by Theodore Ziolkowski
|Essays on Dürrenmatt|
by Kenneth J. Northcott
by Theodore Ziolkowski
by Brian Evenson
From our perspective today, surveying the completed life of this major European writer, we place the emphases differently. We see that Dürrenmatt’s career from start to finish embraced prose works, both fictional and essayistic, whose quality and significance within his oeuvre have become increasingly apparent. Following a series of theatrical failures that culminated in 1973 with the spectacular flop of the comedy The Collaborator (Der Mitmacher), Dürrenmatt made an almost complete break with the theater. Disillusioned with the public that now looked to the stage for something other than the tragicomedies of the absurd with which he had captivated the world for more than twenty years, he turned to other modes of expression. During the last two decades of his life, in fact, he wrote only three more plays but published some twenty volumes of prose amounting to roughly three thousand pages.
Unlike the cosmopolitan Max Frisch, who lived much of his life abroad and whose novels and plays recorded that outside world, Dürrenmatt was the archetypical Swiss—engaged in a paradigmatic love-hate relationship with the mountain country that provided the locales for almost all of his plays and fictions. Yet even within his native land Dürrenmatt maintained the sense of alienation and distance familiar to him since his boyhood as the parson’s son in a small town in the canton of Bern. Symptomatically, this German-speaking writer spent the last forty years of his life in the linguistic isolation of his house high above French-speaking Neuchâtel, with its view across the lake toward the alpine massif of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau.
It was here in the early 1970s that he undertook the project that occupied the final two decades of his life and that he called simply Stoffe, which means something like "materials" or "subject matter" or "themes." The two volumes of Stoffe (1981 and 1990) amount to one of the most remarkable autobiographical initiatives in the history of literature. Dürrenmatt acknowledges the common temptation, as mortality makes itself felt, to write an account of one’s life even though, through the act of shaping that life, one inevitably falsifies it. If he nonetheless proposes to write about himself, he continues, it will be to recount the story not of his life but of his themes. "For it is in my themes, since I am a writer, that my thought expresses itself, even though of course I do not think exclusively in themes."
The nine parts of Stoffe constitute a strange mèlange of autobiography and essay, often culminating in a piece of prose fiction exemplifying the "theme" of each section. Dürrenmatt is attempting nothing less than to recapitulate the process of literary creation. "It is not my thoughts that compel my images," he insists; "my images compel my thoughts." The first section, for instance, seeks to present an archaeology of the labyrinth that is so conspicuous in his work—and that provided the subtitle of the first volume of Stoffe. It begins with the reminiscences about his childhood in the village of Konolfingen, located on a high plateau of the Emmental valley at the crossing of the roads from Bern to Lucerne and from Burgdorf to Thun, where his father served as the Protestant clergyman. When he accompanied his father on visits to the isolated peasant dwellings high above the village, the learned cleric, who regularly read the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, would while away the time by recounting to his eager son the classical myths. Dürrenmatt tells us he was especially drawn to the tale of the labyrinth built by Daedalus for King Minos to contain the Minotaur later slaughtered by Theseus—an image and a set of characters that became associated with a recurrent nightmare the boy suffered whenever he slept in the attic guestroom of the parsonage and imagined himself in the role of the Minotaur threatened by murderers lurking outside. When the family moved to Bern in 1935, Dürrenmatt—feeling because of his rural background and his physical ungainliness a Minotaur-like alienation from the city-folk surrounding him—began to associate the landmark-arcades of that city with sinister labyrinths. "The labyrinth is a metaphor and as such polyvalent like every metaphor." But it become one of the most pervasive metaphors in Dürrenmatt’s literary imagination, supplying the appropriate vehicle for his conviction that the world itself is a labyrinth, a moral mire from which man cannot extricate himself by any ancient principles of justice. While the image received its final and finest treatment in the "ballad" The Minotaur (1985), it manifested itself early in the fragmentary story "The Winter War in Tibet," which Dürrenmatt conceived in 1942 during his brief tour of military training and which, never previously published, appears in the first section of Stoffe along with autobiographical reminiscences and essayistic ruminations on the labyrinth as an early example of his attempt to deal with this central theme.
According to many accounts, Dürrenmatt was a captivating storyteller, capable of extemporizing almost on demand. We know that several of his major works—for example, the early detective fictions as well as the plot for Greek Man Seeks Greek Wife—originated in precisely this kind of spontaneous narration for potential publishers and filmmakers. Yet it is the singularity of this febrile literary art that it revolves around a relatively limited set of images or Stoffe that he reworked endlessly and filtered through various genres until he found the most suitable one—at least for the moment. His best-known work, the "tragic comedy" The Visit, was first conceived as a prose narrative entitled "The Lunar Eclipse," in which the principal roles were reversed. Rather than a rich and vengeful old lady who descends from the express train that unexpectedly stops in her former hometown and offers the citizens a fortune if they will murder the man who seduced and betrayed her in her youth, the original story introduces a man who, having made his fortune in Canada, returns in his Cadillac to the mountain village and bribes the villagers to kill the husband of the woman who rejected him in his youth. As Dürrenmatt explains, he would never have reworked this "material," which was suggested by experiences on holiday just before he began his university studies, had he not years later wondered why the express train from Neuchâtel to Bern made the unexplained stop at an insignificant little village along the route, and to explain the incident, resurrected the old material of the homecoming vengeance seeker.
