Vol 1 No 3
Selected Books (1)
Friedrich Dürrenmatt - Heir of the Existential Tradition
Although two of his plays have been performed, and two of his novels published in England, the name of Eriedrich Dürrenmatt is still unfamiliar to many cultured people in this country. This is a pity, for I suspect Dürrenmatt may one day be regarded as the most important writer at present working on the continent of Europe. My estimate of him is based upon seven works that have been translated into English: two novels, four plays, and a short story published by The London Magazine. On the evidence of the story, The Tunnel, one might assume that Dürrenmatt is merely a late disciple of Kafka. His other works soon dispel that impression. Of the plays, (1) The Old Lady’s Visit is a macabre fantasy, full of Gogolian humour; The Marriage of Mr Mississippi utilizes the techniques of Pirandello, yet sounds a distinctly Shavian note; An Angel Comes to Babylon is a delightful satirical pantomime that brings to mind the early pages of Flecker’s Hassan; only his comedy Romulus the Great is a tedious extended joke like those unutterably bad humorous stories of Poe. The novella A Dangerous Game is reminiscent of Mann, Dickens and Kafka. And, finally, the novel The Pledge is a powerful and realistic story of a sexual killer that would have filled Frank Wedekind with admiration.
Because these works are hardly known in England, and the plays may not be published until late 1961 or 1962, I propose in the present essay to give a short sketch of each before I speak more generally of Dürrenmatt’s relation to the tradition of existential writing that extends from Goethe to Sartre.
Begin with The Tunnel (The London Magazine, June 1959). I would judge this to be an early work, influenced by Kafka (although appearances can be deceptive; the curiously immature play Romulus the Great is dated 1957 in the copy I have seen; by this time, Dürrenmatt was thirty-six). It is about a fat young student who is travelling by train to the university, two hours away. The train enters a tunnel he does not remember, and stays in it. He begins to worry, but no one else seems to be bothered. Finally he consults the guard, and they make their way to the driver’s cabin, only to find it is empty. The train is now plunging down a slope. The guard tries to return to the main body of the train, but this is impossible, since the train is now falling almost vertically. The guard asks the student what they should do. ‘Nothing,’ the student replies, ‘God let us fall, so we are rushing down towards Him.’
The meaning of the story becomes clearer when one considers its imagery. The young man always wears two pairs of glasses (one of them dark) and has cotton wool stuffed into his ears ‘so that the horror behind the scenes should not come up too close to him’. He has deliberately made himself blind and deaf to avoid facing the ‘fundamental horror of existence’. And yet at the end of the story, it is he and not the guard who can face the oncoming catastrophe with resignation and a kind of faith, for the cotton wool is swept out of his ears by a draught, and he views the abyss with eyes ‘that were now for the first time opened wide’. He replies to the guard with a ‘grim cheerfulness’. He has become strong. The parable is less pessimistic than Kafka; Dürrenmatt recommends facing ‘the horror behind the scenes’ but also preserving a faith in God. It is not unlike the position of Ash Wednesday.
Yet it would not be true, on the evidence of his fiction, to say that Dürrenmatt is a religious writer, although he is obviously more so than Sartre or Camus. But in everything he has written, one is aware of revolt against the makeshift standards of the modem world. His attitude might be interpreted: There is heaven as well as hell, but since it requires a long discipline to become aware of heaven, I am not going to bother you with it. Instead, consider the following . . . In this respect, Dürrenmatt might be compared with Grahame Greene, with the single iriiportant difference: Greene has no visionary faculty whatever; in him, the necessity for heaven is demonstrated in an abstract kind of way by overwhelming his readers with the hell of human existence. In Dürrenmatt, no matter how pessimistic he seems to be, one never ceases to be aware of his underlying joy in being alive. (He makes a very welcome change from such existentialists as M. Sartre.)
The Old Lady’s Visit is Dürrenmatt’s most famous work in England to date. (The Lunts made her an attractive middle-aged lady, and so changed the title to The Visit to serve as a vehicle for Lynn Fontanne.) Claire Zachanassian is a multi-billionairess who is returning to her native town of Güllen. Since she left it as a young woman, Güllen has ceased to be prosperous; now they badly need the old lady’s bounty. A man who is known to have been her lover, Anton Schill, is among the crowd who wait for her at the station; he has been promised the post of mayor of Güllen in exchange for his anticipated help. Claire arrives, an imperious old lady who is carried everywhere in a sedan chair by two bruisers whom she saved from the electric chair. She is accompanied by her future husband, two blind men and a black panther. (In the days when she and Schill were lovers, she called him ‘Black Panther’.) Claire is perfectly willing to make the town rich again, but in exchange, she wants the life of Anton Schill, her lover who betrayed her. The two blind men were the witnesses whom Schill had once bribed to swear that they had slept with Claire (and that her baby was not Schill’s). Claire has hunted them and had them blinded; they are now her servants.
