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. —Man in the Holocene
We would like to think there is, if not an amity, at least some correspondence between what ticks inside our heads and whatever it is that runs the world’s clock. Geiser, the protagonist of Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, indirectly voices such a desire throughout the novel. As for Geiser, as for writers and readers. If fiction is an ordering of experience, point of view can define relationships within that experience. Between readers and author there is the narrator who shapes the telling and manages the way we receive its characters and the story’s message. The point of view established in a text is based on assumptions about what narrators and characters understand and are capable of understanding, about what they can and cannot do in the world, and about what the world might offer in return. The concept itself implies, perhaps, that our knowledge of people and the world exists only as it is refracted through a mind. Point of view can also, in the distance it sets between narrators and characters and between writers and readers create “the interest, the conflicts, the suspense, and the plot itself in most modern narratives” (Martin 131). More is involved here than dramatic effect, though: the way we feel about characters and what they do contributes to our understanding of them. We would like to think that the distance that separates us can be closed, that tensions can be eased, that we agree about something, that conflicts find resolution, or, failing all these, that we might at least learn something from the broil. The evidence from Holocene and most recent fiction has been less than favorable, however. Certainties are discovered, but these certainties do not add up to much or tell us what we want to know. Still we are reluctant to give up these desires, and if we can’t fulfill them, we still try, those of us who write fiction, to find ways to contain our disappointment.
The horologists who study our fictions and the way we tell them have not brought consensus or felicity, either, and it is difficult even to find a useful definition of point of view or one upon which all agree. The writing handbooks only give a few superficial details, while theorists have dismantled and rebuilt the concept so it can fit into their complex, comprehensive theories of narrative. Stevick regrets the phrase “point of view” because of its ambiguity and broadness: it can refer to the “intellectual orientation of a work. . .to the emotional stance of the writer. . .and to the angle from which a fictional work is narrated”(85). The third sense, he says, has stuck in one guise or another with most theorists, but I prefer a definition that includes all three. An outlook, intellectual or otherwise, will determine this angle of vision and color the light it passes, and it may be hard in some cases to separate Stevick’s second sense from the third. Point of view in the narrower sense depends on Point of View in the larger (hereafter I will resort to the melodramatic gimmick of capitalizing it). Not that this inclusion brings clarity; in fact the opposite may be true, that it compounds the distortion. And theorists may be frustrated in their attempts to create a coherent, unified theory: theories about point of view ultimately depend on a coherent, unified Point of View, and their elaborate structures may not have anywhere solid to rest.
Covert vs. Overt Narration
If a theoretical basis for point of view cannot be settled on, the behavior can at least be observed. An author has several matters to resolve and coordinate. First he needs to decide who speaks and in what grammatical person, almost exclusively first or third. Then he has to determine the degree the narrator is present as a person. A narrator can have an existence in a story that ranges from covert (or effaced), where we are scarcely conscious of his presence, to overt, where we are aware of being directly addressed by a distinct personal voice, separate from those of the characters. If overt, the narrator may be involved in the story itself as an active participant or perform only as an observer, marginally involved in the plot. Or he may be located at some point removed which may not even be specified, where, though we are aware of his presence as a personal voice, he is not directly linked to the time or place of the story and can move freely across the terrain without restraint, and even have the perspective of knowing past and future events, knowledge characters locked in the time of the narrative do not share. A covert narrator can have similar privileges, but because, covert may be even freer because we’re less likely to think of this type as even being located in space and time.
Whether overt or covert, the range and depth of a narrator’s field of vision also need to be defined. A narrator may follow one character closely, presenting only his thoughts and feelings and seeing only what he sees (though we’re not bound to his vision: our understanding of this character will be qualified by other characters he encounters and what they say and do), or be able to observe closely the lives of several or all characters. A narrator may then stay on the surface, reporting only characters’ external words and actions, or dip inside their heads and present their thoughts, feelings, and whatever else he finds there. An author also has to decide on how his narrator will present this material, by summary and analysis, by direct or indirect quotation of their words and thoughts, or by some combination of these (free indirect discourse—more on this later). And in summary and indirect discourse, the narration will be conditioned by the manner in which it is said, the tone of the narrator’s voice, his language, its rhythms.
Finally, an author has to decide how trustworthy to make his narrator. Unreliable narrators, usually made so by their age and immaturity or by some emotional instability, stake a point against which another viewpoint must be posited (oh, let’s call it the author’s, but then there is also the possibility the author does not have one or refuses to give one, in which case the first point can’t be set and we’re all lost in relativity). But what is the opposite of unreliability? To say a narrator is reliable leads to the question as to what he is reliable about, and any account that goes beyond presenting the details of behavior must have a way to assemble them. Ultimately, we have to consider Point of View in the larger sense, whatever intellectual baggage the narrator carries. And selection of Point of View will influence the other decisions. A moralist on the order of Thackeray or a Marxist might give his narrator absolute authority and have him look through the eyes of a limited character—limited because a single individual at best can only play a small part in a larger social order—and may not have him spend much time inside that character’s head because there is little there he finds worthwhile (Cohn makes this point on Thackeray, 67). A psychologist of whatever camp, on the other hand, may demote his orators and revolutionaries to characters who think they know what they’re talking about, but don’t, because he may believe their ideas not only ignore the fundamentals of human behavior but also because their ideologies are suspect themselves, based on psychological imbalance.
However gross my characterizations of the above narrators—thank heaven none of these exist, or exist very long—any writer is going to have, even though not formalized into theory, some attitude towards people, along with opinions on why they behave the way they do and how they should behave, and these will influence his esthetic choices. The person and thoughts about the person cannot be abstracted out of motive in fiction, the way, perhaps, motif can in music. We, of course, do not read fiction to learn ideas, any more than we look at a painting so we can imagine and then contemplate lines of perspective, but in both arts, perspective shapes the work (and perspective itself in the visual arts depends on a theoretical position). Even to reject ideas themselves implies an intellectual stance, and a writer who accepts this tact may spend his time on the surface, paying more attention to craft than theme, turning point of view into a prism which produces many bright and interesting colors, but such a work will still influence the way we think about people and how seriously we take them.
Yet anyone trying to deal with the workings of the mind, however much he wants to believe in the permanence and universality of his views, has to face the fact that not only gray matter but also theories and opinions about it are loose and malleable stuff. Trends change along with what we raise from the depths (the reason why I suspect any attempt to define a theory of stream of conscious writing is doomed, also the reason why I’m glad we have writers: they create better fictions about the mind). Writers dealing with social order have to contend with a similar looseness in the rules they believe govern social conduct. It could be argued (and I would agree) that the most successful writers are those who most take on the challenge of Point of View but at the same time recognize its limitations and do not let it too rigidly control their work. These writers also realize not only that much behavior is simply idiosyncratic but also that part of their task is to produce individuals who embody those idiosyncrasies, not reduce them to a set of ideas. I include Point of View in my definition of point of view not because I believe there exists some kind of transcendent order that writers can grasp and in which they should align their work, but the opposite. Just as we accept their characters as “real,” as people who in some way exist, we grant their ideas a similar reality—but only provisionally. We always have to step back from a work and decide if characters behave the way we think actual people do, just as we measure the writers’ ideas against what we believe to be true. We cannot do so until, however, until both are fixed before us in a text, becoming a kind of proposition, and point of view is one way to establish this fixity.