Similarly, the "material" of the novella Traps was first written as a radio play, subsequently produced for television, and then, years later, recast as a stage play. The detective novel The Pledge began as a film scenario; but Dürrenmatt was so unhappy with what he regarded as its trivializing conclusion that he rewrote the story as a novel, giving it this time a more ambiguous ending that reflects the labyrinthine reality of the moral universe. The prose comedy Greek Man Seeks Greek Wife even comes equipped with two different endings: a cynically realistic one and second happy one "for lending libraries." From these and many other similar examples—the revisions, the shifts in form, the explanatory afterwords—we begin to understand that for Dürrenmatt his works are in a very literal sense always works in progress. "I don’t start out with a thesis but with a story," he observed in the "Twenty-one Notes" appended to The Physicists. But he attaches a corollary: "A story has been thought to its conclusion when it has taken the worst possible turn."
The Dürrenmatt who emerges from a literary career embracing some forty-five years and especially from the essayistic autobiographies of Stoffe, then, is not a conscious craftsman who sits down to create plays or novels according to a carefully constructed plan. He is more like a chaotic child playing with a kaleidoscope, which exposes at each turn of the lens a vividly new configuration of the same few bits of colored glass. From the very beginning, thanks to Stoffe, we recognize the themes or images that recur even in the latest works—labyrinth, Minotaur, tower, menacing dogs. And we recognize the forces—notably the powerful narratives of the Bible and classical mythology—that shape his moral imagination, causing it ceaselessly to experiment with new possibilities.
Dürrenmatt shifted easily from genre to genre, excelling not only in the dramatic forms of radio play, film, and theater but also in forms of prose ranging from anecdote, story, novella, and novel to the essay, philosophical or political treatise, and autobiographical narrative. (He has also published a volume of his poems.) Yet his first career choice was not between such literary modes as fiction and drama but between literature and painting. Dürrenmatt belongs to that not insignificant number of twentieth-century writers—including in German literature alone Hermann Hesse, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Barlach, and Günter Grass—in whom literary genius is combined with a significant talent in the visual arts. In Dürrenmatt’s case the attraction to art showed up much sooner than any tendency toward writing: the six-year-old was fond of illustrating the apocalyptic scenes he knew from the Bible and from Swiss history, especially the Flood and great battles. And until the end of his life these drawings in ink and gouache, usually featuring apocalyptic or catastrophic themes, played an increasingly important role. From boyhood on Dürrenmatt populated his rooms, apartments, and houses with wall paintings of scurrilous figures; he filled the margins of his dramatic texts with drawings indicating his vision of the scenes and figures; he provided the designs for the covers and dust jackets of his works; and he produced scores of watercolors. Following his turn away from the theater in the late 1970s his works were exhibited with increasing frequency (first in 1976 and later in 1994 in Zürich and Bern) and reproduced in catalogs—including prominently a 1968 drawing of a fat-faced critic gorging himself on a plate full of shrimplike authors.
There is no need to discuss Dürrenmatt’s often noted "double gift"; Dürrenmatt himself readily conceded that he drew technically "like a child." But precisely the same cluster of images that recur obsessively in his literary works also constitutes the basis of his art. The earliest extant drawing is a grotesque crucifixion by the eighteen-year-old, which depicts four weird figures dancing around a cross exposed on a barren hilltop against a sky featuring—what else?—a lunar eclipse. And variations on the crucifixion—showing, for instance, rats devouring the body on the cross or a dog skulking away bearing in its teeth a body part—occur over and over for the next forty years, a grotesque image exemplifying that intermingling of the tragic and macabre that characterizes Dürrenmatt’s writing. Another recurrent image among the drawings is the Tower of Babel, a symbol of human hubris, which occurs with such frequency in his work that it provided the title of the second collection of Stoffe. (In 1949 Dürrenmatt tried unsuccessfully to dramatize the building of the tower but finally burnt his manuscript in despair; some of the material was eventually reworked in the play An Angel Comes to Babylon.) Another, which is refined over and over until it reaches its culmination in the illustrations for The Minotaur, is the labyrinth. In sum, Dürrenmatt is not so much a dramatist or writer as, rather, an irrepressible creative energy whirling around a core of a few basic images or Stoffe and precipitating itself in the course of fifty years in varied forms and modes. Whether it expresses itself in drama, prose, or ink drawing, however, one immediately recognizes the unique stamp of his energy.
Although the young man, when he spent a semester in 1942-43 at the university in Zürich, promptly put a sign on his door announcing the presence of "Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Nihilist Poet," he had not yet actually written a word. Dismayed by the teaching of literature both at Bern and at Zürich, he thought of himself primarily as an aspiring artist with philosophical leanings. (He had turned to painting partly in compensation for his marginal academic performance, and he ultimately failed to take a degree even after ten semesters of enrollment.) It was from a circle of friends, principally those surrounding the expressionist painter Walter Jonas, that he received his literary education and first heard the names of such darlings of the intellectual avant-garde as Franz Kafka, the poet Georg Trakl, and the dramatist Georg Büchner.
