over my own posts and I wonder what sort of fusty old crank is behind it all.

      I could never write on assignment, at least not very well. I hated being in the classroom. I remember wishing my Intro to Fiction prof would drop over dead. I was a Poli Sci major, though.
    2. You don't sound as if you're not enjoying yourself. You seem factual, more than anything else: this is what has happened in the book, here is an excerpt; this is what it is like.
  5. besides, it's all politics and money anyway; true worth is only found in bits and pieces, scattered randomly throughout the blogosphere and understood and appreciated by the cognoscenti; nowadays, surviving the technological culture that threatens to eat up everything is about the only meaningful endeavour left. don't pay any attention to me, i'm just babbling this morning...
  6. Having recently finished reading a novel the end of which I found disappointing in contrast to the rest of the work, I am particularly taken with your "middle of the book" approach. No wonder your posts about literature are so engaging. My own posts tend unfortunately towards the whole snout-to-tail approach, such that I don't often zero in on the tastiest bits. I also greatly enjoy reading the view from the inside when you write about your process of writing and the ways in which that impacts how you look at other writers.

    Congratulations on seven years, and yes, by all means, please keep writing this blog.


    1. It can be hard to finish a novel, to force the end of it into the shape of a story, to pretend that there is any truth to the beginning/middle/end shape. Some novels are explorations of character or idea or whatever, and don't lead to solid ground so much as they just run out of wind on the open sea. They should be allowed to stop where they stop, but writers are told to create "well-formed stories" and that doesn't work in many cases. So I tend to have low or no expectations of endings. A lot of times, even with books from writers I respect, I can see them turning the crank on the Novel Machine to produce The Sense of an Ending. Like Chekhov said, writers should cut the first and last pages of everything, "because that's where they tell the most lies." I appear to be ranting.

      Thanks, is what I mean: thanks! I'll keep writing if you'll keep reading. That's all any of us ask, isn't it?
  7. Were you able to see the 2005-06 Fra Angelico show at the met? I only had a few hours there, and wished I could possess a whole day. It was a properly hair-raising experience.

    I have clipped off great swaths of beginnings to novels. Not so much on endings. Same for poems, too. Often one tap dances for a while before getting into the proper swing. (Although, having seen Andrew Nemr tap-dancing, I expect that sometimes tap-dancing is quite enough.)

    Congratulations! I have no idea when I started blogging, as I used to delete a lot of posts. Now it's all a great snarled mess, and I don't bother.


    1. It's mostly by accident that I know the date I started this blog, because I have deleted most of my early posts. I'm not sure why I deleted them, but I'm not sure why I wrote them in the first place, so I think it all evens out.

      I did not see that Fra Angelico show, darn it. "Hair-raising" sounds right. His work always makes me feel that the walls of reality are giving way.

      For the last several novels I've written, the beginnings have come pretty late in the process. I seem to be starting drafts in the middle these days, discovering the opening chapters only during revisions, when I have a better idea of the intended shape of the book. It's easier to do that when plot is a tool rather than a structure, if you see what I mean.
  8. I seem to be the only reader of SWFAH who thinks of a liqueur when I see the words "Fra Angelico." Happy Anniversary, you crazy old writer/reader/haberdasher blog!


    1. " JAIL!"

      We'll have to see what Drinking With the Saints recommends for the feast of Fra Angelico. What a handy book that's going to be.
    2. I find myself keenly interested to learn what manner of drink is recommended for the feast of Fra Angelico! Meantime, this reader generally looks forward to future posts on your fine blog.
      -Sal, J.D.
  9. Funny how blogs evolve, isn't it? When I started mine in 2007, most of my readers were professional medievalists, nearly all of whom fled the blog-world like elves out of Middle-Earth when Facebook popped up. I really like the community that remains, though: writers, artists, readers, and eccentrics who crave their own spaces and don't follow trends.

    Glad you're still at it! And I'm eager to see what you write and publish next.
  10. blogging is an addiction, and not all addictions are bad for you, so hang in there if you believe that second independent clause; on the other hand, if you think blogging is a toxic addiction, go cold turkey, enroll in a blogging 12 step program, and take one day at a time away from the keyboard. None of the foregoing makes much sense, but it proves at least there is a reader out here who pays attention every now and then, so you do not have to feel like the tree falling soundlessly in the forest, but I understand that feeling!


