Man in the Holocene

At the beginning of Max Frisch’s novella Man in the Holocene, Geiser, the elderly protagonist, is building a pagoda out of crispbread as torrential rains fall upon his Swiss canton of Ticino. The rain continues over several days, triggering landslides and floods and blocking the highway. Bored, Geiser finds another innovative way to keep his failing mind occupied: He clips entries out of the encyclopedia and tacks them to the walls of his house.

He gathers articles on every topic that occurs to him: the creation of the world, the history of his canton, and, more obsessively, the geologic timelines of the Earth, from the Cambrian period of 500,000,000 years ago to the geologic present, known as the Holocene. Soon he’s cutting out every entry he can find about dinosaurs, and then, as the storm intensifies even further, about forms of personal annihilation: getting struck by lightning, memory loss, apoplexy.

He packs his rucksack and heads toward a mountain that is crumbling in the distance. No sense staying trapped inside a house, he reasons. He ventures into the rain and begins a hike along the mountain’s most dangerous pass, 1,076 meters above sea level. It is there that Geiser’s thoughts finally clear, and he remembers a hike up the Matterhorn with his older brother Klaus when they were both young and adventurous. Klaus was a good brother, Geiser thinks. The highways reopen. The next thing he knows, he is home, and his daughter Corinne, misty-eyed, is making tea.

Man in the Holocene first appeared in English translation in the May 19, 1980, issue of The New Yorker. The novella then went out of print until the Dalkey Archive, one of our best small presses, reissued it three years ago. Readers can now rediscover Frisch’s philosophical masterwork, a chillingly beautiful portrait of a man who is surrounded by erosion, nature’s and his own, and who struggles for one last moment of clarity in which to make sense of himself and of civilization. Holocene reminds you of the extraordinary cruelty of human existence, and of its stubborn durability. Life may be as fragile and ridiculous as a pagoda made of crispbread, yet it’s also strong enough to withstand epochs of extinction. No matter how hard we try otherwise, we’re still here.

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