Büchner played a key role in Dürrenmatt’s baptism as a writer. One of the bleakest moments in literature occurs in Büchner’s drama Woyzeck, when the old grandmother relates a nihilistic fairy tale in which an orphaned child in a dead world vainly explores the universe in search of companionship and, finding none, sits down and cries. In his Stoffe Dürrenmatt tells us that he wrote his first story, "Christmas," on Christmas Eve in 1942 when, following a night of drinking with friends, he happened upon the memorial stone to Büchner, who died in Zürich in 1837. Sitting down in a nearby cafè with a glass of gin and vermouth, Dürrenmatt wrote down the following story in his notebook:
It was Christmas. I was walking across the vast plain. The snow was like glass. It was cold. The air was lifeless. No movement, not a sound. The horizon was round. The sky black. The stars dead. The moon carried to its grave yesterday. The sun not risen. I screamed. I could not hear myself. I screamed again. I saw a body lying on the snow. It was the Christ child. Its limbs white and rigid. Its halo a yellow frozen disc. I took the child in my hands. I moved its arms up and down. I opened its lids. It had no eyes. I was hungry. I ate the halo. It tasted like old bread. I bit his head off. Old marzipan. I continued on my way.
This story, Dürrenmatt’s earliest literary work (though not published until 1952), is revealing. Clearly imitative of the grandmother’s tale in Woyzeck, it expresses the sense of alienation of the young man who has not yet found his way or his calling. Like Dürrenmatt’s earliest crucifixion scenes, it combines the sacred and the macabre in an effort to shock the reader—not just a complacent Switzerland but also the domineering pastor-father against whom the young student was rebelling and whom he was later to caricature in various figures of clergymen in his plays. However, the sequence of simple declarative statements to which the young writer resorts to depict a universe from which all life and meaning have vanished is more than a stylistic device. Brought up speaking a country dialect from Bernese Oberland, Dürrenmatt still had an insecure command of literary "high German." The simple syntax is not merely an effort to expose meaninglessness through the contrast with stylistic banality. German was for him in fact an acquired language, one that the aspiring author still wrote only with difficulty. From this difficulty, strikingly evident in the early works, we can draw several conclusions. First, the constant evasion into image and into the visual arts amounts to a gesture of frustration with a language regarded as a hurdle. Second, Dürrenmatt’s reliance, as a playwright, upon the actors and their gestures, along with his rejection of the modern "director’s theater," is a symptom of his continuing distrust of the written language as a mode of expression. Finally, the fact that his works, plays and prose alike, have become perennial favorites of classroom instruction is a token of the stylistic simplicity that Dürrenmatt preserved in his written German long after he had become a master of prose.
Another early prose piece, "The Sausage" (written in that same winter of 1942-43), displays the same qualities: each sentence consists of a declarative statement of usually no more than five or six words. Again the simplicity is invoked in the service of the grotesque. But here a new element has been added that becomes central to Dürrenmatt’s work: the question of justice and its perversion. Dürrenmatt’s favorite teacher at the University of Bern was a professor of philosophy named Richard Herbertz. Herbertz taught a course in criminal psychology for law students in which he recounted the case of a mass murderer who had killed apprentices and turned them into sausages. (Herbertz had drafted the expert opinion for the court.) Seizing upon that case, grotesque in itself, Dürrenmatt gave it a further twist: the person murdered and sausaged by the accused is his own wife; and in the course of the trial the judge absentmindedly consumes corpus delicti. As he will do so often in his later works, Dürrenmatt calls into question the whole notion and system of justice. "The world becomes an enormous question mark" is the conclusion of the story.
While other pieces were written earlier, Dürrenmatt’s first publication was the story "The Old Man," which appeared in the Bern newspaper Bund in March 1945 (shortly before Germany’s final collapse in World War II). In this political allegory the sentences, like the narrative itself, have grown longer and more secure; the author is feeling more comfortable in his acquired literary language. While familiar images appear—notably the large black dog that provides a menacing presence in many later works—the story goes beyond the simple grotesqueries of the early prose to attempt something more complicated. As a student in neutral Switzerland Dürrenmatt had remained largely apolitical; even a brief teenage flirtation with Nazism signaled youthful rebellion rather than political conviction. Although he was not concerned with politics per se, he was not unaffected by the pervasive fear of German invasion that the Swiss felt during World War II. In his political parable, which probably owes something to Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs, he shows how a generalized political anxiety tends to concentrate itself in the hatred of a single symbolic individual—the Old Man, who as an image resembles no one so much as Hitler in his Berlin bunker. But the Old Man is more than Hitler: he embodies a sense of power that has become so absolute that it no longer thinks in human terms, but in mathematics and logic. It is this inhuman contempt for the individual that enables the young woman, initially disarmed by the sheer power of his presence, to seize her revolver and shoot him, feeling "the hatred human beings sometimes feel toward God."
From 1942 to 1947 Dürrenmatt wrote some ten stories, many of which were collected in 1952, following his first theatrical successes, in a volume entitled The City, on which he—a "born villager," as he was fond of calling himself—focused all his suspicions of modern society. As he explained in the afterword to that edition, he was seeking through his prose, and through the study of philosophy, to overcome art’s enormous power of attraction by establishing a kind of spiritual distance from his work as a painter. "This prose is not to be understood as an attempt to tell stories but as a necessary attempt to fight something out within myself or, as I can perhaps state it better retrospectively, to conduct a battle that can have a meaning only if it is lost." The central image governing the stories in The City, he continues, is Plato’s image of the cave, which struck the young student of philosophy as the most appropriate metaphor for a neutral Switzerland that experienced the horrors of the war only as reflected indirectly in the radio and newspaper reports.