The townspeople naturally reject her offer; but soon Schill notices that everyone is buying expensive goods on credit in anticipation of wealth. The black panther escapes, and everyone hunts it with guns. This symbolism is not lost on Schill, who tries to leave the town by train, but is prevented by the crowds. Finally, like the boxer in Hemingway’s Killers, he knows it is no use running away. At a meeting in the town hall, he consents to his own death; the townspeople close round him. When they draw back again, he is dead.
The play is a dramatic tour de force, but it is hard at present to feel that it plays any central role in Dürrenmatt’s Weltanschauung. Its central feeling, as usual, is for a world without values, and for the way in which the world allows a drama of betrayal and revenge to take the place of values. Schill’s betrayal of Claire was sordid and immoral, and yet Schill can become a prominent citizen when Claire has been driven to a Hamburg brothel. It was Claire who ruined the town by buying up its factories and then closing them. When she makes her offer of a billion marks, the townspeople justify the murder they contemplate by recalling the betrayal they condoned and deciding that the murder is ‘justice’. Moreover, Claire tells Schill at one point that she still loves him, but that she must have his body buried in her garden; her love has become poisonous and morbid. The play is a work about the betrayal of values.
The Marriage of Mr Mississippi is another tour de force, more experimental in technique than The Visit. It is in some ways a confused and confusing play, but there can be no doubt about its artistic power. Florestan Mississippi is public prosecutor in a mythical mid-European country. He is a Calvinistic bible-student whose dream is to restore the Mosaic code to a world without values. He even believes that adultery should be punished by killing the two parties to it. In the opening scene, he visits Olympia, whose husband has recently died, and reveals that he is aware that Olympia has murdered her husband with a poison that resembles lumps of sugar. Olympia defends herself by saying that her husband was unfaithful to her and she loved him; Mississippi then reveals that the partner in the adultery was his own wife, and that he has ‘executed’ her by dropping the poison lumps into her coffee. He proposes that he and Olympia should marry to ‘expiate’ their crime, and she finally agrees. The rest of the plot is too complicated to detail here. It ends, like Hamlet, with everyone dead on stage; but it is Mississippi, with his simple-minded notion of Mosaic law, who is most completely betrayed. The play is like Pirandello in technique. Characters often address the audience; the end takes place before the beginning and is repeated again at the end. Stage instructions are chatty and informal; some characters discuss the author of the play with the audience, and one of them even explains that the author wanted to treat the problem of ‘whether the human mind is able to alter a world which merely exists’ (shades of Sartre’s La Nausée here). But, as in Pirandello, the characters got out of hand once they were created. The play seems to contrast the grotesque complexity of the world with Mississippi’s single-minded desire for order and morality; it seems to be saying ‘Order and morality are the total meaning that may emerge from the totality of experience; it cannot be imposed’. It may be noted in passing that there is some satire on communism in the play, as elsewhere in Dürrenmatt; but the satire is good-natured, in the manner of Animal Farm.
I shall deal with the other two plays very briefly. (Dürrenmatt has written seven so far, but I have not seen the other three.) Romulus the Great is a not-very-funny comedy in the manner of Offenbach (La Belle Hélène, Orpheus, etc), poking fun at antiquity. Romulus is the last of the Roman emperors, very broke and rather bored by it all. As the barbarians (Germans) advance on Rome he refuses to do anything about it. He admits that he has done nothing to save Rome, but denies that he has betrayed Rome. ‘Rome has betrayed itself. It knew the truth but chose force; knew humanity but chose tyranny.’ But for all his ‘incompetence’ he is the one who survives best; he gets on excellently with the enemy general, Odo, and is given a house and a pension. Romulus brings to mind Shaw’s King Charles, but the play suffers by comparison with Shaw.
An Angel Comes to Babylon is in every way delightful, a fantastic romp with serious overtones. The Angel is instructed to give the beautiful girl Kurrubi to the poorest man on earth; she falls in love with King Nebuchadnezzar who is posing as a beggar. The King is trying to run his empire as a communist-type welfare state, and has forbidden mendicancy. The comic hero of the play is the beggar Akki, for whom begging is a kind of religion; he throws the gold he begs into the river. At the end of the play, as he and the girl leave Babylon behind them, he states Dürrenmatt’s credo: ‘I love an earth that exists in spite of everything, a beggar’s earth, unique in its happiness . . . An earth that I subdue over and over again, intoxicated with its beauty, in love with its image.’ One of the apparently insignificant and yet central figures in the play is the Angel who delivers the girl to earth. He is a comic figure, deceived by the king, a conventional absent-minded professor. And yet, like Rilke’s Angel, he is pure affirmation. He is delighted with the earth and can see nothing wrong with it. He tells the girl that all apparent disorders are only temporary errors in the divine order. He spends most of the play flying round the earth to examine its wonders, reappearing at intervals full of enthusiasm, wholly unable to understand the trivialities that human beings consider to be sufferings. He is the symbol of the Nietzschean order of reality and affirmation, beyond good and evil, beyond the indignity of suffering. ‘Heaven never lies, my child. Only sometimes it finds it difficult to make itself understood by humans.’ And when Kurrubi comments that the poorest beggar on earth must be unhappy, the Angel replies: ‘All that is created is good, and all that is good, is happy. In all my travels throughout creation, I have never encountered as much as one grain of unhappiness.’ This is a Shavian conception; when men cease to be trivial and self-preoccupied, they will also cease to suffer.
