Friends and Strangers
Freunde und Fremde (Friends and Strangers)
Max Frisch was one of the great twentieth century masters of the novel, drama, and journal forms. Born in Switzerland in 1911, he came to prominence after World War II as a literary and public figure unalterably opposed to fascism in all its forms, speaking out on many issues. In 1965, for example, he called for Switzerland to confront its “unconquered past” of quiet collaboration with Nazism which, he believed, had prevented a German invasion. In 1966 he criticized Swiss treatment of Italian “guest workers, saying “We [Swiss] asked for a workforce and what came were people.”
In both life and work he explored human identity and the difficulty—perhaps impossibility—of finding a self free from images created by others. As a writer he crossed genre boundaries, engaging in a ceaseless search for new forms—journal, montage, collage—adequate to the mutable and contingent nature of human experience. He left behind a body of work that in its ambiguities and stylistic evolution resists categorization. In the words of critic Peter Demetz, Frisch’s life and work proceeded by “impatient breaks, creative dislocations, new beginnings.”
Frisch was 21 years old when he wrote “Friends and Strangers.” At that time, he was studying German literature at the University of Zürich and beginning to publish in local newspapers. But even in this early piece, Frisch’s characteristic irony and ruthless honesty are very much present.
* * *
Autumn. Just this past autumn.
We’re climbing glaciers, three young men the same age connected by a single rope. The light is hot, twice as strong on these white slopes; it burns into our overly oiled faces. I pick my way from crevasse to crevasse, bridge the gaps, set down one foot in front of the other. Slowly and with difficulty. I hardly ever look back. But I know my two friends are following in my footprints. I’m not tired, and I’m not bored. I feel the rope around my chest, how it’s tightening around those behind me. I sense the presence of my two friends at every moment.
Thirty-nine hundred meters.
I’ve known this region a long time. I think it’s marvelous. I feel a great love for it.
We’re at four thousand now.
Just one more hour until the summit and that high, wide panorama. I told them how splendid it was when we were still below. Already two months ago. And now, with only one hour left, I imagine I can hear a single heartbeat through the rope that encircles our ribcages.
A strange tension exists between my desire to be standing at the top and another desire, never to reach the last ridge. A wish that time itself would stand still and we could keep on climbing without ever attaining our goal in this finite world. That we could always keep on the same path, sharing the same sense of anticipation for what lies ahead. I toy briefly with the notion that we are not three people with three heads but one hope with six feet, a hope that we will see an overwhelming beauty. I almost start to feel afraid of the summit above, whose line of ice grows larger and more sweeping with each step we take. Because the summit will satisfy our desires, giving rise to new longings that will pull each of us in a different direction. Perhaps it would be better to let our hopes go unfulfilled, to preserve the calm sense of certainty that comes from knowing we’re just below a goal we have in common.
And now I’m standing at the top. I wind the rope around my pickaxe until all three of us are at the summit. Our gaze tumbles down into the Nikolai Valley, then feels its way along the hillocks of snow on the other side and back up again to the craggy ridges high as the heavens. My poor eyes. They don’t know where to look, confused one moment and transfixed the next.
“There’s the cathedral!” I shout as the wind tears my voice from my lips. My mouth doesn’t know where to begin either. It laughs and says: Monte Rosa. Matterhorn. Weißhorn. Gabelhorn. Rothorn. . . . One of my companions keeps staring at my mouth as it laughs in fits and starts, like a child under a Christmas tree. I sense that he’s looking at my laugh. Is he thinking something different from what I’m thinking? But what? What else is there to think of up here? I keep on pointing, like a child showing his Christmas presents to his siblings.
Until he interrupts.
“Hey Max. Do you know you’ve just lost a filling from one of your teeth?”
Why has all this made so little impression on you? I don’t dare to ask them this. On the way down, I take up the rear. In silence. To be sure, we had said nothing on the climb up, but that was a different silence. I’ve known these ice fields and rock towers for many years. I think they’re beautiful. I love them. I’ve climbed them before—
Maybe that’s where I went wrong. The beauty I’ve known up here is all in the past, as are the people I guided through these mountains. These dead rivers of snow, these petrified stone columns are like monuments to me, fossilized memories of days and people who were once alive. My love for these lines of snow and these rock shapes may be nothing more than an illusion. Perhaps that’s the problem. I’ve turned the beauty of those days and my love for those people into poetry in this valley, which, in and of itself, may be neither beautiful nor lovable.