The sense of shadowy community that defines the city in "The Old Man" is ominously present in "The Theater Director," also written in 1945. Again Dürrenmatt is concerned with the conflict between freedom and repression, but in the expressionistically surreal city of this story we witness the triumph of evil in the person of the director, who first mesmerizes the citizens by his virtuoso exploitation of theatrical devices and finally enslaves them politically by stirring up in his theater a revolution that spills over into the streets of the city. Again it is a young woman who alone resists the director’s blandishments; but rather than triumphing, she finally perishes in a terrifying stage spectacle featuring a killing machine straight out of Kafka’s "In the Penal Colony."
The early stories collected in The City, played out against the labyrinthine background of what has been aptly designated a "mythicized Bern," display already the themes and images that persist through his works for the next forty years. The corruption of a community by power and violence, for instance, becomes the central theme of The Visit. But, stylistically unsure and dependent as they are upon such models as Büchner, Kafka, and Ernst Jünger, they are fledgling works of a talent still seeking its appropriate form. Following the outpouring of prose from 1942 to 1947, Dürrenmatt produced almost feverishly a series of plays, including Romulus the Great and The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi. When he returned to prose fiction again in the early 1950s, the two works that he wrote, though first published in The City, demonstrated a new mastery of tone and form. "The Dog" (1951) revolves around the familiar image of the terrifying black dog that appeared repeatedly in Dürrenmatt’s works (and drawings) ever since as a boy in Bern he was attacked by such a beast. The story takes place in the same mythical city, with its underlying mood of anxiety, as "The Theater Director"; indeed, the narrator alludes in passing to the events going on in the theater. Here, however, it is not the sinister director who represents the triumph of evil, but the huge mastiff that accompanies the itinerant preacher and holds at bay anyone who seeks to approach his voice of truth. Finally, when the narrator—the same alienated figure we know from Dürrenmatt’s other works—succeeds in making contact, the dog tears his master to pieces and terrifies the city. At the end of the story the beast has attached itself to the minister’s beautiful daughter, who has deserted the narrator after several months of love. Through his powerful parable Dürrenmatt seems to suggest that the force of evil destroys not just the truth but also beauty and innocence.
"The Tunnel" (1952) is the unquestionable masterpiece included in The City and has been justifiably often anthologized. In its central figure Dürrenmatt provides us with an accurate and amusing self-portrait—a fat, bespectacled twenty-four-year-old student smoking Ormond 10 cigars and commuting back to the university in Zürich by the Sunday evening train after a weekend at home in Bern. But here the youthful Weltschmerz and lugubrious nihilism still evident in "The Dog" have given way to a fully developed sense of the absurd, narrated with the utmost restraint, that characterizes Dürrenmatt’s most mature works. It is no accident that, unlike the first-person narrator who relates most of the other early stories, this one is written from the standpoint of an ironic third person. The story is quite simple. On a routine run the intercity express train enters, blatantly contrary to schedule, a tunnel that seemingly never ends. At the conclusion of the story, the young man and the conductor have made their way to the front of the train and see that they are hurtling downward into the abyss. "What shall we do?" asks the conductor. And the student, with a ghostly serenity, responds: "Nothing." In its first published version the student’s reply continued: "God caused us to fall and so we are hurtling toward him"—a conclusion that invited theological interpretations by Christian readers. But Dürrenmatt, when asked about the influence of his father’s orthodox Christianity upon his own thought, was fond of answering: "I am a Protestant. So I protest." In the 1978 revision of the story he revised the last paragraph and, in particular, cut the last sentence so that the story now ends with the word "nothing."
Is this ending a suggestion of serious nihilism or simply a gesture by "Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Nihilist Poet" to preclude any easy Christian reading of his work? Does it suggest a passive acceptance of destiny, whether Christian or not? Certainly it is possible to read the work in a nontheological fashion. Indeed, until the last paragraph there was nothing in the first version to suggest the Christian conclusion. Then, as now, it was easier to view the action as an intrusion of the fantastic into the placidity of a Swiss society that irritated Dürrenmatt. The solid citizens, who sit unperturbed as their train plunges into the abyss, may also be seen as an image of neutral Switzerland going about its business while wartime Europe was being consumed by Hitler’s conflagrations. Or, finally, the train that leaves the clear sky of an Alpine evening to enter the darkness of the never-ending tunnel may be post-Enlightenment Europe forsaking the rationalities of the eighteenth century for the postmodern uncertainties of the late twentieth century, industrial technology giving way to cyberspace. The multiplicity of plausible interpretations indicates that Dürrenmatt has succeeded with this story—which he has also rendered visually in his drawings—in creating an unforgettable image of our time and thereby entering the period of his own maturity as an artist.
Even before writing "The Dog" and "The Tunnel," Dürrenmatt had enjoyed with his prose a success that matched that of his plays. In 1950, under the pressure of extreme financial need, the now well-known but still impecunious young writer approached several publishers with a proposal for a detective story and, in fact, came home with an advance of five hundred francs that his wife felt sure he must have stolen. The initial result was the novel The Judge and His Hangman, which was first serialized in 1950-51 in the newspaper Der Schweizerische Beobachter and subsequently exceeded a million copies in book form. This novel introduced the figure of Inspector Barlach, a sick and aging detective with a primitive sense of justice and little patience with the modern methods favored by his junior colleagues. This Swiss Maigret senses quickly that the murder of a detective with which the action begins was carried out by a jealous fellow officer. But rather than convicting him, the cunning old man manipulates the younger detective, Tschanz, to kill an old nemesis, a figure of evil clever enough to have avoided for many years Barlach’s efforts to bring him to justice. At the end Barlach, rather than employing his power of judgment a second time, lets Tschanz go free, no doubt knowing full well that the young executioner will carry out his own sentence by hurling himself beneath the wheels of a train.