Two examples from Joyce and Mann will illustrate the interrelationship of the different aspects and also define opposite strategies used in third person narratives I will use in analyzing Frisch’s novel. As in Holocene, both narrators center on a single consciousness and have access to that character’s mind. And in all three, the characters are in a state of emotional distress, posing challenges to reaching an understanding of what is going on inside their heads. First, a passage from Mann’s Death in Venice, where Aschenbach is caught in a moment of infatuation with the boy Tadzio:
Too late, he thought at this moment. Too late! But was it too late? This step he had failed to take, it might quite possibly have led to goodness, levity, gaiety, to salutary sobriety. But the fact doubtless was, that the aging man did not want the sobering, that the intoxication was too dear too him. Who can decipher the nature and pattern of artistic creativity? Who can comprehend the fusion of disciplined and dissolute instincts wherein it is so deeply rooted? For not to be capable of wanting salutary sobering is dissoluteness. Aschenbach was no longer disposed to self-criticism; the tastes, the spiritual dispositions of his later years, self-esteem, maturity, and tardy single-mindedness disinclined him from analyzing his motives, and from deciding whether it was his conscience, or immorality and weakness that had prevented him from carrying out his intention. (qtd. in Cohn: 27)
The excerpt begins with the actual words of Aschenbach’s thought, but presumably he is so distraught that he can go no further and the narrator has to take over. While the narrator is not located in the story in any physical way (how could he be, and then get inside Aschenbach’s head?), he has a distinct presence and speaks to us as a person in his own voice, using his own language. He also speaks with authority, talking about certainties (“the fact” of Aschenbach’s condition). The source of his authority comes from his superior knowledge of human behavior, along, perhaps, with his superior control of his emotions which makes such dispassionate analysis possible. And while he largely focuses Aschenbach’s psychological condition, his analysis has the force of judgment, a judgment based at least on the virtues of moderation. Whatever the narrator’s exact beliefs, we are aware that he does have a larger Point of View, and this Point of View puts him—and us—at an emotional and intellectual distance from Aschenbach, whom he analyzes as if he were a patient on a couch, if not someone in the confessional, hopelessly unrepentant.
Compare this example with one from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
He shook the sound out of his ears by an angry toss of his head and hurried on, stumbling through the mouldering offal, his heart already bitten by an ache of loathing and bitterness. His father’s whistle, his mother’s mutterings, the screech of an unseen maniac were to him now so many voices offending and threatening to humble the pride of his youth. He drove the echoes even out off his heart with an execration: but, as he walked down the avenue and felt the grey morning light falling about him through the dripping trees and smelt the strange wild smell of the wet leaves and bark, his soul was loosed of her miseries.
The rain-laden trees of the avenue evoked in him, as always, memories of the girls and women in the plays of Gerhardt Hauptmann; and the memory of their pale sorrows and the fragrance falling from the wet branches mingled in a mood of quiet joy.(30-31)
Again, the narrator follows his character closely, reports on his behavior, sees through his eyes, and knows what is going on inside his head. He is in touch with Stephen’s emotions as he describes his anger at home and his relief when he escapes, and also knows his habits and predilections—the effect of trees on him “as always,” along with his taste in theater. In both examples, the characters are too absorbed in their present emotional state to make any comment themselves. Here, however, the language of the narrative is rich with imagery, and unlike Mann’s narrator, Joyce’s is more interested in presenting emotional fullness and engaging us in it, rather than analyzing its problems. But where does the language come from and how does the narrator feel about this scene or want us to feel? Perhaps having wet leaves described as “strange” and “wet” reflects Joyce’s insight and might alter our perception of them, but the emotion is Stephen’s not the narrator’s. And while the language may not be directly Stephen’s, it is the kind of language he—or at least a sensitive yet sentimental youth—would use. All of the language, its rhythms, its diction, and its imagery, is conditioned by Stephen’s sensitivity and immaturity (a risky trick for Joyce, because so much of the prose has the charm but also the ungainliness of adolescence). Only a mawkish writer would have his narrator use words like “the humble pride of his youth,” and while in other fictions these words might be presented ironically if not sarcastically, as if calling to attention Stephen’s sentimentality, the context of Joyce’s novel does not support such a conclusion. While it is clear that some presence is controlling the narrative which has considerable privilege in depicting the character, it is difficult to separate the narrator from Stephen. The narrator is an effaced one, not a distinct and separate voice, and exists only to present Stephen as he is at any given moment. Mann’s narrator has probably seen Aschenbach’s fall all along and hints at it. Joyce’s narrator only follows Stephen as he rises and stumbles, without giving us clues as to which might happen next.
Further, while we may question Stephen’s emotional excess and his judgments of his parents, perhaps even form conclusions about the volatility of youth, the larger Point of View here is also Stephen’s: he believes in souls, not the narrator, and has an opinion as to their gender. Joyce does not use his narrator to assert some theological belief. Yet Stephen’s Point of View is incomplete and unstable, and does not provide a full, coherent way for us to reach any definite assessment of him or anything else. Point of View, inasmuch as it exists in the novel, comes from the maturing Stephen as he develops one, and we sense at the end he has more work to do. Here Point of View is dependent upon the character and to an extent inseparable from him, and thus suspect.
Cohn uses the terms dissonance and consonance to describe these two examples respectively. The terms do have unfortunate connotations, as an overt narrator could be in harmony with his character, the covert, at least implicitly, removed, though her use is neutral. Her purpose is to measure distance, and the examples set opposite poles between which other narratives might vary. In the dissonant type, the “narrator remains emphatically distanced from the consciousness he narrates,” while the consonant involves the mediation of a narrator “who readily fuses with the consciousness he narrates” and thus brings it close(26).
Along with the obvious technical differences in the way these types of narrations are constructed, there will also be differences in the effect they have on the reader and different trade-offs as well. The covert narration will have a greater degree of immediacy and spontaneity: we see character in the throes of existence without being aware of a separate consciousness channeling this information. But since the narrator closely tracks the character’s thoughts and absorbs his language, his voice will be just as uncertain and unstable. According to Cohn: “The absence from A Portrait of any sort of evaluative judgments has led to the unresolved discussion of its author’s attitude toward Stephen; but Joyce’s avoidance of a marked authorial presence is surely sufficient proof that the portrait of a problematic artist as a problematic young man demands from the reader the same tolerance for ambiguities that went into its making” (32). Joyce’s knowledge of people and the world are built into the way he constructs his character and narrator, but these larger meanings, inasmuch as they exist, will be implicit, and more open to varying interpretations. The appearance, if not the actuality of directness and coherence is sacrificed, the trade-off. Overt narration has the advantage of directness, as the narrator not only provides a vehicle for discussion, but also has the means for amplification, through analysis and commentary, as well as through summary enhanced, perhaps, by his superior control of language. If the writer wants us to take him seriously, his voice will assume the force of authority. As Cohn points out, “the stronger the authorial cast, the more emphatic the cognitive privilege of the narrator. And this cognitive privilege enables him to manifest dimensions of a fictional character that the latter is unwilling or unable to betray”(29), but, again, at the loss of closeness and spontaneity.
Voice in Frisch
The poles, then, define a spectrum not only between closeness to and distance from a character, but also between authority and subjectivity, and clarity and ambiguity. Towards which end does Man in the Holocene belong? I will argue both, in a sense, and in a sense, neither. Frisch, then, the opening sections of the novel:
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.
Somewhere a tapping on metal.
It is always with the fourth floor that the wobbling begins; a trembling hand as the next piece of crispbread is put in place, a cough when the gable is already standing, and the whole thing lies in ruins—
Geiser has time to spare.
The news in the village is conflicting; some people say there has been no landslide at all, others that an old supporting wall has collapsed, and there is no way of diverting the highway at that spot. The woman in the post office, who ought to know, merely confirms that the mail bus is not running, but she stands behind the little counter in her usual care-laden fashion, keeping usual office hours, selling stamps, and even accepting parcels, which she places unhurriedly on the scales and then franks. It is taken for granted that state and canton are doing everything in their power to get the highway back in order. If necessary, helicopters can be brought in, unless there is fog. Nobody in the village thinks that the day, or perhaps the night, will come when the whole mountain could begin to slide, burying the village for all time.
Somewhere a tapping on metal.