    1. I've given some thought to addictions, and I believe I don't really have any. I have habits, but I've broken plenty of habits over the years. One thing I can do is walk away from things I no longer want. So blogging about books is a habit, and I still seem to want it.

      I think this blog got a whole lot better the day I tried to stop trying to be useful and started to just enjoy myself. My favorite book blogs are written by people who are always saying, "Wow, look at this!" about the books they're reading.
  11. Congratulations, and thanks for still going after it! Looking forward to reading all the good things you will read and write.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

ten to fifty pages

Sometimes I think of myself as a "novelist," which is a person who writes novels. I have actually written some novels. You probably didn't know that. One of my novels is called Mona in the Desert. It's a family story spanning sixty-odd years, etc. Cervantes, witches, Shakespeare, cigarettes, sex. The synopsis is not important. What is important--to me at least--is that I'd like Mona in the Desert to be a published novel, and so I have begun to send emails to people called "literary agents." Literary agents market manuscripts to editors at publishing companies. Publishing companies purchase the right to publish (that is, edit and design and print and distribute) editions of books. Many publishing companies will only consider purchasing the rights to manuscripts brought to their attention by literary agents. They will not consider manuscripts brought to their attention by people who actually write the books. There are many reasons for this state of affairs; we won't go into that.

The emails one sends to a literary agent, soliciting her services as representative of one's manuscript, are known as "queries." "I am querying William Morris with my latest piece," one might say. I am querying a variety of literary agents with my novel Mona in the Desert.

The form of a query, or query letter as it is sometimes called, is pretty standardized. Salutation, brief mention of personal or professional connection to the agent, statement of book's marketing niche (or genre). Then follows a brief (three-to-five sentences, usually) paragraph of advertising copy describing the Most Interesting Thing About the Book. This is known as the "pitch." An author's pitch will often find its way onto the cover of a published book, having traveled with the manuscript all the way through the publication process. A fragile pitch cannot survive this journey. After the pitch is a listing of the writer's previous publications (called "pub creds" in the business), any relevant biographical information, and the author's wish to hear from the literary agent soon. That is a query, bounded in a nutshell.

Frequently, one is invited to paste a portion of the novel into the body of the query email. This portion will range from ten to fifty pages, or from one to three chapters. This sample, always the beginning of the novel, is called a "partial." If a literary agent requests the full manuscript to read, they are looking at the "full." Sometimes literary agents will wish to be the only literary agent reading your full, and they ask for an "exclusive." To this request, it is always best to say yes. "Yes" is easily said.

I have been pasting the first ten-to-fifty pages of my novel Mona in the Desert into the bodies of query emails. I have been reading random paragraphs of the novel, and making minor changes here and there. This does not mean that the novel is still in need of revisions. It means that I cannot keep my hands off of things, and will always wonder what the prose would look like if it were different here or there. This means that I am sending out many slightly different versions of the first part of the novel. I don't think that really matters very much. I am never finished with a piece of prose; I am always merely between rounds of tinkering. Progress is, after all, just a myth; all we have is ongoing difference, change, fussing.

I continue to think that Mona in the Desert is a beautiful and startling and very good book.


  1. This one is the novella that grew, right? How long is it? And how did you pick your agents, or are you just jumping off the cliff? I've had two but never looked for one, as they both just appeared, and I think that I probably could bear the process. It sounds dreadful. But I probably ought to have one again.


    1. This is the novella that wanted to be big, yes. It's 81K now. I have told it that 81K is plenty long enough! Last fall I cut it back from about 86K, just to show it who was boss.

      I've also had two previous agents. The first one repped a couple of books I liked, so I queried him and within a few days we were working together. He is a very nice, intelligent man but we never saw eye-to-eye about what the book was. The second one I met via backspace, if you know what that is. She is also nice and intelligent, but young and in her first job as an agent, which career turned out not to suit her. I sold the novel on my own and haven't had an agent since then.