Barlach was such a popular success, and the royalties so gratifying, that Dürrenmatt immediately undertook a sequel, Suspicion, which again ran in Der Schweizerische Beobachter in 1951-52. Here too Barlach is seeking to bring to justice a figure of evil—this time a suspected Nazi war criminal who has found refuge as head physician in a Zürich private clinic. Using his illness as a disguise—at the end of the first novel he had only a year left to live—Barlach has himself admitted to the clinic, where he succeeds in exposing the concentration camp torturer and, by implausible means, narrowly escapes the clutches of the sadistic doctor who proposes to operate on him without anesthesia. Again Barlach manages to exact vengeance from a master criminal who has escaped the sword of official justice.
Despite—or more likely precisely because of—their enormous popularity, critics have long been perplexed by Dürrenmatt’s detective stories. Are they simply entertainments (Trivialliteratur) or do they have the weight of "philosophical thrillers"? Dürrenmatt provided his own response to this question in a talk on "Theater Problems" (1954). Hostile since his student days to both the academic and the critical establishment, Dürrenmatt often railed against an age that has trained the public to regard art as something sacral, sacred, and filled with pathos—and to look down on anything comic as trivial, dubious, inept. "How does the artist survive in an educated world, the world of the literate?" he asks at the end of his talk. "Perhaps by writing mystery novels, by making art where no one expects it. Literature must become so light that it will weigh nothing on the scale of today’s literary criticism: that is the only way it will regain its true weight." This is precisely what he sought to achieve with his next detective novel, The Pledge (1958). It is not simply another sequel to the Barlach stories. Barlach is by now presumably dead from his cancer. Moreover, this novel is specifically designated in the subtitle as a "requiem to the detective novel" because it goes beyond the expectation prevailing in the traditional detective story by such masters as George Simenon, Dashiell Hammett, and Agatha Christie—the notion, namely, that justice will ultimately prevail and that the detective, by the sheer force of intellect and moral commitment, will inevitably catch the criminal. Dürrenmatt’s "requiem" shows, in contrast, how the very reasonable calculations of an experienced detective can be upset by sheer bad luck.
In 1957 Dürrenmatt wrote the scenario for a film entitled It Happened in Broad Daylight, which was intended as a warning for parents about the dangers of sex crimes against minors. In the film, the monomaniacally persistent detective, who makes a promise to the murdered child’s parents, sets a trap and ultimately captures the murderer. But Dürrenmatt was uneasy with this neat conclusion. Accordingly he rewrote the story with a different ending: the murderer is never caught and brought to justice but is killed in an automobile accident; Matthäi, the brilliant detective who has given up his career and tried for years to entrap him, thinks he has failed and drinks himself into oblivion. To intensify the irony Dürrenmatt encloses the story in a first-person framework in which he reports on a trip to the town of Chur, where he gave a talk on the art of writing detective stories. (He includes on the first page a dig at his onetime Zürich professor, the literary scholar Emil Staiger: Dürrenmatt tells us that his own talk was only sparsely attended because Staiger had drawn the crowd to hear his lecture on the elderly Goethe.) At the hotel bar he meets Dr. H., the former chief of police of the canton of Zürich, who invites him to drive back with him the next day. On the way Dr. H. tells Dürrenmatt that he has never thought highly of detective stories. He can understand why, given the present state of the world, people long for fairy tales in which crime is punished and justice prevails. But what he cannot tolerate is the fraudulent implication that reality can be apprehended by reason alone. In fact, he argues, results in life depend to a great extent upon sheer chance. Following a stop at a roadside bar and filling station where they see the bedraggled Matthäi, the chief of police tells his story to illustrate the point.
The theme of justice perverted obsessed Dürrenmatt from his earliest stories—for example, "The Sausage"—to his late novel The Execution of Justice (1985), in which a young attorney works to prove the innocence of a Zürich councilman, who years earlier had murdered a university professor before a crowd of witnesses. Having succeeded, however, he realizes that he has blundered into a dilemma in which justice can be restored only through another crime. This theme, which Dürrenmatt called "the most fixed of idèes fixes"—namely, the belief in a justice in whose name people slaughter one another—was at no time more pervasive than in the mid-1950s, when Dürrenmatt wrote The Visit, The Pledge, the first draft of The Execution of Justice—and Traps. The saying is attributed to Dürrenmatt’s countryman, C. G. Jung: "Show me a sane man, and I will cure him for you." Dürrenmatt appears to be saying: "Show me a man who claims to be innocent, and I will demonstrate his guilt." Nowhere do we see more clearly than in Traps Dürrenmatt’s resemblance—not indebtedness!—to Kafka. For here, as in The Trial, we witness the "trial" of an ordinary businessman who, at the beginning, considers himself completely "innocent," only to be persuaded in the course of a "trial" by a wholly irregular agency that he is indeed guilty.