It is midnight, but still no pagoda. (3-4)
This is obviously a third person narrator, and, as gradually becomes apparent, one who follows a single character, Geiser, closely and is privy to what goes on inside his head. The first sentence is a conditional with a gnomic flavor, as might come from an overt narrator with authority, who is commenting about some desirable state of affairs for man in general, were it not for the specific, localized details of splashing from a particular gutter and gurgling around a particular house. Throughout these sections, there also seems to be some narrative control of time as well, as most the sentences are cast in progressive tense or habitual present, yet the actual time is vague and confusing. And so much of the narrative that follows looks only like objective description, such as might come from an effaced narrator who only reports places, events, thoughts, and sensations, and does so sparingly without comment or analysis. At the outset, who even is being described, where he is, and what happens—much less when—are not immediately clear, and we have to piece the evidence together as it comes. The second sentence tells us a pagoda is actually being built, sometime at night. The second section marks the first actual event in the present, after the progressive time of the first section, but who hears the tapping or where it comes from are still not specified. In the third we become aware of the person who not only hears the tapping but must be the subject of the speculation in the first sentence, an actual person who would like not to hear the noise of rain. And this must be the same person who builds the pagoda, who coughs, whose hand trembles. That “the whole thing lies in ruins” is in the present tense instead of present perfect, which would indicate a completed action, tells us this person has been trying to build one several times, may be doing so now, and will continue to try, probably without success. The fourth section tells us indirectly that this person is Geiser, who either cannot or does not want to sleep, and who is killing time with his construction. Then the fourth section takes us away from the house to a village, presumably the one where Geiser lives, and reports on the villagers’ opinions on a landslide, a highway that may have been damaged. But mention of a landslide takes us back to the first section: it was probably caused, if it did happen, by severe storms—over a week’s worth, we find out on the next page—which might explain why Geiser does not want to hear the rain. He is worried. The sixth section gives only the second actual event in the present time of the narrative, a repetition of the tapping, and the seventh finally identifies the time specifically, midnight, though it is not clear how much time has passed since the beginning section—or how many pagodas have risen and fallen. It would seem, however, that Geiser has been at it for a long time, that his concern about the storm must be considerable. Perhaps this is why his hand trembles.
The narrator does not give much help, and even after several pages, we only have a vague sense of where we are or who is involved. As we read on we are fed information bit by bit, and each new detail forces us to go back to reevaluate what we think we have learned. Only later do we find out that the highway is the only entrance to the village, thus that it is out would leave the villagers—and Geiser—isolated. Yet each new detail also makes us doubt our earlier conclusions. The ninth section suggests Geiser is old, as he describes his guests as youngish. Perhaps his age, then, is why his hand trembles, rather than his worry, or perhaps the shaking comes a combination of the two. Only much later can we piece his situation together: 73, a widow, Geiser was an entrepreneur of some sort who retired in this village, where he now sits out a long series of storms. And each new piece of evidence leads to more questions. We never feel we know as much as we need to know. How great is the possibility of a flood or landslide? How realistic or exaggerated are Geiser’s fears? We don’t get definite answers. And when we find out Geiser is distraught enough to attempt what for him is a dangerous climb to safety over a nearby pass, to throw a salamander in the fire, to cook his cat because a power outage has spoiled his food, yet who also, since these decisions are supposedly made for his survival, ignores his daughter’s phone calls and does not respond to people who knock at his door to help—we are either shocked, because we didn’t see this behavior coming, or not surprised at all because we saw it all along. Either way, we may not be satisfied the narrator has prepared us. Why is he holding out?
Still, as little guidance as we get from the narrator, we are always aware of his presence. He can not only observe but also present Geiser’s thoughts in indirect statement: “Geiser wonders whether there would still be a God if there were no longer a human brain, which cannot accept the idea of a creation without a creator” (9). And he has a distinctive voice, one that can formulate the generalization in the opening section about Geiser’s specific desire to be safe. Perhaps it is the voice of a narrator who is trying to be objective, and thus withholds comments and lets the facts speak for themselves. Or we may sense a wry detachment from a character the narrator at best finds curious. If we read a hint of sarcasm in the first sentence, we might decide that it may be normal to worry about storms, but not to the point that no rain or thunder can be heard. That “Geiser has time to spare,” if we hear a voice with this attitude, might suggest he is a person who does not know how to fill his spare time, and this idleness might lead to his excessive worry. That the village might be buried “for all time” could be read as a heavily sarcastic remark, pointed at Geiser’s boundless fear. Either way, the narrator distances us from Geiser, and we feel we have been given a specimen for some study, though one whose line of inquiry is less than clear. As with Mann’s narrator and his subject, Aschenbach, we have a narrator who knows his character and his condition too well and who sees the inevitable fall. If he doesn’t tell us more, it might be because he would only be stating the obvious (and of course doing so would kill suspense in the plot).
But he is also a narrator who corrects himself. A few pages later we find out “It is not true, incidentally, that no horns are sounding in the valley. . .”(11). Is the road out after all? Perhaps the narrator merely describes earlier reports, and here sets the record straight. Yet so many simple facts which the narrator should have the omniscience to know are often left uncertain, and this uncertainty cannot be attributed to ironic distance. Our attitude about Geiser’s extreme behavior depends on how we interpret the evidence, but I’m not sure we have been given enough by the narrator to reach a definite conclusion about Geiser’s sanity, much less know exactly why he does what he does. More importantly, the narrator, even by implication, does not ascertain what he should know and what we most need to know, the degree of danger that might come from the storms. If there is a high probability of a landslide, and there is much evidence to suggest some probability, then Geiser’s fear, perhaps even his behavior, is not as excessive as we might think. The reason why the narrator doesn’t tell us is because he does not know any more than Geiser what to expect. In fact, the narrator does not tell us anything about his character that Geiser himself does not know. We question the narrator’s apparent omniscience and realize we have to reassess his relationship with Geiser.
Ultimately, we have to decide who is speaking and how. In the fourth section the assessment of the postal clerk as a person “who ought to know” if there has been a landslide, but doesn’t because she is too occupied “in her usual care-laden fashion” with day-to-day matters, might be read as another wry remark from the narrator, yet these words seem out of character for him. However we read him, he seems too distant to concern himself with what would to him be trivial—but would not be to Geiser. And as we settle down in the narrative, we realize that we are told nothing that Geiser has not directly seen or thought about. Again, we have to backtrack and reassess what we’ve been told, but when we do, we understand that though he’s not mentioned in this section, he is the one who goes to the village to find out what has happened. And as we get to know Geiser and increasingly doubt the authority of the narrator, we realize that not only the assessment of the villagers but also many of the actual words are Geiser’s. The context, belatedly, makes this clear. What is suggested in the first two pages is made manifest in the following pages: Geiser is quite worried about the storms and is trying to calculate possible damage. The villagers, however, not only don’t seem especially concerned but can’t even get the facts straight, which, in Geiser’s mind, they “ought” to be able to do. He won’t get any help from people who, perhaps, put too much trust in the state and canton, none of whom are aware “that the whole mountain could begin to slide, burying the village for all time,” Geiser’s concern and probably Geiser’s words. The voice that corrects itself is, of course, Geiser’s, and when we realize this, we begin to wonder where the narrator himself stands.
Free Indirect Discourse
The method that allows a character’s words to appear in a third person narrative is free indirect discourse, which will take a bit of explanation. A narrator has several ways to present the words and thoughts of his characters, which range from direct presentation of their words through quotation—dialogue for speech, interior monologue for their thoughts—through indirect quotation, as exemplified in the sentence quoted above (“Geiser wonders. . .”), where specific details of a character’s speech are presented, but not his exact words, and through summary, where both the details and the words become subsumed into a general report. An author’s choices here depend on the degree he wants to directly represent his character’s words (mimesis) or have his narrator report them (diegesis)(McHale 258-59). Somewhere between direct and indirect quotation lies a nether realm theorists have assigned to free indirect discourse, which uses characters’ actual words but frames them in the grammar of the narration, as shown in the following example from Dos Passos’ novel, 1919:
She almost fainted when he started to make love to her. No, no, she couldn’t just now, but tomorrow she’d drink in spite of the pledge she’d signed with the N.E.R. and shoot the moon. (qtd. in and slightly altered by McHale: 250)
The sentence keeps the past tense and third person (“she” instead of “I”) of the narrative, but in presenting her speech, it not only follows her syntax, as we might imagine it were this a direct quotation (the interjectional construction “No, no”), but also uses her specific words, her diction and colloquial expressions (“shoot the moon”). The advantage such a technique offers is that it maintains the immediacy and spontaneity of speech—we are aware of a character’s actual words and feel we actually experience them—yet also allows the author to move almost seamlessly between character and narrator to report actions and fill in background. An author could, of course, accomplish the same ends by mixing narrative summary and direct quotations, but free indirect discourse is more fluid and more economical, and certainly less awkward than the alternative of having a character report the all the needed background in his speech. The same advantage would apply to rendering consciousness, where free indirect discourse takes the place of interior monologue, extensive use of which can be awkward and unrealistic. Free indirect discourse offers another benefit: since a character may have limited understanding, an author can move freely—even imperceptibly—back to the narrative voice to fill in what we need to know.
