Friedrich Dürrenmatt - Kafka’s greatest heir: searing, tragicomic explorations of the ironies of justice and the corruptibility of institutions

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Possible is Monstrous: Selected Poems, Trans. by Daniele Pantano, Dzanc Books, 2010.

"Much the way Dürrenmatt himself reclaims in verse the psyche of the Minotaur from the ancient labyrinth, so Daniele Pantano brings down from the Alps and the secret land of bank vaults the poetry of Switzerland’s most important writer of the twentieth century. The fidelity of these translations not only owes itself to Pantano being one of Dürrenmatt’s countrymen. He is a poet as well, one with a real ear and eye for Dürrenmatt’s sardonic imagination that is peculiarly Swiss and pan-European at the same time." - James Reidel

"What was the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, author of The Visit and one of the greatest and most inscrutable dramatists of the 20th Century, really thinking – about life, love, drama and politics? Here, in The Possible Is Monstrous, a tremendously revealing and stimulating German-English dual language volume of his selected poetry, is a perfect place to find out. For in his poetry Dürrenmatt reveals sides of himself not readily discernible in his plays. In addition to providing English-speaking readers with new access to Dürrenmatt and his work, The Possible Is Monstrous will be of great interest to scholars of the dramatist.
Daniele Pantano's translations of Dürrenmatt's poems into English are themselves a significant achievement in poetic translation. His translations of Dürrenmatt's poems are a model of the elusive and delicate balance between accuracy and readability that makes The Possible Is Monstrous so satisfying." - Dr. Victor Peppard

"This collection is long overdue. Long acknowledged as a master playwright and novelist, Dürrenmatt is at last presented as one of the great poets of the last century. Daniele Pantano's excellent translation captures all the wit of a writer frustrated by the times he lived in - balancing at once the personal and the political to produce work that is genuinely vivid and exciting." - Rob Shearman
Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Assignment: or, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, Trans. by Joel Agee, University Of Chicago Press, 2008.

"In the Swiss playwright's wracking, brilliantly conceived new novel (published in German in 1986 and resourcefully translated by Agee), nothing is what it seems. Otto von Lambert, a well-known psychiatrist, gives F., a filmmaker, the "assignment" to follow the trail of his late wife, Tina, and learn why and how she was murdered in an unidentified Middle Eastern country, her raped body thrown to the jackals at the base of a mysterious Shi'ite shrine. F. accepts because she is mesmerized by Tina's journal, which is filled with hatred for her husband and intensified by a charged note: "I am being watched." In Durrenmatt's blasted, menacing landscape everyone is being observed by everyone else literally, by field glasses, telescope, camera's eye; and figuratively, by the stealthy, obsessive scrutiny of each by each for purposes shrouded in ambiguity. The closer F. approaches some answer, the more it eludes her as mysteries are further coiled and compounded with false leads and shifting or mistaken identities. Out of these mazes within mazes the author extrapolates an arresting metaphysical mystery in 24 brief chapters, each cast as a single, spinning, convoluted sentence, each leading to further enigmas in the jagged, highly pictorial tale. Kierkegaard, who is cited repeatedly, is a presiding spirit; and philosophical, theological, mythic elements, instead of distracting, add depth and resonance to this remarkable tale." - Publishers Weekly

"Tina von Lambert lies violated and dead at the foot of the Al-Hakim ruin. Her husband feels he drove her to this sordid end, and in guilty recompense hires F's film crew to document the mysterious circumstances surrounding Tina's death. Against her better judgment, F pursues the trail to a desert hotel where appearances begin to crumble, testing her ability to distinguish reality from perception. In this tightly crafted thriller, his first American publication in nearly 20 years, Durrenmatt demonstrates considerable virtuosity: each of 24 chapters is a single sentence. We may all be "under observation," but the question is, Whose observation? The answer informs this novel's puzzle. Highly recommended" - Paul E. Hutchison

"In Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s experimental thriller The Assignment, the wife of a psychiatrist has been raped and killed near a desert ruin in North Africa. Her husband hires a woman named F. to reconstruct the unsolved crime in a documentary film. F. is soon unwittingly thrust into a paranoid world of international espionage where everyone is watched—including the watchers. After discovering a recent photograph of the supposed murder victim happily reunited with her husband, F. becomes trapped in an apocalyptic landscape riddled with political intrigue, crimes of mistaken identity, and terrorism.
F.’s labyrinthine quest for the truth is Dürrenmatt’s fictionalized warning against the dangers of a technologically advanced society that turns everyday life into one of constant scrutiny. Joel Agee’s elegant translation will introduce a fresh generation of English-speaking readers to one of European literature’s masters of language, suspense, and dystopia."