Here again Dürrenmatt was troubled by the ironies of justice, for he wrote virtually simultaneously in 1955 two versions of the same story. In the original radio play the salesman Alfredo Traps, who enters into the postprandial trial game of the four retired court officials who take him in for the night when his car breaks down, is found guilty, at least indirectly, of the murder of his boss. But on the following morning Traps climbs into his car and drives happily away, at peace with his own conscience. In the prose version, in contrast, Traps is so profoundly moved by the events of the evening that he goes upstairs and hangs himself—to the dismay of his elderly dinner companions, who exclaim that he has ruined their lovely game by taking it seriously. Again the author has prefixed his tale with an interpretation in which he points out, like the chief of police in The Pledge, that we live in a world in which we are no longer threatened by God, by Justice, by Fate. Instead, it is only accident or chance that produces "a still possible story" (the subtitle of this work)—chance that inserts Traps, this representative of a modern, conscienceless, technological world, into the company of these four old men with their almost primitive sense of justice and their telling names. (The name of the prosecutor, Zorn, means "wrath" in German, and the defense attorney’s name, Kummer, means "worry" or "concern." Traps’s own name, according to Dürrenmatt, designates in Swiss dialect someone who has blundered into an unfortunate situation.) In either version we recognize in Traps a moral breakdown of society exemplified by the mechanical breakdown of his Studebaker. (The title in German is Die Panne—"The Breakdown.") But through the ambiguity of possible endings Dürrenmatt leaves it unclear whether the power of ancient Justice can actually still make itself felt in our world or whether it has been reduced to no more than a lovely entertainment for a party of bachelors. He once remarked that he loves to tell stories without feeling constrained to solve the problems of the world.
Critics have often been perplexed by Dürrenmatt’s sudden shifts—from stage to prose and back, from comedy to tragedy and vice versa, from writing to drawing. During the very years when he was composing the grim tragicomedy The Visit and the judicial fables of Traps and The Pledge he also produced—again under pressure for money, this time to finance a major operation for his wife—the delightful "prose comedy" Greek Man Seeks Greek Wife (1955). Dürrenmatt has identified the German Kunstmärchen (fairy tales) of the romantic poet Clemens Brentano as the literary model for this work, but Candide offers a closer analogy for its social satire, which exposes the corruption of almost every major institution—government, church, business—in the vaguely Franco-German-Swiss metropolis in which the action takes place. Like Voltaire’s hero, Arnolph Archilochos is introduced to us as a mild-mannered innocent sustained in his lowly position as bookkeeper in a labyrinthine factory by his absolute belief in the moral and rational order of his world—a belief whose naïvetè is emphasized by the hero’s name, which when pronounced as in German sounds remarkably close to the vulgarism Arschloch ("asshole"). He emerges from his improbable adventures, however, bloodied by experience and clear-eyed about the nature of reality. (Note that he has lost his glasses.) Even the alternate ending "for the lending libraries," which brings the lovers together again, does nothing to mitigate the sobering view of bourgeois civilization advanced by Dürrenmatt. Regarded with a certain reserve by German critics, who (as Dürrenmatt frequently reminds us) are not accustomed to dealing with the seriousness of comedy, this novel has gradually come to be appreciated by many readers as one of his most perfect prose works.
During the 1960s Dürrenmatt was occupied principally with the theater. Following several notable successes—The Physicists (1962) and The Meteor (1966)—he engaged himself actively in the adaptation and production of works by Shakespeare, Goethe, Büchner, and Strindberg. But the failures of his own works toward the end of the decade plus conflict with the theater direction in Basel and Zürich precipitated his turn away from the theater and a return to prose. Dürrenmatt had made two trips to the Soviet Union: in 1964 to commemorate the Ukrainian national poet Shevchenko and again in 1967 to attend the Fourth Soviet Writers’ Congress in Moscow. Sitting with two thousand Soviet writers in the vast hall, Dürrenmatt studied the "power collective" of the Kremlin, who had appeared for the occasion. Riding back to the hotel afterward, he listened to an excited conversation among the writers concerning the seating order of the politburo members and its implications for the future of an organization in which power stems not from conviction but from one’s relative position in a numerical hierarchy. By the time they reached the hotel, Dürrenmatt reports, the plot for his political parable "The Coup" ("Der Sturz," 1971), was already clear in his mind. Dürrenmatt had long been interested, as he said in a piece on "Kafka and the News" for the New York Times (July 11, 1971), in "the power struggles [that take place] in a secretive body, in a politburo." Using a closed form reminiscent of the film classic Twelve Angry Men and generalizing the fifteen characters to such an extent that they are identified only by initials and by the seating arrangement at the conference table, Dürrenmatt has created an utterly plausible model of group dynamics that, while fascinating in itself, is easily transferable from totalitarian politics to other situations. Dürrenmatt suggested that the action could just as well take place among Mafia dons or Pentagon officials; but the possibilities are endless, ranging from governing boards of corporations to university faculty committees. The outcome of the power struggles, which here again is brought about by chance, is illustrated visually by the altered positions in the table positions diagrammed at the beginning and end of the narrative.
