Homo Faber, a report

by Mac Frisch

Hardcover, 1959





London, New York, Abelard-Schuman [c1959]

User reviews

LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
What a delight this book is! It begins with Walter Faber, a Swiss engineer who is deeply concerned with maintaining control of his environment while being aware that unforeseen circumstances keep popping up over which he has no control. We learn that Faber does not want to be tied down to any woman yet he fancies himself a womanizer. He embarks on a business trip, freeing himself from his current girlfriend and trying to cast off any lingering guilt. At the same time, Faber reminisces about Anna, his love of long ago. Very tight and clever writing takes us back to a time in which he was very much involved with Anna. We later learn about a serious situation that develops in his current life that directly relates back to that relationship with Anna.

The writing style is one I love. There is nothing frivolous in the tale as every sentence leads us more deeply into the protagonist’s story. Frisch's writing in this novel so much reminds me of that of [Tim O'Brien] in [[Tomcat in Love]] as both present biting humor in an understated way. Frisch loves exclamation points. They are tossed into his writing with relative abandon. I love that as I do it, too!!

I found this novel so thoroughly entertaining that I’m about to look for more works by the same author. I was stunned by the ending of this book and recommend that readers come to it fresh and with not much knowledge of what will happen. In that way, you’ll be able to take full advantage of this excellent storyteller's offering.
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LibraryThing member thorold
I can see the point of it, and enjoyed the language and style, but I wasn't really convinced by the whole "engineering vs. Greek tragedy" thing. The symbolism seemed a bit too heavy-handed, somehow, and Faber's character a bit too one-sided. Maybe it's simply a mistake to read serious books when you have a cold. Or maybe I've just read too much Thomas Hardy: if you half-close one eye and hold it up to the light, Homo Faber is basically The mayor of Casterbridge updated to the 1950s and done in stream of consciousness...… (more)
LibraryThing member Widsith
And now here at last is a real book for grown-ups. Intelligent and utterly unsentimental, Homo Faber would, I feel, have been wasted on me if I'd read it ten years ago; now it strikes me as extraordinary. (This is unlike most novels, which, if not actually aimed at people in their late teens and early twenties, seem to resonate most strongly with that intense and exciting age group.)

As it happens, Walter Faber, the central character of this novel, does not read novels at all. He can't see the point. A technician for UNESCO, Faber builds things, records them, and analyses them. He believes in logic, reason, facts, brute statistics. A machine impresses him in a way that a human does not, because ‘it feels no fear and no hope, which only disturb, it has no wishes with regard to the result, it operates according to the pure logic of probability.’ Faber has few close male friends; women he can't relate to at all. Too emotional. ‘I'm not cynical,’ he explains. ‘I'm merely realistic, which is something women can't stand.’

I called her a sentimentalist and arty crafty. She called me Homo Faber.

His one serious relationship ended in divorce years ago. She scorned his beloved technology as ‘the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it.’ (And she, by contrast, was an archaeologist: ‘I stick the past together,’ she says in one of the novel's few moments of unsubtlety.)

I can imagine many readers finding Faber very unlikeable, even monstrous; and yet I feel desperately defensive towards him, perhaps because he reminds me of my father. Actually he reminds me of all fathers – there is an air of generalised daddishness about him, and this is not coincidental: the notion of paternity is crucial to the book.

‘I like functionalism,’ Faber says. He has a prose style to match. This is not to say that it is dry, or clunky, or unartful, because it is none of those things. The style is astonishingly telegraphic, elliptical, Faber narrating the facts that he considers important. The effect is staccato but wonderful; an extreme example here from a virtuoso section set in Havana:

My lust for looking.
My desire.
Vacuum between the loins.
I exist now only for shoeshine boys!
The pimps.
The ice-cream vendors.
Their vehicle: a combination of old pram and mobile canteen added to half a bicycle, a baldachin with rusty curtains; a carbide lamp; all around, the green twilight dotted with their flared skirts.
The lilac moon.

Often you are forced to read between the lines to understand what is really going on, and sometimes this reaches such a pitch that one has the impression of having experienced a scene twice. All the time Faber is writing to understand what has happened, and to justify his behaviour to himself. He can hardly accept the novelistic coincidences that the story involves: this cannot have happened. How was I to know. What else could I have done. The probability was minuscule. These were the facts as I knew them.

I am not mentioning the plot because it shouldn't be spoiled. Which seems strange, because we are given all the main facts quite early on. But part of the point of the book is discovering that the facts are not always, after all, the most important thing.

It's not often I really, really love books in translation. This is not because of any hipsterish misconception that you're not getting the "real" book, it's just that one of the things I most enjoy analysing when I read is the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of sentence construction and vocabulary choice, and this is all very different when you are reading the words of a translator. (Not that translators are not adept at this too – they are – but their motives and concerns are to do with fidelity to someone else's idea rather than their own, and this difference is fundamental.) But here I was riveted by the technique on display.