The most remarkable thing about An Angel Comes to Babylon is its breadth and good humour. From the author of The Tunnel, it is an amazing work. Here is a man who would only chuckle satirically at Sartre’s comment that ‘the profoundest reality of life is horror’. Its spirit might almost be called Chestertonian. And yet here is the astonishing thing. Dürrenmatt proves again and again that he possesses to the full the ‘terrible insight’ of the most pessimistic of existentialists.
This is proved in what I consider to be Dürrenmatt’s two most clear and powerful works so far: the novels The Pledge and A Dangerous Game.
A Dangerous Game is a mere eighty pages long. It tells how a little commercial traveller, Alfred Traps, has a breakdown on the road and has to stay in a small village overnight. A retired judge offers to put him up. Traps is given an excellent supper, and introduced to three more very old men, a retired hangman and two retired barristers. The four men are in the habit of playing a game over their epicurean suppers; they have mock trials at which the judge presides, and the two counsels defend and prosecute any guest who can be persuaded to play. But he persists in saying that he has no crime to confess to. (This sounds like Kafka, but the resemblance is only superficial.) So, over a huge meal, with many different wines, they proceed to cross examine him. He admits that his former boss has died of heart disease, and that he, Traps, has taken his place. The lawyers scent a crime; did Traps not murder his boss, Gygax? No, Traps says, although it is true he wanted to get rid of him. Business is business: dog eats dog. Finally, he is made to admit that he seduced Gygax’s wife, and that when Gygax found out, he had heart failure. But how did Gygax find out? Traps arranged for him to be told, knowing that heart-failure would probably be the result.
The lawyers are delighted. Here is a perfect murder! The prosecuting counsel makes a powerful speech in which Traps is depicted as the most Machiavellian criminal of the twentieth century. Traps blushes with pleasure. Then the defence counsel rises. To talk of crime is nonsense, he says. As his client has pointed out, business is business. Traps is no criminal, but an ordinary little man, ambitious, home-loving, not very clever. His worst sins are his infidelities to his wife, but what commercial traveller does not commit these? In fact, our human lives are confused and makeshift; we have to invent our morality as we go along. Traps may have been indirectly responsible for the death of Gygax; but this is a world dominated by chance, and cause and effect are very seldom calculated. Traps is no master criminal; like the rest of us, he has small virtues and petty vices; nothing as romantic as the prosecuting counsel suggests.
This speech (which I have paraphrased) infuriates Traps. It is not true, he shouts; he is a master criminal. He demands to be sentenced to death. So the judge obligingly sentences him, and the party breaks up in good humour, with everyone on the best of terms. Traps then goes to his bedroom and hangs himself. When the judge finds him, he cries with anguish: ‘Alfred . . . you’ve ruined the best evening we’ve ever had!’
Here the meaning is incredibly plain. Traps lives the same pointless, futile life as the rest of us. Suddenly he sees himself as a superhuman criminal; not a man whose life is dominated by chance, but who has guided himself step by step with immense certainty. He prefers this new vision of himself; it frees him from his futility. He is like a lunatic who wants to believe he is Napoleon or Christ. And if believing this involves carrying out on himself the sentence of death, then he prefers to die.
At this point, I wish to abandon for a moment the rôle of literary expositor and say that the ending of this book strikes me as somehow all wrong. It is contrived, unlike the rest of the tale, which seems realistic enough. In fact, the logical conclusion would surely be that Traps would demand that the retired hangman should execute him? The others would naturally refuse; it would spoil the game; and Traps would stagger drunkenly off to bed with a deep sense of grievance; there is no justice in the world. Such an ending would surely have made Dürrenmatt’s point as clearly as the more ‘dramatic’ but more contrived suicide? One feels that Dürrenmatt has allowed a stagey sense of drama to dominate the ending instead of the sense of reality that appears so brilliantly throughout the story.