Free indirect discourse in its specific meaning applies only to a character’s actual thoughts or speech as they occur, as in the example above (Cohn uses the term “narrated monologue” to make this distinction). An author can set up a narrative in ways that help us distinguish the different discourses, as in the following example from Flaubert:
A quarter of an hour later he had a longing to go into the coach yard, as if by chance. Would he perhaps see her again?
“What’s the use?” he said to himself. (qtd. in Cohn: 135)
Narrative summary in the first sentence is followed by free indirect discourse in the second and direct quotation in the third, a pattern Flaubert often uses whose repetition helps us know which type of discourse is being used and identify who is speaking(135). There is also a more general sense of the term, where the narrative might use a character’s idiom even though no actual speech may be involved and grammatical indicators are less distinct, which occurs in the Joyce example cited above. And the more subtly and the more loosely the technique is used, the more difficult it becomes to know who is talking, narrator or character, or decide how we should take the words. Closeness brings ambiguity.
Voice in Frisch/Complications
In Holocene, it is difficult not only to know who is speaking but even determine what kind of discourse is being used. With a few exceptions, the entire narrative is set in the present tense, so there is not the indicator of a shift of tense, as in the Flaubert and Dos Passos examples. As occurs in the first pages, many sections report Geiser’s behavior without mentioning him, so there isn’t the indicator of shift in personal pronoun as well. The fragmented nature of the narrative also contributes to the ambiguity of discourse. Consider the following examples, which exist as separate, consecutive sections:
Today is Wednesday.
(Or is it Thursday?) (9)
By itself, the first could simply be narrative summary, made independently of Geiser’s words, but the second section makes us realize Geiser’s confusion is involved, so both could be free indirect discourse. Then again, one or both could be free direct discourse, where the narrative uses a character’s exact words without using the conventional quotation marks to distinguish them as such. (Parentheses probably mark an actual thought in the second.) And again, we lack the indicators of shifts in tense and person. More baffling is this section, where there is not even a verb to mark a tense:
No knowledge without memory. (6)
Geiser here is concerned about losing his memory, specifically, as mentioned in the preceding section, with his inability to recall how to draw the golden section. This sentence could be free direct discourse, presenting his actual thought, his own conclusion about the implications of losing one’s memory. Or it could be free indirect discourse, a presentation of that thought. Or, if we haven’t yet abandoned the authority of the narrator, it might be some gnomic statement the narrator makes himself not only about Geiser’s condition, but about people in general.
A narrator’s ability to step back and view events in other places and times also helps distinguish voices. Here, however, as in the Joyce example, despite appearances otherwise, the narrator stays entirely not only within Geiser’s angle of vision but sees only when Geiser actually sees. Everything in the narrative is grounded in the actual time and place of Geiser’s experience. In the section on the first page that begins “The news in the village is conflicting,” it looks as if the narrator has left the house to report on another scene, or, once we realize Geiser’s involvement, that the narrator is giving us a flashback of what Geiser does at an earlier time. Neither is the case. The context of the entire narrative tells us as much. There are few sections that deal with other places and times at this length, and to give the narrator freedom and omniscience here and not elsewhere would be technically odd and inconsistent. Instead, Geiser is actually remembering, in the actual time and place of the narrative, at night inside his house, an earlier trip to the village and his talk with the postal clerk and others, and does so now because he is worried about the storm and is comparing his view with theirs, which is too vague and inconclusive to help him with his present concern, a fear made greater, perhaps, by the late hour. The presentness and actuality of this memory is made clear when the narrator says “Nobody in the village thinks the day, or perhaps the night, will come. . .” (my italics). The night is this night, the night the story begins. The use of the present tense in describing the clerk’s treatment of parcels (“which she places unhurriedly on the scales and then franks”) suggests that Geiser now has this image before him in memory and is reexperiencing it.
The influence of Geiser’s language on the passage indicates free indirect discourse, at least in the general sense, and we see the advantages of such a technique. A kind of psychological realism is maintained here: memories can have a specific nature and influence us in specific ways, even though we don’t actually go through the process of recalling all the details they might contain. And by having the narrator report on the memory, Frisch can present these details without violating this effect yet still maintain the actuality, the presentness of the memory in the mind of the character. There are technical advantages as well. The narrator can present the memory without resorting to extensive inquit formulas (“Geiser thought about. . .”; “He remembered when he. . .”), which would be awkward, or making the entire section an interior monologue, a technique Frisch has decided not to use, at least directly, and which would be unrealistic and odd anyway. A similar case can be made for the longish sections that describe his trip to Iceland and his Matterhorn climb, where many details are presented which are not necessarily actually recalled. But note the difference between this kind of reported memory and a flashback. The latter, even if it only reports details without comment, could present a different Geiser, a younger one, and provide some point of reference, a basis for comparison with the present Geiser. The reported memory, since conditioned by his present state of mind, will not allow this perspective—unless, of course, a character can look back objectively on his life.
Perhaps what is most odd about the narrative is that, except possibly for the few handwritten notes, themselves largely summaries of what he has read, and a few sentences that might be free direct discourse, there is no direct voicing of Geiser’s speech or his thoughts, odd because if we stay this close to a character, we expect him to speak up once in a while, if not out loud, at least to himself. Hearing his actual words might not only help us get fix on who he is and how he speaks, but also set up a pattern of discourse, as in the Flaubert example, giving us a better sense of which words might be his when presented in free indirect discourse, and thus separate him from the narrator. It is not even easy to tell when he is actually thinking. There are few indirect statements to indicate mental activity. Most sentences report perceptions or thoughts by themselves, without using a pronoun to identify Geiser. And frequently the narrator uses the indefinite personal pronoun “one,” as in this example:
A summer guest from Germany, a professor of astronomy, knows a lot about the sun and, if asked, is not unwilling to talk about it, even to a layman. Afterward one clears the cups away, grateful for the short visit. (15)
The conditional “if” leaves us wondering if Geiser asks today or not, though he probably does, given his pressing concerns about meteorology and the influence the sun might have on the weather. The use of “one” makes it sound as if the narrator is describing some generalized situation to raise some truism about people in general, even though this is a specific, actual event and the “one” is Geiser. Even where we are certain what Geiser is doing, the narration blurs his presence.
What most makes separation of voices difficult is that the narrator uses no language that Geiser would not use himself. Even though we may not know exactly when he speaks or what he says, we can infer the types of words he would use once we get to know him. The sparseness of the language—there are few descriptive adjectives, and most of these are neutral, indicating only physical properties or measurement—the neutral coloring of tone, the concrete images, and the crisp, sharp phrasing of the sentences are consistent with what we know about the character and his situation. He prefers “factual books” (10) over novels. By profession, which though not specified is obviously a technical one, Geiser would be given to such terse, formulaic expressions and he would attempt to be objective in his descriptions, as guided by his scientific outlook. As an admirer of the explorer Captain Scott, he is independent and self-reliant, not self-absorbed or given to emotional effusion. And his age would bring a laconism that comes from so many years of dealing with expectations and disappointments, as well as from a sense of what lies ahead. We feel the presence of a mind trying to establish personal and intellectual control and be directed by the possibilities such control might offer.