“The narrative is accelerated from the start... As the novella builds to its horripilating climax, we realize the extent to which all values have thereby been inverted. The Assignment is a parable of hell for an age consumed by images.” — New York Times Book Review

“His most ambitious book... dark and devious... almost obsessively drawn to mankind’s most fiendish crimes.” — Chicago Tribune

"Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s short novel The Assignment, originally published in German in 1986, is written in twenty-four long sentences (Dürrenmatt’s model for the novel’s structure was said to be the twenty-four sections of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier I). It is about a filmmaker, a woman simply referred to as F., hired by a famous Swiss psychiatrist named Otto von Lambert who has written a well-known book on terrorism. F’s job is to solve, and document via film the solving of, the mystery of the death of von Lambert’s wife Tina, assaulted and murdered at the foot of a ruin in Egypt called Al-Hakim. It is soon revealed that von Lambert’s reasons for commissioning the documentary are deeply rooted within his intrinsic selfishness and desire for fame (indeed, within the novel the investigation into the death of Tina von Lambert is followed closely by the international press). The psychiatrist feels a sense of responsibility for his wife’s murder, but only because he treated her as “a case, instead of a person.”1 It was this maltreatment, which Tina apparently discovered through his notes on his observations of her, that made her flee their home. Now the psychiatrist would like to have his voyeuristic actions toward his wife documented, partly as an ostensible warning to others against such an unethical doctor-patient relationship but primarily so that he might pacify his own conscience while still expanding his fame within his field, even when it is at the sake of his reputation.
Before her death, Tina von Lambert kept her own diary—which F. reads with great interest—in which she observed the attentions of her husband (whom she describes as a “monster”). In fact, she has observed her husband as much as he has observed her. Of particular interest to F. are two passages in Tina von Lambert’s diary in which she has written, chillingly, “I am being watched.” It is a statement that casts a long shadow over the narrative. Who had been observing Tina von Lambert? And if not only her husband, for what reasons did the other observe her?
It is an extremely open-ended question, and one that suggests a mimetic quality between F. and the way in which the reader of the novel “observes” F. unraveling the story of Tina von Lambert. The narrative is written in the third person subjective, and as it follows F.’s descent into the world of intelligence gathering, The Assignment considers the degree to which the roles of observer and observed define the reader’s place within society. It is interesting to note that Tina, who is both observed and observer, elicits both sympathy and contempt. Even F., one of the most The Assignment’s sympathetic characters, directs her creative energies toward wholly voyeuristic ends: Otto von Lambert has come across her while she is filming the funeral of his wife. The film is being made as part of a documentary project F. undertakes toward the “still vague idea of creating a total portrait, namely a portrait of our planet, by combining random scenes into a whole.”
In fact the preposterous, even monstrous impetus of both F.’s and von Lambert’s projects within the novel—the “total” portrait of the planet, as if such a thing were possible, and the solving of one person’s murder not out of any sense of justice but as an act of self-abnegation—are indicative of the futility Dürrenmatt expresses in The Assignment: the futility of any attempt to reach a point of certainty and origin in a search for absolute knowledge, and the madness with which human beings nevertheless try to accumulate such knowledge in the face of the destructiveness that such an accumulation inflicts on others.
For example, after accepting von Lambert’s proposal F. travels to North Africa to investigate Tina von Lambert’s death and falls into a world in which surveillance is used to gain political power, even when the knowledge gained from surveillance is nearly always flawed and warped in its transmission. The victims of this knowledge are haphazardly punished in order to reach a point of conclusion and certainty: at one point F. comes across a man who is imprisoned and then summarily executed as the supposed murderer of Tina von Lambert. (It is later revealed that the man, who is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, has simply been used as a political symbol.) It’s a telling point about how reaching a conclusion is often more important to the person who uses knowledge as a form of control than whether that conclusion contains any sense of justice.
Two other characters, both of whom become profound symbols within the novel, share F.’s and Otto von Lambert’s desire to pursue self-created, Sisyphean tasks in order to give themselves the impression of self-agency. One, known only as D., is a logician who has chosen his field because logic is “beyond all reality and removed from every sort of existential mishap.” D. feels that a very suitable definition of contemporary man might be that he is man under observation —observed by the state, for one, with more and more sophisticated methods, while man makes more and more desperate attempts to escape being observed, which in turn renders man increasingly suspect in the eyes of the state and the state even more suspect in the eyes of man
Despite this philosophy, D. professes that the act of being observed is something profoundly desired by mankind, “that [people], too, felt meaningless unless they were being observed, and that this was the reason why they all observed and took snapshots and movies of each other, for fear of experiencing the meaninglessness of their existence in the face of a dispersing universe.” Here humanity is on a pivot point between existence and non-existence, and balancing these two positions drives D. into madness; without observation it is as though human beings are cast into the darkness of non-existence.
Another character, a photographer named Polypheme (after the cyclops in the Odyssey) has built a career out of doing surveillance work for governments and weapons-manufacturing companies. Polypheme also who takes pictures of operatives being assassinated, utilizing technologically advanced cameras that allow him to divide time into infinitely small pieces, far beyond what human perception is capable of capturing. He tells F. (with the certainty that D. has used in describing the privileged place of logic as a tool in assimilating reality) that “reality [can] only be comprehended by means of a camera, aseptically, the camera alone was capable of capturing space and time within which experience took place, while without a camera, experience slid off into nothingness, since the moment something was experienced it had passed and was therefore just a memory and, like all memory, falsified, fictive.” Even the methods of the logician and the photographer, however, do not preclude the idea that, were they granted a glimpse of “reality,” they would only understand that reality through the limitations of human perception.
As in the opening segment of Citizen Kane —where a newsreel detailing a man’s death is unable to encompass the breadth of his life, giving way to a detailed narrative that is still unable to capture him—The Assignment, construes time and memory as things that are constantly fading into darkness, while humanity deludes itself into believing that the darkness is conquerable.2 In fact, the darkness’s enormity—the darkness of oblivion, time, and space—is (quite literally) unimaginable by the human beings who attempt to grasp it, and use it for their own ends. - Jordan Anderson
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman and Suspicion, Trans. by Joel Agee, University Of Chicago Press, 2006.