There is a moment where Faber recalls being on a beach in Greece with a girl. The two of them have a competition of similes: describing what they can see in terms of what it looks like. This is new ground for scientific-minded Faber, but he gets into it, and the paragraph rolls on for pages:

Then we found we could make out the surf on the seashore. Like beer froth. Sabeth thought, like a ruche! I took back my beer froth and said, like fibreglass. But Sabeth didn't know what fibreglass was. Then came the first rays of the sun over the sea: like a sheaf, like spears, like cracks in a glass, like a monstrance, like photos of electron bombardment. But there was only one point for each round; it was no use producing half a dozen similes. Soon after this the sun rose, dazzling. Like metal spurting out of a furnace, I thought: Sabeth said nothing and lost a point….

It's hard to describe the effect this long passage has on you, coming as it does after 150 pages in which I don't think a single simile had been deployed. To me it felt like being hit by a truck. It's one of the most unusual and powerful devices I can remember, in terms of constructing a novel, and the reason is that the passage coincides exactly with a moment of exquisite emotion both for Faber the character, experiencing it, and for Faber the narrator, remembering it. There is something technically brilliant going on in here.

There are so many other aspects to this superb novel that I haven't even touched on: its comments on the war, its deliberate and wide-ranging internationalism, its precise descriptive scenes. The story is clear-eyed and matter-of-fact and this has a cumulative effect that is quite devastating – heart-breaking, really. And yet for all that, what I am left with is this unexpected, life-affirming feeling…a renewed appreciation of what existence entails:

To be alive: to be in the light. Driving donkeys around somewhere (like that old man in Corinth) – that's all our job amounts to! The main thing is to stand up to the light, to joy (like our child) in the knowledge that I shall be extinguished in the light over gorse, asphalt and sea, to stand up to time, or rather to eternity in the instant. To be eternal means to have existed.
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LibraryThing member TadAD
I read this in my twenties, it depressed the heck out of me, but I didn't want to stop reading. I suspect that, were I to read it now (many years later), Walter's mid-life crisis would hit home even more strongly...and probably depress me even more. :-)

A previous reviewer made mention of a romantic comedy. I can't imagine a categorization any further from what I found. If anything, this is a Greek tragedy, full of all of the irony and inevitable despair of that genre.

I can't say much about the writing style. I read this in German, which is not my native language nor am I fluent, and the mental translation process prevented any ability to assess that aspect of the book.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
The main problem I have with Max Frisch's Homo Faber is its implausible Oedipus-like meeting of people. You truly need to suspend your belief. I see a similarity to Voltaire's Candide where the didactic need to show the reader certain events drives the story. Mr. Faber also learns that he doesn't live in the best of all possible worlds, a fact Frisch's Wirtschaftswunder generation only learned later when the American defeat in Vietnam crashed the world economy. Frisch's mechanics of life does not foresee the birth of complexity and systems thinking. Faber lives in a complicated and deterministic not a dynamic and complex world. While the story partially plays in South America, Faber isn't exposed to the butterfly effect.

Overall, I am a bit disappointed as it does not live up to its reputation as a classic. What I liked most are the description of the different modes of transport. Faber flies, drives and navigates across the planet on his fateful journey.
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LibraryThing member BrianFannin
Third German book of the year, but probably the only one that qualifies as a legitimate adult-type novel. At times confusing for a non-native speaker. The coincidences and revelations may seem like stuff that I didn't properly understand, but a second look and, "Yeah, this really is what happened". Really good stuff. Highly recommended if one is learning the language and wants something a bit more challenging.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
A novel of slowing down and being left behind by the world and technology, and the imprisonment that that world might bring.
LibraryThing member kawgirl
When I was learning German, this is the first novel I read. The story was fascinating enough that I forgot my fear of reading an actual book in another language. An excellent story about the priorities we tend to make in modern life and where these decisions might lead us.
LibraryThing member Praj05
“Nothing is harder than to accept oneself." - Max Frisch.

Walter Faber is a paradigm of collective identity v/s self-identity, rationality v/s irrationality and providence v/s concurrence; counter positioning free will. You cannot find yourself anywhere except in yourself. Frisch portrays the contradictory worlds of methodical reasonableness and the quandary of being a mortal. Walter believes in what he nurtures. As a technologist working for UNESCO, he lives in the present and connects with the world through scientific implications of his free will. Walter truly believes that it is mere a sequence of coincidences that fashions a man’s life, not fate. He defies the very nature of human sentiments sheltering his vulnerabilities through an itinerant lifestyle and transitory associations. Nevertheless, when circumstantial occurrences go beyond coherent justifications revealing the blatancy of Walter’s concealed emotions; the dichotomy of fate and coincidences are collided. Walter’s encounter with Herbert, his travel to the tobacco plantation, facing his uneasy past through Hannah and the sexual relation with Sabeth banishes Walter’s logic of concurrent consequences and imposes the idea of destiny. His obstinate belief that a man should not be held responsible for the actions he did not choose is shattered when guilt overrides his conscious after knowing Sabeth’s true identity. He appreciates the value of forgiveness, a concept which he had alienated himself from.