And whatever conclusions the narrator might reach with this language, Geiser would reach also, because he is aware of his condition to an extent. He realizes that his posture as Geiser the imperiled explorer is unwarranted when he does not send a letter to his daughter because “there are sentences in it that sound like Captain Scott in his tent”(20). Geiser finds solace in the thought that “At any rate, one knows afterward that one is not crazy: other people have also noticed that it keeps on raining” (16), but also shows recognition that his behavior may be less than rational, and perhaps senses what is to come. The narrator does not say anything Geiser would not say, or think anything he would not think. If Geiser wrote this story, he would say it exactly the way this narrator has.
While the dry, detached tone of the narrative might distance us from Geiser, sympathy—ours or anyone else’s—is not an emotion he would allow. If we feel distant from Geiser, it is because Geiser is distant from himself. It would not be out of character for him to be removed from his thoughts or even think about himself in the third person, as if about someone else. Thus sentences such as:
Geiser has time to spare. (3)
Geiser is a widower. (37)
Geiser is still wearing his hat. (57)
Geiser wants no visitors. (93)
Geiser is not a newt. (97)
could be read as free indirect discourse in the strict sense, a presentation of his actual, specific thoughts. Geiser is making observations about himself and voicing them with the same wry detachment we might first have attributed to the narrator. Or for that matter, they might be free direct discourse: he is actually saying these to himself—or out loud, for all we know—referring to himself as “Geiser.” A case could even be made that almost the entire narrative is free indirect discourse in the specific sense—only his actual thoughts are present. Or, more likely, that it uses only free indirect discourse in the general sense—his type of thought and language colors the narrative, without there being any indication of actual thought or speech. We have no way of telling. The ambiguity about discourse itself prevents the perspective a separation of narrative and figural voices might offer.
Though we may not always know where he is, we do have, as in Mann, an overt narrator who speaks in a separate voice, and speaks with authority, but it is an authority without content, as he says nothing beyond what Geiser himself knows. The narrator, who, of course, is not Geiser, is still a doubling of Geiser’s consciousness and exists as a kind of ghost who hovers bodiless over the corporeal character. But once we cast appearances aside, we see that the narrator, though overt, really functions more like an effaced narrator, like Joyce’s, who, with the help of free indirect discourse is fused with his character and presents him without comment or even clear hints. And as with Stephen in Portrait, we see the development, or at least an attempt towards development of a Point of View, contained by and contingent to some degree upon the character Geiser. It would be a mistake, however, to think of the covert narration as controlled by some kind of hidden person—it is with reluctance I refer to him as “him” or “who”—who hides behind the scenes and manipulates images and words while the overt narrator walks the stage and speaks. Only gradually—if at all—do we realize how the narrative works, so carefully and subtly has Frisch crafted the narrative voice. Like many effects in fiction, his depends on our not noticing it.
Yet still unlike Joyce’s narrator, at least in effect, because an effaced narrator can present emotions when a character is not in a state to voice them. In Holocene, we don’t even get amplification of these emotions, not even where they should be most strong: Geiser’s struggle with the climb over the pass, his feelings when he abandons this escape—and especially when he goes haywire and roasts his cat, which only gets a brief, bare report. The narrator only presents Geiser’s consciousness, and does not go deeper to express some unconscious substratum because it is Geiser’s consciousness, shaped by his scientific outlook that controls what is presented. Nor can the narrator imply conclusions where Geiser cannot: he can only show the pieces as Geiser scatters them. The only fear expressed is the fear Geiser feels is justified: if he decides he is in danger, he would feel a measure of fear is in order to determine a course of action. Any other play of emotion would serve no purpose. And if Geiser does not attempt to analyze himself, it is because he may not know how or, more likely, because he might question the kinds of introspection that place more emphasis on emotions than reason.
To be sure, we are made aware of his emotions and how they affect him, beyond their pragmatic value, but in the only way his rational mind would allow, through concrete things and their physical description, the images of memory and perception covertly planted in the narration. But again, the narrator can only present them, not embellish them or pull them together. Early in the novel, he watches the vines and roses in his garden “being torn to shreds”(8) by the rain, and later he imagines a fallen tree on the slope he is contemplating climbing, “its smashed crown pointing” the “black roots spread out in the air” (13). While these details might give Geiser useful external evidence in determining the possibility of greater destruction, they make us wonder about the emotional condition of the man who perceives them, who must imagine himself ripped to shreds, emotionally, perhaps even physically if he steps out. The black roots suggest a darkness within, a despair he barely recognizes and cannot control.
This oblique expression of his emotional state is evident between pages 41 and 53, a passage where it would most seem the narrator has left the scene—and Geiser—to fill in background, but hasn’t. Page 41 gives a string of reports on rain outside the window, made morning to night, almost on the hour. Geiser has been watching the rain constantly, in a frame of mind we can only guess at, but obviously he is quite concerned. Next a long scene on winter, introduced by the sentence, “At least it is not snowing.” The immediate relevance of this seeming non sequitur is that were it now winter, all this rain would be snow and Geiser would have an avalanche to worry over as well if he stayed through the next season. After all, he is in the Alps. And thoughts of snow and avalanches recall his earlier reading about the area’s past, the relentless glacial activity in the Ice Age. Thus the later section on Iceland, where he once visited, is also anticipated. Echoed perhaps as well is Geiser’s self-image as Captain Scott, a solitary arctic explorer.
Then follows a longish description of the valley in winter. The color black is used in each specific description, in all but four of the next eighteen sentences—black footprints in the snow, black asphalt, black birds, and so on—and in the other four there is a “dirty gray,” “silvery gray,” and “bracken brown”—dark or neutral shades. Coffee in the last of the eighteen might suggest black as well. And snow is grimy in the next sentence, a ravine in shadow. This passage is another reported memory, whose details, while he may not be actually recalling them, are determined by his present state of mind and whose impact he now feels. The blackness that briefly appears earlier here explodes, and his mood must be very dark indeed. This memory, its blackness might be motivated by the time—it is after eleven, perhaps much later. He is again spending another night worrying and when he goes to the window now, all he can see is the night. We realize what Geiser may not, that he is disturbed, perhaps to the point of pathology. He does make some qualification at the end of this section when he realizes that the glaciers, after all, are “in retreat,” but in the summation “All in all, a green valley,” after all the blackness, the color green bursts out like a vain ray of hope, too quick, too brief to last. We sense not optimism, but a rapid mood swing, a sign of instability. And just as Geiser struggles to contain his darker fears with reason, the rational control exerted on the narrative struggles with stream of conscious, barely allowed to emerge.
The next day gets only a brief two sections, where the possibility of the sun coming out is pitted against the sound of water rushing again in the ravine. And in the next section he contemplates if not prepares for his escape: a train schedule is cut out and posted on the wall. Then the next six pages have many short sections, again seemingly out of the scene, describing the advantages and disadvantages of the valley, all trivial (and often comic). At best it is a picturesque place, but then again, there’s not much to be said for it—“A valley with no Baedeker stars,” as is noted in one section. We realize that Geiser is not just thinking about his immediate future, but the rest of his life and what it might be worth. Loneliness is not an emotion the stoic Geiser would allow, but he must sense his isolation in a valley where he feels out of place, an isolation intensified by the storms. Basel, the destination of his escape plan, is not only where his daughter lives but also where he grew up. Perhaps it is time to return. And, at his age, he must be aware of his approaching death. Winter is our last season. That “Erosion is a slow process” (48) offers some consolation: whatever may happen in the valley might not happen suddenly, as he fears. But erosion happens nonetheless, and its effects are irreversible. Geiser must also be aware of his own possible erosion, physical and mental, which throughout the novel is paralleled with that caused by the storms, and while both types of erosion usually occur gradually, his, at his age, can also happen as suddenly as a flood or landslide. These sections and the next, dealing with Iceland, are probably set at night, when he is most prone to despair. The long section on Iceland—another reported memory, of a trip he made some time ago—can only describe the sterility of the land. Here, the memory is again motivated by his fear of danger and echoes what he has been learning from the texts he has cut out and taped to the wall. What has happened in Iceland once occurred in the Alps and will eventually happen again. Nature once was, still is, and will forever be indifferent to man, to Geiser in particular. But there is also the suggestion, even if Geiser doesn’t see it, that his own life is just as barren now—and perhaps has always been that way, for reasons he may glimpse but not admit. All the images in these pages, in their coldness, their sterility, and their blackness are too extreme, too exaggerated for his immediate or even distant concerns. We see cracks in the rational mind and sense that his breakdown, already anticipated, might be imminent. Later, after his hike, when his behavior is most bizarre, the narrative, like Geiser, is silent because the reasoning machine has broken down and can’t find the words to speak.