"This volume offers bracing new translations of two precursors to the modern detective novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose genre-bending mysteries recall the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and anticipate the postmodern fictions of Paul Auster and other contemporary neo-noir novelists. Both mysteries follow Inspector Barlach as he moves through worlds in which the distinction between crime and justice seems to have vanished. In The Judge and His Hangman, Barlach forgoes the arrest of a murderer in order to manipulate him into killing another, more elusive criminal. And in Suspicion, Barlach pursues a former Nazi doctor by checking into his clinic with the hope of forcing him to reveal himself. The result is two thrillers that bring existential philosophy and the detective genre into dazzling convergence."

"Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) was best known as the author of clever, morally inquisitive plays such as ''The Visit'' and ''The Physicists.'' In the early 1950s he also wrote three short, spellbinding mystery novels, which the University of Chicago Press has reissued in paperback with new translations from the German by Joel Agee: The Pledge and The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman & Suspicion. The latter includes a thoughtful foreword by Sven Birkerts, who praises Dürrenmatt''s talent as a captivating entertainer who could also ''play through complex moral issues with a speed-chess decisiveness and inexorability.''
. . . These are slender tales. But they have the weight and texture of classics. Mystery readers should be grateful to the University of Chicago Press for bringing these gems back to life." — Richard Lipez

Read it at Google Books

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Selected Writings, Volume 2, Fictions, Theodore Ziolkowski Editor, Trans. by Joel Agee, University Of Chicago Press, 2006.