      What I'm doing now is researching agents via the internet, reading profiles, looking at lists of authors represented, looking at interviews and blogs, etc. I'm going pretty slowly and carefully. I know some writers just use the shotgun approach, emailing every name on AgentQuery, but I'd rather pick and choose.
    2. You already know what it is to have an agent who doesn't fit, so why would you want scattershot? My first agent found me while my book was in galleys--I don't even know how that works. Then my second was essentially given to me by Louis Rubin. So I've never gone through the hunt, and don't know if I ever want to do so. Even though I should, I suppose...
  2. There is always the direct to publisher without agent approach, or is that old fashioned and unworkable now? In any case, I wish you quick success.


    1. Few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from authors these days.
    2. I would have thought at least some small-house indies would still tolerate something tossed in through the transom. Just shows how out of touch I am with almost everything in publishing. I'm still thinking in terms of big houses, Max Perkins, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Ah, the good old days.
    3. Some of the indies accept unsolicited queries, but these days most indies have a very narrow focus. Most of the narrowly-focused indies I'm interested in will only look at agented works, of course. I'm submitting manuscripts to any open-door indies that look appropriate, of course. The response time from those houses if very very long, because naturally they are inundated with manuscripts and generally understaffed in the acquisitions departments.
  3. difficult procedure; sounds like dealing with the business end is even harder than writing the book! hope you get good news soonest...


    1. It's certainly less interesting than writing the book, I'll grant you that!

      Hopefully I won't post about this again. I figure it's like reading the diary of a recent grad who's mailing out resumes. Almost interesting, but not really.
    2. i find it interesting: a world i know little about...
  4. Although I had good luck with an agent a decade ago, I really do find it nuts that this is still the process by which writers are expected to find readers. For all the changes we've seen in the past 20 years that should have made it easier, I can't help but recall the old Soviet cartoon about peristroika, in which two dogs with empty bowls console each other by acknowledging that now they can at least bark as loudly as they want. I wish you well as you navigate this archaic labyrinth. (Alas, I expect to enter it again in the next year or two.)


    1. In other words, you're working on a new book! That's exciting.

      "Nuts" is right.
  5. Best of luck with it, as always.
  6. Off-topic postscript: Scott, I've moved all blogging activity to a new address -- Beyond Walden Pond.
    I hope you will stop by every now and then to visit with this world-weary descendent of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

Monday, February 1, 2016

"Damit war dieses Gesprach zu Ende*" The thoughts of the working man, by Max Frisch

"Ich bin Techniker und gewohnt, die Dinge zu sehen, wie sie sind. Ich sehe den Mond uber der Wuste von Tamaulipas--klarer als je, mag sein, aber eine erreichbare Masse, die um unseren Planeten kreist, eine Sache der Gravitation, interessant, aber wieso ein Erlebnis?"

"I am a technician and I live to see things as they are. I see the moon over the desert of Tamaulipas--clearer than anywhere else, maybe, but a thing we can reach, that circles around our planet, a source of gravitation, is interesting, but how is it an experience?"
And so Herr Faber, the narrator of Max Frisch's novel Homo faber, describes himself. Faber is an engineer working for UNESCO, employed on projects that improve the lives of citizens in undeveloped nations. Faber could care less about the citizens; he's only interested in the projects, the technology. Faber doesn't like people, and despite his own highly-strung nature he has no patience for nor understanding of the emotions of others.

The novel opens in 1957 with Faber boarding a jumbo jet bound from New York to Mexico City. The plane is delayed for hours on the tarmac by a snow storm. Faber, a Swiss, is forced to listen to his chatty German seatmate, a young man whose name Faber didn't quite catch and isn't interested in hearing repeated. The German likes to think of himself as a world traveler, disparaging everyone he's met, particularly the Russians. "I've been to the Caucasus," he says. "I know Ivan, I can tell you. The only thing Ivan understands is a weapon. Oh, I know Ivan, all right." It's a long flight and Faber spends most of it sleeping, pretending to sleep, hiding in the toilet, wondering if he can switch to a new seat, and otherwise behaving as a classic comic misanthrope. When the plane lands in Houston for a brief layover, Faber hides in the men's room of the airport bar rather than having a drink with his German seatmate. In the men's room, Faber has a panic attack, passing out in front of the sink. He's discovered by the cleaning woman while the final boarding call for his flight is being given. Faber decides not to get on his plane; as the loudspeaker calls his name over and over, Faber hides himself in a closet until he hears the noise of a jumbo jet's engines. He is not sure why he's hiding. Faber, the engineer, the technician, has no curiosity about the workings of his own psyche. He's as unreal to himself as everyone else is. Of course he is discovered and escorted to the plane, still waiting on the tarmac. The plane lifts off, and several hours later one of the four engines dies. The passengers, all but Faber, are quite concerned. Faber knows that the plane can operate with only three engines, but even so he has another panic attack and launches into a monologue about the Mexican city of Tampico, where the pilot intends to make an emergency landing.
Ich kannte Tampico von fruher, von einer Fischvergiftung, die ich nicht vergessen werde bis ans Ende meiner Tag.