A man is a not a machine but an incongruous creature. Frisch talks about the influence of industrial age and its significance in etching human mentality. The evolution of scientific technologies has assured human beings the capabilities of capturing the materialistic wonders controlling every aspect of human survival.

Above all, however, the machine has no feelings; it feels no fear and no hope ... it operates according to the pure logic of probability. For this reason I assert that the robot perceives more accurately than man.

Walter’s fixation with the technology constantly asserts the conflict between the modern world and the so called primitive thought processes. To a spiritual mind, death is the ultimate liberation of a soul. Whereas in a scientific setting death is seen as a failure of the aortic pump. Frisch toys with the post-modernism attitude towards technology suggesting that even though technology can make life easier it cannot define the workings of human connections. Walter’s practicality in every decision shielded him from the absurdity of emotions and fear making him helpless and nauseated in his own personality, is analogous to the resolution of Antoine Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea:-

I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, 1 foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things; this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness. I kept myself from making the slightest movement, but I didn't need to move in order to see, behind the trees, the blue columns and the lamp posts of the bandstand and the Velleda, in the midst of a mountain of laurel. All these objects . . . how can I explain?.......... I realized that there was no half-way house between non-existence and this flaunting abundance. If you existed, you had to exist all the way, as far as mouldiness, bloatedness, obscenity were concerned. (Jean Paul Sartre; Nausea)

The underplayed incestuous approach and the irony in Walter’s analysis on abortion as a logical outcome in a civilization, shows that even though ‘man plans’ the absurdity of fate makes technology a pitiable surrogate of human identity. Ultimately, Walter’s trepidation of death and emancipation from his social identity as an engineer, proves that “Man the Maker” relates to how an individual classifies oneself from a hollow world where one cannot suffer nothing.
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LibraryThing member Stig_Brantley
This book would have been very easy to read in just a few hours. I liked the prose, however, so I decided to take my time.

Walter Faber, the protagonist, is an existential, pragmatic engineer. He is mainly concerned with how things (machines mostly)work. He doesn't know about art and he isn't moved by experiences that move other people. He also doesn't care that he doesn't know about art or that he's not moved by what moves other people. He wouldn't even mention anything about it if he hadn't found himself in a situation where he was forced to think about it: he meets a young girl who he falls in love with over the course of about five days and she drags him to all sorts of museums and they watch sunsets together and have simile contests.

Don't think, however, that this is a romantic comedy. Far from it. I think I only laughed once. I won't give away any of the plot: Frisch does that for you in the first 10 pages anyway so that there are no surprises. You know everything from the beginning. The intrigue comes from watching Faber's alien mind at work.

I saw the Volker Schlondorf movie adaptation of this book a long time ago. I don't remember if I liked it or not. It's only available on VHS and it's out of print or else it'd be in my netflix queue. I do remember that Sam Shepard and Julie Delpy were the leads so they're who I pictured as I read, which worked quite well.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
A book I found more interesting after discussions at my book club, so I deem it good material for discussion and disagreement. A purely logical engineer, who believes in the tangible world and his control of it, falls into a mid-life malaise on a airplane trip, reverses his plans, and ends up mining back through his life with unexpected and mythic results. Beautifully written, but I wasn't and still am not sure what I think of the man and the journey.… (more)
LibraryThing member Petroglyph
This one was a relatively quick read, and one that I very much enjoyed. Many other reviews exist of this book (even on LT) so I’ll just focus on the things I particularly liked.

Much of the book reads like an account of care-free, leisurely tourism through Mexico and Europe. The main character has trouble engaging with art, emotions and non-calculatable motivations that drive other people. Usually, these characters get stereotyped into unrelatability, but here I thought the main character’s confrontation with other humans, art and sunrises through mid-life crisis romance felt fairly genuine and sometimes even endearing (YMMV though).

Another thing I liked very much is the way that the layering of focalizers added to the characterization. Normally, the accumulation of occasional meta-comments and the choice of what the narrator focuses on or introduces would read like a clumsy omniscient narrator failing to conceal their set-up of the big twist, a joke with the punch-line set up telegraphed way too obviously. But since the book is framed as the main character retelling their experiences after the fact, the clumsiness comes across as self-delusion, a blindness to certain areas of life that are entirely in line with the kind of person the main character is.

I’m glad I read this. It’s a pity I didn’t get to it sooner.
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