While Geiser’s consciousness determines the narrative, we become aware of its limitations and realize the only way we can come to any kind of assessment of Geiser is by going outside it. And the narrative, the way it is constructed, impels us to make some kind of assessment of Geiser and his odd behavior. In so many ways we are put at a distance from Geiser that screams to be closed. The authoritative character of the overt narrator, however much this is only a matter of appearance, puts us at a psychological if not moral remove. And discovering the narrator is no different from Geiser only makes us wonder more why Geiser doesn’t see what is so obvious to us. Frisch probably avoided interior monologue to reinforce this distance, as hearing Geiser’s actual words might lead to a familiarity that would compromise it. Perhaps, too, Geiser not only is not disposed to talking to himself, he might also lack the confidence or ability to do so, which would present another aspect of his psychological distress. The covert narration, however, in its focus on Geiser and its fusion with him through free indirect discourse, brings us close enough to him to want some kind of accounting for all the details embedded in it of his extreme behavior. The fragmentary nature of the narrative itself, along with gaps it creates, perhaps suggesting a fragmented mind, posits the need for a wholeness that a conclusion might bring—
Point of View/point of view
But how can we reach any definite conclusion? The novel pushes us only in a vague direction towards some kind of assessment, but does not give us the means to make one or even know what kind of assessment is in order. We aren’t even given enough hints to understand what is happening to Geiser, much less decide how we should take him. Should we feel sympathetic with him, pity him, or view him from some ironic distance? We can’t even get an answer to the question that most cries for one: Is this guy crazy or not? The tone is so sparse it could be read in several ways, whether we ascribe it to Geiser or the narrator. The terse, bare words could come from someone too resigned to say more, or one who is simply being stoic. Or they could be the words of someone who does care about his life and life in general, perhaps too much, and does not want to spoil this hope with false and exaggerated expectation. The overt narrator has no authority, and the strict adherence to Geiser’s point of view, unreliable itself, allows no other. The use of an effaced narrator and free indirect discourse does not necessarily preclude coherence. In fact, as Cohn notes, “narrated monologues themselves tend to commit the narrator to attitudes of sympathy or irony: “Precisely because they cast the language of a subjective mind into the grammar of objective narration, they amplify emotional notes, but also throw into ironic relief all false notes struck by a figural mind”(117). But, as she explains, this kind of emotive shaping depends on an implied context, and in Holocene, there isn’t one provided by the narration. It’s hard to determine a false note in music that has no determinable key. The point of view is so fixed on Geiser’s consciousness that covert narration is not given the power to direct by implication. We can’t even get the point of view of other voices—of other characters. We question the competence of the villagers, and almost everyone else has left town. The novel provides an apt image that might describe the narrative. Geiser is out in his yard one morning. The rain has lifted but left a dense fog:
Field glasses are no use at all in times like these, one screws them this way and that without being able to find any sharp outline to bring into focus; all they do is make the mist thicker. (7)
We have the tools for focusing—a narrator fixed on Geiser’s point of view—but we don’t have anywhere to focus through his eyes, his mind. Like Geiser, we’re in a fog, and without guidance, a place to focus, we are forced to weigh the evidence ourselves.
What can we conclude?
We might decide that the consciousness—Geiser’s—that controls the narrative presents the major conflict of the novel and perhaps demonstrates the trap Geiser has put himself in. We sense that reason has turned into rationalization, a covering up of inner turmoil instead of a recognition and treatment of it. This rational outlook, coupled with his independence, has led to his cutting himself from what he most needs, the help and support of other people. Geiser recognizes this himself to some extent, but only after much physical and psychological distress. After abandoning his escape, after suffering a stroke and the fall it causes, after throwing a salamander in the fire—which he must have hated because it reminded him of his own inhumanity (“Geiser is not a newt”)—after roasting the cat, Geiser, at the end of his rope, is saved by another, the one his brother lowers when they get trapped during their Matterhorn climb. This long section is another reported memory, motivated by Geiser’s immediate need for help, perhaps by his recognition of the essential need for relationships with other people. And this memory helps him recall what he has forgotten earlier, the names of his grandchildren, and what he has ignored all along, that his daughter is affectionate. And while we’re at it, we might question his abandoning the beliefs of other people, their religion—he falls asleep at the shrine—or their diversions, their novels. In a curiously parenthetical, nicely ironic comment in a work of fiction, he thinks:
(Novels are no use at all on days like these, they deal with people and their relationships, with themselves and others, fathers and mothers and daughters or sons, lovers, etc., with individual souls, usually unhappy ones, with society, etc. as if the place for these things were assured, the earth for all time earth, the sea level fixed for all time.) (8)
But how secure can we be with such a conclusion and does the text support it? His isolation is not self-imposed: many retire to quaint villages, and he certainly did not cause the death of his wife, the only real company he might have had. His daughter understandably treats him as a child at the end, given his state when she finally comes, but we don’t know what his relationship with her is or what it would be like if he returned to Basel—or if she wants him to. And we don’t have any evidence that his life in his former home would be any better than what he has now. His distance from the villagers and their habitual ways is understandable and does not come from arrogance. In fact, if we criticize him for turning his back on other people, how much are we speaking from some habit ourselves we haven’t questioned? One can be miserable with other people as well. Geiser at the end of the novel does stay in the village, for reasons not given, and while he may be setting himself up for isolation again, we have no way of knowing that he has not made the best choice he can make, given his options.
Or, if we deduce some kind of personality disorder, how confident can we be with our diagnosis? That his behavior is odd goes without saying, but is it the result of some underlying psychological defect or just a temporary aberration, not indicative of who he is? Even senility is not certain, as we all forget things when we are upset. A case could be made that his actions, however bizarre, are understandable, given the circumstances. Several weeks of rain are enough to unnerve the best of us, especially if we live alone, if our neighbors are leaving, if our yard shows signs of damage, if our power goes off and spoils our food, which will be hard to replace when the villagers are hoarding, if our means of escape are closed, a single highway, which may go out at any time, if our means of communication with the outside world are periodically cut, our telephones, our TVs—and especially if we are 73 years old. Instead of pitying him, we might admire him for his stamina, his heroic resolve. Our assessment of Geiser ultimately depends on the issue the narrator cannot resolve—how imminent the danger is and how great might it be. Geiser’s evidence is not conclusive, but it does offer cause for alarm. There is, after all, the possibility that while not right this time, he might be the next, and when the landslide comes, we applaud him for his prescience.
And the evidence Geiser gathers from his observations are to an extent corroborated by the texts he cuts out and tapes on the wall. These texts add another dimension to the narrative. Here we have overt narration with authority, with the twist that these voices come from actual sources, bringing a kind of realism to the novel. The reports from these authorities are not promising, as they tell about massive, destructive floods, avalanches, and landslides in the area over the canton’s history, many within the last hundred years or so, recent enough to suggest possibilities, although too old to give any indication of what might happen in the near future. (It is curious, however, that Geiser does not consult meteorological reports from a newspaper or radio.) The report from all time is utterly bleak. The forces that created the Ice Age, that covered the valley with glaciers, that killed off the dinosaurs and will probably dispatch with man as well are still in motion, and in the long view, one has no cause for hope at all—but then this evidence is not useful at all, and we question Geiser’s sense of proportion. Scale is part of Geiser’s problem: small cracks in his garden, loom large; salamanders stalk the house like dinosaurs. But our assessment of Geiser most depends on how we interpret what he is doing, and if we aren’t blinded by the habits of day-to-day living, we see much more is involved than his immediate safety.