"Tampico," sagte ich, "das ist die dreckigste Stadt der Welt. Olhafen, Sie werden sehen, entweder stinkt's nach Ol oder nach Fisch--"

Er fingerte an seiner Schwimmweste.

"Ich rate Ihnen wirklich," sagte ich, "essen Sie keinen Fisch, mein Herr, unter keinen Umstanden--"

Er versuchte zu lacheln.

"Die Einheimischen sind naturlich immun," sagte ich, "aber unsereiner--"

Er nickte, ohne zu horen. Ich hielt ganze Vortrage, scheint es, uber Amoeben, beziehungsweise uber Hotels in Tampico. Sobald ich merkte, dass er gar nicht zuhorte, mein Dusseldorfer, griff ich ihn am Armel, was sonst nicht meine Art ist, im Gegenteil, ich hasse diese Manie, einander am Armel zu greifen. Aber anders horte er einfach nicht zu. Ich erzahlte ihm die ganze Geschichte meiner langweiligen Fischvergiftung in Tampico, 1951, also vor sechs Jahren--

I knew Tampico from earlier, from a fish-related food poisoning, that I will not forget until the end of my days.

"Tampico," I said, "is the filthiest city on earth. Oil ports, you'll see, stink like either oil or fish--"

He fingered his life jacket.

"I advise you sincerely," I said, "to eat no fish, sir, under any circumstances--"

He tried to smile.

"The inhabitants are naturally immune," I said, "but one of us--"

He nodded, without hearing. I kept up my lecture, it appears, about amoeba, or rather about the hotels in Tampico. As soon as I noticed that he wasn't listening at all, my Dusseldorfer, I grabbed him by the arm, which is not at all my way, on the contrary, I hate those fellows who take each other by the arm. But otherwise he wouldn't have listened at all. I explained to him the entire story of my boring fish-related food poisoning in Tampico, 1951, which was six years ago--
* "And with that, the conversation came to an end." All translations from the German here are mine.


  1. a character study i presume, implying the dangers associated with not pursuing a rounded life? reminds me of some of my relations. i had amoebic dysentery twice when i lived in mexico; like being stabbed with a kitchen knife in el estomago. not pleasant, no... at that time one could purchase antibiotics over the counter. saved my life, i do believe...


    1. Yes, I think it's a comic picaresque character study, a misanthrope forced to interact with humanity. Not quite "Timon of Athens," though. I'm not sure if Frisch will draw any morals for the reader. I've really only just started the novel, only about a fifth of the way into it.

      Dysentery: the good old days, what? The worst thing that's ever happened to me while traveling abroad (why were you living in Mexico?) was insomnia in Prague. By the time we got out of there, I was a zombie, not having slept for four or five days. Not life-threatening until meine Frau threatened to push me into the Danube Canal the evening we got into Vienna. I had it coming, I admit.
    2. is there a physical reason for insomnia? i've had it but it was because i was nervous. i had a job in chihuahua in la sinfonica de la noroeste(2nd clarinet).
    3. Wow, were you in the symphony when Henryk Szeryng performed with them? Szeryng is one of my violin heroes.