"The Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–90) was one of the most important literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century. During the years of the cold war, arguably only Beckett, Camus, Sartre, and Brecht rivaled him as a presence in European letters. Yet outside Europe, this prolific author is primarily known for only one work, The Visit. With these long-awaited translations of his plays, fictions, and essays, Dürrenmatt becomes available again in all his brilliance to the English-speaking world.
This second volume of Selected Writings reveals a writer who may stand as Kafka’s greatest heir. Dürrenmatt’s novellas and short stories are searing, tragicomic explorations of the ironies of justice and the corruptibility of institutions. Apart from The Pledge, a requiem to the detective story that was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, none of the works in this volume are available elsewhere in English. Among the most evocative fictions included here are two novellas: The Assignment and Traps. The Assignment tells the story of a woman filmmaker investigating a mysterious murder in an unnamed Arab country and has been hailed by Sven Birkerts as “a parable of hell for an age consumed by images.” Traps, meanwhile, is a chilling comic novella about a traveling salesman who agrees to play the role of the defendant in a mock trial among dinner companions—and then pays the ultimate penalty.
Dürrenmatt has long been considered a great writer—but one unfairly neglected in the modern world of letters. With these elegantly conceived and expertly translated volumes, a new generation of readers will rediscover his greatest works.
Friedrich Durrenmatt, Selected Writings, Volume 3, Essays, Kenneth J. Northcott Editor, Trans. by Joel Agee, Introduction by Brian Evenson, University Of Chicago Press, 2006.

"Dürrenmatt’s essays, gathered in this third volume of Selected Writings, are among his most impressive achievements. Their range alone is astonishing: he wrote with authority and charm about art, literature, philosophy, politics, and the theater. The selections here include Dürrenmatt’s best-known essays, such as “Theater Problems” and “Monster Essay on Justice and Law,” as well as the notes he took on a 1970 journey in America (in which he finds the United States “increasingly susceptible to every kind of fascism”). This third volume of Selected Writings also includes essays that shade into fiction, such as “The Winter War in Tibet,” a fantasy of a third world war waged in a vast subterranean labyrinth—a Plato’s Cave allegory rewritten for our own troubled times.
Friedrich Durrenmatt, Selected Writings, Volume I, Plays, Kenneth J. Northcott Editor, Trans. by Joel Agee, University Of Chicago Press, 2006.

"Dürrenmatt’s concerns are timeless, but they are also the product of his Swiss vantage during the cold war: his key plays, gathered in the first volume of Selected Writings, explore such themes as guilt by passivity, the refusal of responsibility, greed and political decay, and the tension between justice and freedom. In The Visit, for instance, an old lady who becomes the wealthiest person in the world returns to the village that cast her out as a young woman and offers riches to the town in exchange for the life of the man, now its mayor, who once disgraced her. Joel Agee’s crystalline translation gives a fresh lease to this play, as well as four others: The Physicists, Romulus the Great, Hercules and the Augean Stables, and The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi.
Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Pledge, Trans. by Joel Agee, University Of Chicago Press, 2006.

"Set in a small town in Switzerland, The Pledge centers around the murder of a young girl and the detective who promises the victim’s mother he will find the perpetrator. After deciding the wrong man has been arrested for the crime, the detective lays a trap for the real killer—with all the patience of a master fisherman. But cruel turns of plot conspire to make him pay dearly for his pledge. Here Friedrich Dürrenmatt conveys his brilliant ear for dialogue and a devastating sense of timing and suspense. Joel Agee’s skilled translation effectively captures the various voices in the original, as well as its chilling conclusion.
One of Dürrenmatt’s most diabolically imagined and constructed novels, The Pledge was adapted for the screen in 2000 in a film directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson."