The texts themselves, like the rest of narrative, are motivated by Geiser’s consciousness, appearing as they occur to him or he finds them, and we see these only when he reads or summarizes them and posts them on the wall. The collection of notes, as it gathers, must look to us like the rest of Geiser’s behavior, random and scattered. Yet there are patterns to them which suggest if not a wholeness, at least a movement, a groping towards wholeness. Consider the following series of handwritten notes (40), which I will analyze in turn:
The cells making up the human body, including the brain consist mainly of water
Water in the form of rain has preoccupied him throughout. Geiser is also worried about his mental faculties, memory in particular, and since water is an unstable substance, some change, some deterioration can only be expected. If Geiser is contemplating his ultimate worth as a human being—not an unusual activity at a time of crisis—the thought that our minds are made of water is not uplifting. And if, as he wonders earlier, there may not be a God “if there were no longer a human brain, which cannot accept the idea of a creation without a creator,” whatever larger reality there might be to offer spiritual support could go as well.
The earth is not a perfect sphere
A desire for absolute perfection may be irrational on Geiser’s part, but the opposite, absolute mutability, hardly offers a source of strength, as imperfection suggests instability as well. Echoed here is his wish that “the earth for all [be] time earth”(8). Throughout the novel, he tries to find something that is stable and certain, a lifeboat he can trust, some firm truth to latch onto. Earlier in the novel, having failed at building pagodas, he tries to remember how to construct the golden section, which not only is built upon the unalterable principles of geometry, but also suggests order and proportion. Perhaps the earth is incapable of these in any degree.
There has never been an earthquake in Ticino
At least there is not this to worry about, even if the earth is imperfect. As always, Geiser weighs the evidence.
Fish do not sleep
Geiser has not been sleeping well himself, which must concern him and which may account for his behavior later, as he should be exhausted. Also fish live in water, with all that it implies—is this why they do not sleep? And if Geiser sees himself as a fish, surrounded by water, his earlier thought about metamorphosis is reinforced. He fears he is turning into something less than human—but perhaps, humans, who are mostly water, as less than human anyway, who, if they keep their eyes open, only see and swim in unstable water.
The sum total of energy is constant
Another absolute truth, though not a reassuring one, as it does not preclude violent change in maintaining this constancy.
Human beings are the only living creatures with an awareness of history
At least there is this which distinguishes Geiser, who has been consulting the books, and other men from other animals—but this awareness only applies when their memory is intact. After all, “No knowledge without memory.” And what has this history produced of value, say, in Ticino, a place with no Baedeker stars?
Snakes have no hearing
Is Geiser hard of hearing, thus by extension, a kind of snake? In a figurative sense, he is if he is losing his memory. Or at least Geiser, who can hear thunder and rain, has proof he is a man and not a reptile, a stay against his fear of metamorphosis.
3/4 of the earth’s surface is water
Water again, globally.
Europe and America move two centimeters away from each other every year, while entire continents (Atlantis) have already disappeared
Nature does not rest, and the effects of the earth’s imperfection can be devastating.
Since when have words existed?
Words are our way of expressing our awareness, but then there was a time before us, when there were no words. What was true then, and has it changed? What does it have to do with our words? With the words Geiser finds in the texts? With the words he indirectly voices in the narrative?
The universe is expanding
The forces of nature were here before us, still are present, and will be ever on the move, once we are gone. The notes move from the mind to the universe, from microcosm to the cosmos, and there is a logic not wholly psychological that joins them. What Geiser is contemplating is not just his own existence but what authorities—scientists, theologians, and philosophers—have attempted to define, what man is and how he stands in relationship to the universe, what his place is in some larger scheme. Holocene, of course, is not some kind of philosophical tract disguised as a novel. Rather, it is a story about a particular character’s experience, and his experience—the personal crisis posed by the storms—forces him to contemplate larger matters. What kind of a world is it that could let happen to him what he fears might happen? The violence of the storms and the violence they inflict on his thoughts lead him explore abstract issues and look for connections.
Geiser, not a scientist or a philosopher, has to turn to the authorities. And if as we read we do question the authority of the narrator and Geiser’s competence, then all more reason to find someone who has it. Like Geiser, we read the texts and look for answers as well. The way the narration is constructed invites us to this larger speculation in several ways. Even though Geiser selects the texts and though we might question his motives for cutting them out, having them isolated in the narrative and quoted gives them an independence that encourages us to consider them in their own right, regardless of what we think about Geiser. Within the narrative proper, the construction of statements without reference to Geiser (“No knowledge without memory”), along with the uncertainty of who says them, also makes us consider them on own merits. But then again, when we realize that Geiser influences and is involved in these statements, then his words gain some philosophical weight. What Cohn describes as the effects of extensive use of free indirect discourse in Broch’s novel Death of Virgil also applies to Holocene: “The near-continuous employment of the technique in its most emphatic form, inducing a radical fusion of narrating and figural voices, leads third-person narration to the frontiers where it borders at once on lyric poetry and philosophic discourse”(126). Lyric, because we are aware of the individual who thinks and how his thoughts make him feel, philosophic, because of what he thinks and the import his thoughts carry.
The language itself—again, Geiser’s language—through it’s attempts at precision, its direct syntax, and carefully measured tone suggest the language of abstract discourse. The voice is the voice of a mind which tries to state only what can be said with certainty and exclude all that cannot. Even the short sections, seen in a different light, suggest complete, isolated perceptions, as if propositions in some treatise. Compare the opening sections of the novel with:
1 The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world. (31)
I note here that if Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus were a novel—I am intrigued by the use of first person in the book—and these words were spoken by a character named Ludwig Wittgenstein, say, during a severe storm, we might be inclined to think he was crazy. Wittgenstein’s work, of course, is organized and systematic, Geiser’s scattered and fragmented, but then again, they are dealing with different subjects. Where Wittgenstein tries to construct a world based on the certainties of logic and words, Geiser is concerned with the certainties of things which exist in the physical world and of perceptions and emotions, which can gauge and determine the temper of whatever touch he has with whatever lies beyond him. He’s an existentialist, not a logical positivist. The real nature of his study becomes apparent in his catalogue of thunder:
The twelve-volume encyclopedia Der Grosse Brockhaus explains what causes lightning and distinguishes streak lightning, ball lightning, bead lightning, etc., but there is little to be learned about thunder; yet in the course of a single night, unable to sleep, one can distinguish at least nine types of thunder:
The simple thunder crack.
Stuttering or tottering thunder: this usually comes after a lengthy silence, spreads across the whole valley, and can go on for minutes on end.
Echo thunder: shrill as a hammer striking on loose metal and setting up a whirring, fluttering echo which is louder than the peal itself.
Roll or bump thunder: relatively unfrightening, for it is reminiscent of rolling barrels bumping against one another. (5)
Geiser is listening to the thunder and thinking about past thunder as well as thunder in the abstract, trying to make rational classification. And again he is weighing the evidence: based on the sounds, how dangerous is this series of storms? Possibly a great deal so, possibly not. The evidence is inconclusive, and he has no way of knowing what will happen next. His study here, however, is only indirectly related to the threat. I doubt thunder is an appropriate subject for scientific study, and if it were, it would be related more to atmospheric conditions and causes, not types of sounds, and discussed in quantitative terms, not metaphorical. Rain, landslides, and lightning inflict damage, not noise. What he is really conducting is a phenomenological study of his fear, which sound does influence, and its causes and effects. Not nature, but man’s perception of and relationship to it is the subject of Geiser’s thoughts and of the novel as a whole.