      I've always had problems with insomnia, since I was a kid. Nobody has ever found a cause. I didn't sleep at all on the 13-hour flight to Europe and that knocked me out of my sleep cycle, I guess. Then I just didn't sleep until we got to Vienna almost a week later. Prague seems like a dream to me in many ways because I was stumbling around half-asleep the whole time.
    4. my answer got disappeared; to iterate: we had six soloists, i think, a bass player, a soprano, a pianist, and a violinist, the latter of which might have been szeryng, i just can't recall back fifty years. the whole thing was quite an adventure for a young person... oh, and the first oboe did the strauss concerto, which was a real thrill. it's not done very often, being very difficult.
    5. i just remembered the oboists name: roland dufrane; from the netherlands, brilliant red hair, had a wife with red hair and four children(some of whom are now active in mexican classical music) with red hair. they used to walk to the store in a row, one after the other-it was kind of surrealistic to see...
    6. Henryk Szeryng wasn't a member of the Sinfonica; he was Mexico's cultural ambassador and played with a lot of Mexican orchestras.

      I've never heard the Strauss concerto, but I'll look it up. I'm a big fan of the oboe. What sane person isn't, right?
    7. no, i caught that; i was just listing what i could remember(not much) of the soloists who performed with the orchestra(which was disbanded, rumor held, after the maestro was observed in a school bus apparently smuggling tv sets over the border).
    8. Haha! That's good: the conductor, the tv sets and the school bus. I will have to steal that for a book sometime.
    9. I guarantee that if I steal that story, I'll have no idea from where the idea came, and I'll assume it's the product of my own genius. That's just how I am. Maybe at some level all art is a pastiche, a quilt or a collage, but I sometimes worry that I'm an extreme case.
    10. well, if you accept the tabla rasa theory, everything in everyone's brain is someone else's first. i got mad at a friend once for always saying, "nothing new under the sun" until i realized it was probably true....
    11. "My lover's eyes are nothing new under the sun."

      Originality is overrated, and the last of my concerns as a novelist. Of course that's easy for me to say, seeing as I steal all of my best bits from other people.
    12. there are good questions and bad questions; good: what is better, pie or ice cream? or which is more fun, reading or walking? bad: what is the meaning of life; why are we here? good questions make people feel good and optimistic; bad ones make them want to shoot themselves or someone else and lead to other bad things.
    13. The question I indirectly ask my readers is "why don't you treat other people better?" I think that's the most important question. I assume it makes people feel bad, which is good. The other question I ask is "why don't you see beauty when it's right in front of you?"

      Pie, by the way. Pie.
    14. i guess i figure people don't really listen, so demonstrating by example works better; i read a paper long ago about how eskimos raise children without punishment, just love and encouragement and crime is very rare among them. that's the way i tried to raise my kids and they are both successful and relatively happy. one's a veterinarian and the other's an insurance guru. pie for me, too... it's mea culpa this blog got off books. lo siento. es tut mir lied...
    15. oh, i appreciate your remark re beauty. that could solve everything, if people would do that...
  2. This is interesting. My familiarity with Frisch was limited to my appearance in a play -- read generally about it here: -- in 1970. The play was dreadful, the production was terrible, and I -- one of the leads -- was a tortured embarrassment. I really didn't know my lines, I was under the influence for most of the rehearsals, and I didn't understand anything about the play or the character I portrayed (the man whose home is invaded by the "criminals"). How is that for a Frisch story! Hey, a man has got to know his limitations!


    1. I've sort of been circling around Homo faber for a couple of years, one of those many books I've been aware of but hadn't actually read. I didn't know Frisch had written plays as well. It seems that in the German-speaking world, writers have much more broad careers than they do in America, at least: novels, stories, essays, news articles, plays, screenplays, etc. Maybe it's not like that in Europe any more, maybe that went away with the Grass/Frisch/Boll/usw generation of writers. I don't know.

      I've never been in a theatrical production that was unrehearsed and under the influence, but I've been in the rock band equivalent. Ah, youth. It's a wonder some of us survive it.

      The novel seems pretty good so far. There's an English translation that I haven't read, if you can pry yourself away from Miss O'Connor.
    2. Oh, I can put MFO aside for a while. My most recent posting at Beyond Eastrod points to that surprising separation from the Abbess of Andalusia. I'm going to Concord MA to understand much better MFO's antecedents and influences. Onward!