Is that it?
We’ve reached the moraine. We stand still. Then we unbuckle the crampons from our shoes.
Without a single word.
It’s not a peaceful silence. Not at all: it’s tense. As each man takes the strap off his chest and frees himself from the rope, he’s thinking about the day. That’s for sure. But each man is thinking something different, and none of us knows any more what the other one is thinking. Each is guarding his glances like a fisherman protecting his rods so they don’t get tangled up with those of the others.
Until a pair of crampons falls from someone’s hand and skitters across the stones. A raucous, scratching sound that punctures this silence rigid as armor. I want to widen the breach, so I say forcefully, “Well then!”
Then each of them says: “Well then!”
After that, we go down over the boulders. Each on his own path, each once more shut up in his own wordlessness.
Only the night before we had been completely alone in the cabin. And now again. Yesterday we came up with a game that didn’t need a light or playing cards or invented characters. We recited short and not-so-short prose pieces from memory, and the others had to guess from what author’s head they were most likely to have sprung. We played long into the night. From Lessing to Schnitzler. . . .
That won’t work tonight.
One man washes cups. I split a ridiculous amount of wood. The other dries plates and whistles. Like a boy in a cellar so frightened he sings or whistles to himself.
At long last we pick up the oil lamp to go into the bedroom. I fuss at the wick with my penknife for quite a while as the others are leaning against the doorway. Then one says, “We’re sorry too, Max.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I said. Because of what happened today. We know we disappointed you very badly at the summit. Isn’t that right?”
I keep on fumbling with the wick.
“You made all the arrangements for this trip. You wanted it to be something very special for all of us, didn’t you? A great pleasure we would all share.”
It’s painful when someone points out an intention I certainly had but didn’t know I had: that the intensity of the trip would bring us closer, that we would become friends from having seen such surpassing beauty together. It stings to be seen like that, more clearly and more transparently than I had seen myself.
“That was what you wanted from the very beginning, wasn’t it?”
I say Yes in the tone I would use if I were being brought up before a court of law, as if I were standing before the bench. I suddenly feel ashamed of myself in front of these two people whom I had sought to conquer with such calculated planning. My longing to be friends with them is as naked and exposed as a man who confesses his love to a woman only to be met with a pitying shrug. An anguish of shame, to have lost in a game where you give up a coin in your right hand only to get nothing back in your left. I wish I could go up the chimney, be turned into smoke before my two former classmates. How much better if I’d fallen off the mountain with the two of you today. . . . I want. . . .
“You shouldn’t take it the wrong way that we were so unmoved by the view,” the other one of them says. “You have to understand, Max: the whole time we were climbing I could feel how you were just waiting for me to shout for joy when I got to the top. For heaven’s sake, man, you can’t force another person to feel elated.”
“Force?” I ask this sheepishly, then turn and look at the third man. He answers as he turns his gaze to the second.
“I thought that, too. That you were trying to push us into having a certain kind of experience.”
“Yes, you were absolutely determined to captivate us on this trip. There’s nothing wrong with that, but—. Well, I suppose it’s actually rather charming. You’ll have to forgive us for not sharing your delight. As he said, you can’t pressure a person into raptures.”
“That the three of us didn’t become friends today the way you wanted—you know, it’s your own fault, Max.”
“Well,” says the other one, repeating himself.
“Let’s turn in.”
But we don’t. The two of them sit on the bench against the wall, and I sit on a chair. Perhaps it’s always that way when three people get together. There are never three, there are always two and one. I look under the stove where my toes are scratching out a hundred tiny ellipses. But I see them wherever I look, my two former schoolmates, silently leaning up against the wall in the light from the oil lamp, made friends tonight by a common experience: together, in a profound and humiliating way, they have seen straight through a third man.