"The Swiss essayist Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) was a prolific writer of detective novels with a low regard for detective fiction. ''You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy.'' Dürrenmatt''s tale doesn''t so much alter the rules as sweep all the figures to the floor. Three young girls, each with blond braids and red dresses, are found dismembered in the woods. A pattern seems to emerge, yet the attempt to catch the killer develops into a fruitless obsession which drives the head of the investigation insane. Dürrenmatt incorporates fairy-tale archetypes to distort the typical conventions of a psychological thriller—when little girls in red dresses skip off into the woods, should the investigation team focus their enquiries on a big, bad wolf? Not a book for anyone who likes a tidy conclusion, but as Dürrenmatt says: ''The only way to avoid getting crushed by absurdity, is to humbly include the absurd in our calculations.'' — The Guardian

"A stark essay in crime and pursuit, as terse and assured in construction as the best of Simenon." - John Coleman

Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Visit, Trans. by Joel Agee, Grove Press, 2010.

"Dürrenmatt once wrote of himself: “I can best be understood if one grasps grotesqueness,” and The Visit is a consummate, alarming Dürrenmatt blend of hilarity, horror, and vertigo. The play takes place “somewhere in Central Europe” and tells of an elderly millionairess who, merely on the promise of her millions, swiftly turns a depressed area into a boom town. But the condition attached to her largesse, which the locals learn of only after they are enmeshed, is murder. Dürrenmatt has fashioned a macabre and entertaining parable that is a scathing indictment of the power of greed."
Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Physicists, Trans. by James Kirkup, Grove Press, 1994.

"The world’s greatest physicist, Johann Wilhelm Möbius, is in a madhouse, haunted by recurring visions of King Solomon. He is kept company by two other equally deluded scientists: one who thinks he is Einstein, another who believes he is Newton. It soon becomes evident, however, that these three are not as harmlessly lunatic as they appear. Are they, in fact, really mad? Or are they playing some murderous game, with the world as the stake? For Möbius has uncovered the mystery of the universe—and therefore the key to its destruction—and Einstein and Newton are vying for this secret that would enable them to rule the earth."

"Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists is one of many physicist-centered dramas written in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time the potential that scientific innovation held was largely seen in the awesome destructive power of the atomic and hydrogens bombs. Science seemed to have outstripped man's ability to utilize it for the betterment of humanity. The Cold War, the arms race, and policies of mutually assured destruction suggested that instead science was too easily being used for bad - indeed, literally world-threatening - ends. Man could not be trusted with the knowledge that physicists were able to discover.
Dürrenmatt's physicists take one of the few options available to them to keep the knowledge they have from falling into hands ill-prepared to do what is best with it: they get themselves locked up in a mental institution.
The Physicists begins with a murder. A patient has murdered a nurse at the sanatorium. Because he is believed to be insane the criminal investigation is a largely superficial one. But the inspector does note his annoyance: three months earlier another patient had murdered another nurse.
Three physicists live together in the wing. One believes he is Einstein, one believes he is Newton (but occasionally tells people that he is in fact Einstein, though "in fact he really believes he is Newton"), and one understands that he is Johann Wilhelm Möbius but believes King Solomon talks to him. In fact, however, the three physicists are all sane.
Möbius feigns insanity because he discovered the "Unitary Theory of Elementary Particles". And he doesn't feel mankind is ready for the consequences:
'The result is - devastating. New and inconceivable forces would be unleashed, making possible a technical advance that would transcend the wildest flights of fantasy if my findings were to fall into the hands of mankind.'
The men who pretend to be Einstein and Newton are physicists in the employ of intelligence services, representing the Western and Eastern powers of Cold War times, sent there to get Möbius' great discovery.
The murders of the nurses were necessary, because each grew too convinced that the patients were, in fact, sane. At the end of the first act Möbius finds himself with the same dilemma and sees murder as the only way to protect his secret.
Things are further complicated, in the form of the founder of the sanatorium, Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, who is the only one who appears truly mentally unstable. She too knows more than she originally let on, and before they know it the physicists find they have dug themselves a hole out of which they can not easily escape.
Dürrenmatt's comedy is very clever, and the situation he puts his characters in an ingenious and amusing one. The moral dilemma of the modern scientist no longer excites quite as much as it did at the height of the Cold War, but it is still a very effective play." - The Complete Review

Dürrenmatt’s Fiction, Introduction by Theodore Ziolkowski

Dürrenmatt’s Drama, Introduction by Kenneth J. Northcott

Dürrenmatt’s Essays, Introduction by Brian Evenson

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990)


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