Geiser, of course, is not a philosopher, but it is as valid to call him one as it is a lunatic (and we might decide there is some relationship between the two). If Geiser does not find any way to bring the texts or his observations together into some coherent, explicit understanding, it is in part because he has limited abilities to do so. After all, “Man remains an amateur” (60). But our criticism here would not be of what he is attempting but that his efforts are incomplete and sketchy. Still, if there are any ideas that can explain whatever it is that is going on out there, an average man should be able to comprehend them to some degree, and whether he fully understands them or not, his life will be influenced by the forces they try to explain—and he will feel these forces in palpable ways. And in many ways, the narrative encourages us to take Geiser as an average person, as one of us. The slow and incomplete development of Geiser’s character forces us to create some kind of abstract person to absorb the information as it comes, and this abstract person could be anyone—thus everyone. The frequent use of the impersonal pronoun “one” has a similar effect. And unless we judge too quickly, we realize that Geiser, aside from his age, is no different from most of us. We simply don’t know enough about him to make any solid personality assessment. The suppression of details that might help us get a better fix on his personality cannot be attributed to denial. If Geiser had some essential flaw, it would still appear obliquely in the text and we would feel the tension of his repression. Rather, Frisch has not given these details because they are not essential to what he is doing. He has deliberately created an ambiguous—and prototypical— character. Geiser is everyman, man in the Holocene.
Then again, Geiser may be better equipped than many of us for this inquiry. He is capable of grasping abstract concepts, and his resolve keeps him from shying away from where they might lead. Also, his age brings him closer to what the younger among us can for the time being ignore, our mortality and what causes it. And his isolation, caused by his retirement in the valley and exacerbated by the storm, means that he will not have anything to distract him in his inquiry. If we reject the thread of his thoughts—and ignore reading the texts on the wall—what is our justification? We are turning our backs on the only real authority in the novel, but replacing it with what? We may simply be responding from reflex, like the villagers, caught up in what we expect to read about in novels—about “people and their relationships, with themselves and others, fathers and mothers and daughters or sons, lovers, etc., with individual souls, usually unhappy ones, with society”—to see anything larger.
Then what does Geiser find out about himself—about man in the Holocene?
Man has always been conscious of the mystery surrounding his origin and development as a species, and an inexhaustible field of inquiry is opened to him by his ability to regard himself (the “subject”) in relation to the world in which he lives (the “object”)—see Philosophy. . . .
Since M. is unable to understand himself through insight, he has from earliest times tried to reach out toward the idea of a divine being (see Religion) or some other nonhuman presence, to which he equates himself while at the same time distinguishing himself from it: it may be an animal (see Totemism), the spirit of an ancestor (see Ancestor Worship), or some other alter ego (see Mask); in rationalistic times it might even be a machine. . . . (53)
If this source is right, and Geiser has found nothing in his other reading or his experience to contradict it, then all our attempts to give meaning to our place in the world are our own projections, illusions created by ourselves that are perhaps self-serving, and not revelations from some beyond. There is no relationship between “subject” and “object” beyond the effect physical forces of the object have on subjects. These forces make us appear and grow and age—and die and disappear. That’s it. We may look at nature and think about what we see, but we will get no response to our thoughts. As Geiser later notes, “only human beings can recognize catastrophes, provided they survive them; Nature recognizes no catastrophes”(79). If Geiser’s thoughts have lost proportion, it is because there is no frame of reference on a human scale. If Geiser cannot find any meaningful connections between the texts, it is because there aren’t any. We may need other people—and Geiser may have to recognize this need—but our relationships with others do not bring us closer to the world. And we may not have any stable or even real way to define or validate these needs. The Matterhorn memory about the help from his brother is balanced against but does not cancel out what he remembers from Iceland, the potential violence and absolute indifference of nature. The novel ends where it started. Geiser—man in the Holocene—is alone. If we feel distant from Geiser, it is because we are all isolated from the world and from each other. The way the narrative is built reflects this state. We are even isolated from our own selves, because, paradoxically, the more Geiser looks at the contents of his mind, the less he feels they belong to him, and the closer we get to Geiser’s mind, the more we become aware of this distance.
So much of his behavior can be read as a struggle against this condition. He throws the salamander in the fire in rejection of an indifferent Nature that allowed dinosaurs to perish, as well as in rebellion against the fact of his own physical nature, that in many ways he is no different from reptiles. If he roasts his cat, it is because he decides his life is worth something and thus worth saving. We regret, of course, that he doesn’t ask for food from someone else first and are relieved he gives Kitty a decent burial—his line of reasoning has slipped—but we have to consider this act in the light of what he is up against. The absurdity of his behavior only underscores the Absurdity of his existence. But there is something if not heroic, at least honest in his attempts to come to terms with the void and our insignificance in face of it, with our eventual individual, even collective extinction. We might admire him, then, for his determined but futile struggle.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how strong or smart or sane Geiser is: no one has the strength or knowledge to stand up against the void. What Geiser can’t do, Frisch or his narrator can’t do either. No one can provide the perspective in which to view someone else’s behavior because no one can claim any authority to explain what does not exist. There is no definite point of view in the novel because there is no definite Point of View. Still there is the desire to push against whatever it is that surrounds us, and to find ways to talk about it, and even to write about it. Perhaps these efforts are the ones that most define us as humans and are the ones that are most worthwhile. Stiller, the protagonist of Frisch’s first novel, I’m Not Stiller, sees death—by suicide—as the only other alternative. He realizes that suicide itself is an illusion, and concludes “. . .I must fly in the confidence that the void itself will bear me up, that is to say a leap without wings, a leap into nothingness. . .into emptiness as the only reality which belongs to me, which can bear me up. . .”(68). That Geiser can look at himself and at the world from a distance posits another self that can look, perhaps the self that most matters, and while we may not be able to locate this self or place it in the world, we discover the inviolability of the fact this self exists—and sense the presence of something that pushes back against us. But we also realize this self is impermanent and will perish. Geiser must know, as Stiller does, that “In face of the fact of life and death there is nothing whatever to be said”(280). And what pushes back, we can’t know, much less put faith in: Stiller’s hope in the void has to be pitted against despair. We can only find ways to talk around what cannot be said, and when we write, if we write honestly and carefully, we construct narratives that do not violate the ineffable by having narrators or characters say more than they can say. As Frisch himself explains about his writing:
What is important is what cannot be said, the white space between the words. The words themselves always express the incidentals, which is not what we really mean. What we are really concerned with can only, at best, be written about, and that means, quite literally, we write around it. We encompass it. We make statements that never contain the whole true experience: that cannot be described. All the statements can do is to encircle it, as tightly and closely as possible: the true, the inexpressible experience emerges at best as the tension between these statements. (Sketchbook 1946-1949 25)
He compares himself to a sculptor, who can only carefully chip away at the stone but not see what he creates. Language is his chisel, which “works by bringing the area of blankness in the things that can be said as close as possible to the central mystery, the living element.” It is Geiser’s partial apprehension of this mystery which makes him as a character more than an oddity in a case study, and it is our apprehension of the mystery through Geiser that makes Holocene a profound and disturbing work. Like Geiser, we are moved, we are frightened, and then confused and perhaps exhausted, but at the end, we can only draw quiet.
Wittgenstein’s work, after so many pages of sentences that turn into formulas of symbolic logic, comes to same conclusion:
6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (89)
Here we realize Wittgenstein is a novelist after all.
Cohn, Dorritt. Transparent Minds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.
Friedman, Norman. “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” The Theory of the Novel. Ed. Philip Stevick. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
Frisch, Max. I’m Not Stiller. Trans. Michael Bullock. New York: Vintage, 1958.
———. Man in the Holocene. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
———. Sketchbook 1946-1949. Trans. Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
McHale, Brian. “Free Indirect Discourse: A Survey of Recent Accounts.” PTL 3: 249-288.
Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.
Stevick, Philip. The Theory of the Novel. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. C. K. Ogden. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinq, the minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.