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Max Frisch: Blaubart (Bluebeard)

The brilliance of Frisch is to tell a story in a substantially realist style where everything seems to be a normal and bourgeois but where there is a disturbing element which is not quite right, not quite normal. The Bluebeard epithet given to Dr Schaad by the press may be sort of deserved – we gradually learn that he is currently on his seventh wife and is accused of murdering his sixth – but he certainly does not conform to any notions we might have of a wicked seducer. Indeed, he seems to be a simple doctor who changes wives regularly. He seems to maintain good relations with his ex-wives, including the murdered woman.

The story is an account of his trial and most of the story is told in the form of legal cross-examination. Even after his acquittal, which we learn of early on, he thinks in the form of cross-examination, imagining conversations with various people, including his late ex-wife, in the form of cross-examination. Frisch is not concerned with motive and reasoning. Why did he change his wives? We have no idea. Did he kill his ex-wife? A killer – maybe the killer – is found, but Schaad is highly suspicious, changing his alibi several times and clearly being one of the only people to have access to his ex-wife’s apartment. Yet, what we see of Schaad is a”normal” person. He likes feeding the swans. He gets drunk. He plays billiards. He goes for walks. Yet, all the while, we are asking ourselves Did he kill his ex-wife? Why has he married seven times and why do the women in question seem quite unconcerned about the strange marital arrangements? He does not live with the seventh one, for example, but they do travel together.

The recounting of the cross-examination occurs, of course, after the trial, after his acquittal. The other aspect of the book is the effect on the doctor’s livelihood. He has lost his assistant (his new one does not speak German); more importantly, he has lost his patients who know too much about him. But he seems indifferent, occupied with the swans and the billiards and the cross-examination inside his head. Truth? There is no truth or, at least, no absolute, legally verifiable truth. Motive? No motive. No morals. No right and wrong. And Frisch brilliantly shows us this morally grey world where the issue is not what is truth but the fact that an independently verifiable truth quite simply does not exist.

Publishing history

First published in German 1982 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 1983 by Methuen