This cannot be said of his novel The Pledge, the work that succeeds in suggesting the deepest implications of Dürrenmatt’s ‘philosophy’. Matthäi is a police officer in Switzerland who has always been known for his mechanical precision. But he is not well liked. Finally, he is offered promotion to the police force in Jordan. Just before he goes, a child is murdered by a sex maniac, and he is called out on the case. He promises the parents of the child — Grittli Moser — that he will avenge her death. An old pedlar is suspected; the police grill him until he ‘confesses’. He commits suicide in his cell. But Matthäi is convinced that the pedlar was not the killer, and he sets out to investigate the murder himself. His fellow policemen naturally dislike this interference; the case is closed, and Matthäi is due in Jordan. Matthäi decides not to go to Jordan; he will stay and continue to investigate the murder as a private citizen.
He finds a few clues that indicate that the murderer is a big man who drives an American car with the sign of one of the Swiss cantons on the numberplate — an ibex. By now, the case has become Matthäi’s obsession. He buys a garage near a main road, and persuades a prostitute to become his housekeeper. The prostitute has a small daughter who looks very much like Grittli Moser — and like two other girls who have been murdered in recent years. The prostitute, of course, is unaware that her daughter is being used as bait for a sex maniac with a razor.
Finally, Matthäi settles down to wait. He telephones the police in excitement; the child, Annemarie, is seeing some stranger who gives her chocolate truffles. Matthäi is convinced this is the killer. All the police have to do is lie in wait near the child. They do this, as the girl waits unsuspectingly in the woods. But the murderer never comes. Finally, in frustration, the police try to force the child to tell them about the man she is waiting for; she becomes hysterical and her mother takes her away, after discovering that she and Annemarie were taken in by Matthäi solely to serve as bait for a killer.
This, in effect, is the end of the story, except that the police officer who is telling the story to Dürrenmatt finally stumbles on its conclusion. An old lady is dying in hospital, and she confesses that she knows about the killer. He was a gardener’s boy, many years her junior, whom she had married. When she discovered that he was in the habit of killing young girls with a razor, she tried to stop him by forbidding him to use the car. Nevertheless, he succeeded in murdering three girls, and was on his way to the fourth — Annemarie — when he was killed in a car accident.
That is the whole of the story. The prostitute goes on working for Matthäi, becoming more and more sluttish. Her daughter Annemarie also grows up and becomes a slut. Matthäi waits for the killer beside his petrol pumps, and becomes a hopeless drunk.
This is a problem in ends and means. Matthäi was right. If it had not been for an accident, the killer would have been caught in the woods. As the police officer points out, Matthäi was the ‘genius type’. He had a ‘hunch’ and he played it. If Hollywood had made a film of his story, the murderer would be caught just as he was about to attack the girl, and it would be assumed that his triumph had justified the means — his use of Annemarie as bait. (Ironically enough, a film has been made of the book, and the ending has been changed to a spectacular capture of the murderer in the woods!)
Dürrenmatt’s ending leaves the problem naked. And it also reveals a profound and typical aspect of human psychology. We are inclined to accept the ending as the meaning of a story. Our lives may be messy and imperfect and meaningless, but we refuse to accept this, and prefer to see films or read books that give an illusion of ‘meaning’ by ending neatly. This is why we so admire artists who die young, from Keats and Shelley to Rudolph Valentino and James Dean. The death gives an impression of a life perfectly rounded off, like the happy ending of a romantic novel.
The Pledge, like all Dürrenmatt’s work, is a demand to face the disorder of our lives, an attack on specious oversimplification, on ‘bad faith’. He is writing about the same subjects as Sartre and Camus, but writing of them instinctively, without an intellectual superstructure. In my own book The Age of Defeat, I analysed the work of Sartre and Camus and commented on the extraordinary penetration of their intellectual assessment of our disorder, while finding their pessimism wholly depressing and unsatisfactory. Dürrenmatt, it seems to me, has already found
a way out of the impasse of Sartre and Camus; he uses all the traditional analyses of existentialism, the concepts of inauthentic existence, human self-deception, etc, yet with the instinctive, mystical optimism of Shaw or Chesterton. If he continues as he has begun, he might, it seems to me, become one of the major figures of twentieth century writing, an artist who unites in his person some of the greatest currents of his time.
At the time of writing, Dürrenmatt is thirty-nine years old — an age at which Shaw had written only the earliest of his plays. Dürrenmatt is the son of a Swiss pastor; he studied philosophy and theology at Basle and Zurich; he lives at Neuchatel, and has three children. In Mississippi, he describes himself jokingly as ‘this pen-pushing Protestant, this strayed visionary, this lover of gruesome fables. . . .’ I do not know how far Dürrenmatt regards himself as a member of the Protestant Church; but the rest of the description strikes me as wholly apt and accurate.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The