Other stories of the 1970s were also stimulated by Dürrenmatt’s travels. His thoughts on the perennial conflict between Judaism and Islam, catalyzed by a lecture tour of Israel in 1974, produced "Abu Chanifa and Ana ben David" (1975), a fable that begins in the year 760 when a rabbi and a Koran scholar are imprisoned together for theological offenses in a labyrinthine subterranean cell somewhere in the Middle East. In the course of the years they begin a conversation that extends for centuries. The rabbi is eventually released from prison, only to become a kind of Wandering Jew who survives the Holocaust and then makes his way back to the Middle Eastern prison, where he celebrates a moment of recognition and reconciliation with his Muslim counterpart. Another story from these years is "Smithy" (1976), which was conceived as early as 1959 during Dürrenmatt’s sojourn in New York City. In this gangster tale, Smithy works with a surgeon whose business it is to dispose of the corpses of the victims of gangland slayings. He enjoys his moment of heroic rebellion when he refuses to accept money for doing away with a mobster’s wife—a woman with whom Smithy himself had been briefly infatuated. But his contemptuous rejection of the gangland boss leads inevitably to his own death.
"Smithy" belonged to the complex of materials and troubled ruminations that Dürrenmatt published following the failure of his play The Collaborator. His meditations on the theater also generated what he considered "one of the stories most important to me," "The Dying of the Pythia." It is the premise of the tale that the familiar legend of Oedipus is triggered when the Delphic priestess, in a foul mood because it is already time to close up the temple for the day, concocts an outlandish prophecy for the blasè prince from Corinth who comes limping up to the sanctuary: she tells him, improbably, that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. In the remaining pages Dürrenmatt not only shows us, in a grotesquely original way, how the casually uttered prophecy gets fulfilled; he also provides a cynical interpretation of Greek credulity and readiness to believe the nonsense of its oracles. The modernizing re-vision of the myth is pure madcap: we know that from childhood on Dürrenmatt enjoyed his father’s tellings of the Greek myths and that one of his favorite books was Gustav Schwab’s popular collection of The Loveliest Tales of Classical Antiquity. Later he consulted such sources as Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths and Herbert Hunger’s standard German lexicon of classical myths. But the conversation between the priestess Pannychis and the seer Tiresias—the tale consists largely of their dialogue—shows why this story is so important to Dürrenmatt: it amounts, as he confided in an interview (1980), to an intellectual dispute with Bertolt Brecht on the nature of drama. "I am not a disciple of Brecht’s," Dürrenmatt insists. "His mistakes were never mine: I err in my own way." When the priestess and the seer are discussing the case of Oedipus, their wholly different approaches to reality become apparent. Both hope, like the two dramatists, to bring through their oracles a tentative semblance of order, a gentle hint of conformity, into the clouded and bloody tide of human events. But whereas the prophetess has always "oracled" in a spirit of fantasy with a degree of whim and disrespectful boldness and even blasphemous wit, the seer has operated with cool reflection, uncompromising logic, and reason. Looking back over their careers, Tiresias acknowledges that the Pythia’s oracles, though statistically improbable, were inevitably accurate; his own, for all their rationality, usually disintegrated into nothing. Their dispute, he realizes, is perennial. Just as some people will always claim that the world operates according to certain laws, others will always say that the laws exist only in human imagination according to ideological convictions. So the witty retelling of the most famous Greek myth constitutes at the same time a profound meditation on destiny and chance, on pessimism and utopianism, on logic and imagination. (Stoffe contains another example of the same genre: a cynical re-vision of "The Death of Socrates.")
In addition to the re-visions and unfinished stories published as part of the project Stoffe, Dürrenmatt published four major prose works in the last decade of his life. The novel The Execution of Justice (1985) belongs in conception and first draft to the fables of justice that Dürrenmatt wrote in the 1950s. The late novel Valley of Confusion (1989) is a medley of not wholly integrated plots related to the gangster materials of "Smithy." But two works from these years can stand on their own along with Dürrenmatt’s finest and most representative prose fiction.
We have already noted Dürrenmatt’s childhood obsession with the myth of the Minotaur. Later, as a young man from the country, he regarded the city of Bern as labyrinthine: "By imagining a labyrinth, I was unconsciously identifying myself with the Minotaur, the inhabitant of the labyrinth, I was making the primal protest, I was protesting against my birth; for the world into which I had been born was my labyrinth, the expression of a puzzling mythic world that I did not understand." The labyrinth provided the setting for such early works as The City, and the image haunted his drawings. A watercolor from 1958, for instance, shows Theseus squatting atop the wall of the labyrinth and gleefully urinating on the Minotaur below—a none too subtle indication of Dürrenmatt’s own feelings of alienation. In his Stoffe, finally, he published a so-called dramaturgy of the labyrinth, which developed a theory to explain his understanding of the image and its occurrence in his writing and drawing. "By representing as a labyrinth the world into which I see myself abandoned, I am seeking to gain distance from it, to step back from it, to look it in the eye like an animal-tamer vis-à-vis the wild animal."
In the "dramaturgy" Dürrenmatt’s interest has clearly shifted from the labyrinth to the figure of the Minotaur itself. In handbooks of classical mythology the Minotaur always appears as a minor character in someone else’s story—his mother Pasiphaë, his half-sister Ariadne, his murderer Theseus. But Dürrenmatt’s interest focuses on the Minotaur himself. Given his anatomy, for instance, the birth must have been unusually difficult. Since he has the head of a steer, he is no intellectual, but lives in his instincts. Moreover, since as half-steer he is presumably a vegetarian, why does he kill the Athenian youths and maidens sacrificed to him in his labyrinth? Above all, since he has been punished by being put into the labyrinth for no fault of his own, he symbolizes—and here we arrive at Dürrenmatt’s theme of themes—"innocent guilt" or "guilty innocence."
The culmination of Dürrenmatt’s lifelong preoccupation with these matters is evident in his "ballad" The Minotaur (1985), a handsomely printed prose poem accompanied by ink drawings from the author’s hand. The immediate instigation came from a young Greek composer who, having seen in an exhibition several of Dürrenmatt’s drawings of the Minotaur and his labyrinth, approached the author to write a scenario for a ballet on the subject. The ballet was never composed, but Dürrenmatt was inspired by the conversation to write his "ballad," which is anything but simply another cynical re-vision of a classical myth: it amounts to a poignantly serious, almost painfully revealing portrait of the alienated individual seeking companionship in a hostile world. The scene differs from the labyrinth that Dürrenmatt so often painted: here the Minotaur is enclosed in a hall of mirrors in which he sees reflected nothing but himself and where he dances with a joyous abandon until his solipsistic innocence is shattered by intruders: first the girl whom he unwittingly destroys through his lovemaking and then the youth who, matador-like, taunts him with sword and cape. Perplexed and enraged by these incidents, the Minotaur kills the youths and maidens who approach him. But out of this confusion arises consciousness, the awareness that an Other exists in his world beside himself. When that Other again appears looking like his counterpart, the Minotaur greets him joyously, only to be killed by the Other, who turns out to be Theseus in disguise. The ballad is Dürrenmatt’s perhaps most sobering comment on the inevitability of conflict and guilt stemming from the human encounter of the Self with the Other.
In 1983 Dürrenmatt’s first wife, the actress Lotti Geissler, died. Shattered by the loss of his companion of almost forty years, Dürrenmatt plunged into his work—principally preparations for the premiere of his late play Achterloo. The reception of the play was problematic, and Dürrenmatt spent the next five years working on various revisions of the monstrous work that he finally acknowledged to be "unperformable." At the Munich opening, however, he met the actress and documentary filmmaker Charlotte Kerr, whom he married the following year. (Her 1984 documentary on Dürrenmatt, Portrait of a Planet, provides one of the most illuminating insights into her husband’s life and work.) In November of 1985 the couple made a vacation trip to Egypt, where Charlotte Kerr was contemplating another documentary film. Although the film was not made, the trip produced a literary result: Dürrenmatt’s political thriller The Assignment; or, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers (1986). The story, which bears on its title page the designation "Novella in Twenty-four Sentences," constitutes a formal experiment that attains an extreme diametrically opposed to Dürrenmatt’s first prose work, "Christmas." That grim story consisted of twenty-eight extremely short sentences. Here the narrative comprises twenty-four chapters, each of which consists in turn of a single sentence—some as long as ten or twelve pages in the German original. The central figures in the story, indicated as in "The Coup" only by initials, clearly represent Kerr and Dürrenmatt: the television journalist F., who entertains the "vague idea of creating a total portrait, namely a portrait of our planet," and her friend and adviser the logician D., who like Dürrenmatt lives in a house in the mountains featuring a telescope through which he observes the people who scrutinize his house with their binoculars.
The thriller plot bears a family resemblance to Dürrenmatt’s earlier fables of justice. The wife of a psychiatrist has been raped and killed near a desert ruin in North Africa, and her husband hires F. to reconstruct the unsolved crime in a documentary film. But the plot is rapidly expanded to embrace the world of international politics and espionage with its arms dealers, desert testing grounds, and spy satellites. The story is dedicated to Charlotte, but it is much more than an unusual holiday memento. It amounts to a brilliant fictionalization of concerns that Dürrenmatt frequently addressed in his essays and autobiographical writings: the dangers of a technological society that threatens to turn the entire world into a labyrinth in which we are constantly scrutinized like the Minotaur—the menace of a political society in which arms manufacturers and purchasers through their wealth can transform the entire world into a slaughterhouse with the same ease with which Claire Zachanassian corrupts her village in The Visit. The threats are the same, but the stakes have become higher, as is suggested by the motto from Kierkegaard. As a student Dürrenmatt had contemplated a dissertation on "Kierkegaard and the Tragic." Although that project was never undertaken, Dürrenmatt later stated that "As a writer I cannot be understood without Kierkegaard." He was referring in particular to Kierkegaard’s conviction that man is condemned to guilt and tragedy by his very existence and that the harmony of the world can be reestablished only through his death—a view ultimately underlying Dürrenmatt’s works from The Visit and Traps to The Minotaur and The Assignment.
Despite the urgency of his concern, Dürrenmatt has here shaped his political views with the same care with which he rendered his existential state in The Minotaur. "A scream is not a poem," he once remarked. "Every work of art needs distance from its context." The intense aesthetic effort required to control the enormous sentences of his narrative also serves to distance and control the immensity of his apocalyptic political vision, which appears even more timely twenty years after its writing. These two late prose works, The Minotaur and The Assignment, display yet again the consistency of Dürrenmatt’s "themes" and "materials" over a period of almost fifty years. But they also demonstrate the mastery of language and form attained through constant experimentation in fiction and drama in the course of one of the most remarkable careers in postwar European literature.