Montauk by Max Frisch (tr. Goeffrey Skelton). Tin House Books. $15.95, 140 pp.
It could be said that as a reader I follow Max Frisch, but in truth I’ve always had the sense that he has been following me. When I first encountered him, I was an editorial assistant at Dalkey Archive proofreading Man in the Holocene (in Geoffrey Skelton’s translation) for re-publication. A few years later, I was working at the University of Chicago Press and managing publicity for Seagull Books when those wonderful people brought out Frisch’s correspondence with his countryman Friedrich Dürrenmatt—fittingly titled Correspondence by translator Birgit Schreyer Duarte and including an introduction by Peter Rüedi that illuminates their complicated relationship. In between, I read a few of Frisch’s works from Dalkey Archive and Seagull Books, as well as his out of print Sketchbooks from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. So when TQC editor Scott Esposito emailed me to ask me if I was a “Frisch guy” and if I’d be interested in reviewing Montauk (this again in Skelton’s translation), I said I was and that I would. Also because I still hadn’t read Montauk, the only one of his major narrative works that I had neglected.
But when I mentioned all of this to a woman I’m seeing, she scoffed—not at Frisch, but at me. “Have you even been to Montauk?”
A couple hours later, I was—we were—again following Frisch. Or leading him from behind as it were, because I had resolved not to read the book before seeing the place.
And that’s how Montauk opens for me and for Frisch both: a man and a woman—Lynn—and a car in a place that is often called THE END, both as a geographic means of description and a place where all stops. Especially in the off-season.
I should like to describe this day, just this day, our weekend together, how it came about and how it develops. I should like to tell it without inventing anything. In the role of a simple narrator.
I don’t think it’s out of place to offer some brief biographical context. Max Frisch, as I wrote once in some catalog, was one of the giants of twentieth-century German literature, achieving fame as a novelist, playwright, diarist, and essayist—not really in that order. He lived primarily in Switzerland, but also in Berlin and with extended visits to New York, and he has written true things about each of those places. In the course of his life—seventy-nine years in the meat of the twentieth century—he received heaps of prizes and was wildly famous, even becoming, as he notes in this narrative with some embarrassment, the type of guy who gets recognized on the street, or, at the very least, when asked to give his name. This book is strewn with other names that TQC readers will recognize. In addition to Dürrenmatt—a man mistakes Frisch for Dürrenmatt in these pages, naming a play by the latter—Christa Wolf, Jakov Lind, and Ingeborg Bachmann are mentioned in passing, but honestly, mostly as public figures. Private people are another story. They are where this narrative becomes true and grotesque and amazing.
See, Montauk is an alienated text—as much of a roman à clef as it is a memoir—full of confusion, unhealed wounds, and populated by the author’s many lovers and friends—flattened, I guess, into Frisch’s written characters by the mirror of his own recollection. They are internalized as memories are until their voices are indistinguishable from his own. And that flatness is also in the very Swiss anxiety of Frisch himself. These people appeared in color, but the man, the lens through which the reader sees them, is color blind, unable to view them as they are. Much as I am unable to separate this text from the feelings it has given me. Bear with me.
This book is a kind of photo album, not really of major figures in twentieth-century letters but of a hundred personal scenes that interconnect for Frisch in his own mind. Most notably, these are snapshots of women who are alike in one way or another, brought out through ALL CAPS inquiries from Lynn, his lover of the moment and a stand-in for women in general. Lynn acts as the touchstone, the jumping-off point and interlocutor for these recollections. And in this, the description of his relationship to these women, he is at his most brilliant and his least kind:
I remember a woman who scratched all her ten fingers bloody on the walls of the lavatory after I had told her of my adultery. The blood on the walls I noticed that same evening, her sore fingers only the next morning. I also remember a woman who leaned from her bed to ring her husband up at his office. From a phone booth, she said, while I listened in silence. An hour later, we were all three dining together. . .
There’s nothing terribly new about the confessional as a literary form. It can just as easily appear as swagger as it can an act of contrition, and this book has the flavor of both. And as a form, often in the guise of a personal essay, the confessional is having quite a moment. In the wake of the successful autoerotic exposures of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multivolume Struggles and the critically gorgeous self-scrutiny of Maggie Nelson’s more slender Argonauts, there’s a contemporary appetite for the personal essay that has hardly been sated. And in the act of confession, there’s as much to be proud of in a debauched or dissolute life as there is to regret or repent. Lest the reader of this review fall into the trap most common for first-time encounterers of Frisch, this isn’t some kind of Swiss-intellectual misogynist rant, an I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell for the pretentious. It is very honestly self-interested and self-critical. It’s messy in the way that psychotherapy is messy, or that our unvarnished motives would be if the world could see them. It’s loving, in its way, and sadly aware of how much time has passed and how badly.
And I like the tendency in this kind of narrative to self-correct, to DAMN! oneself as Frisch does. To understand that the mistakes that we make are not just interpersonal, but a matter of style and substance. Frisch writes:
The morning sea beneath the deep clouds is the color of mother-of-pearl, the waves lifeless, the sun obscured. He finds it better to take off his shoes and walk barefoot, shoes in hand. Gulls over the empty beach, louder than any feeling, louder than the waves.
And a few moments—a couple pages—later, he reveals himself still drafting, still self-critical:
Yesterday the long, easy afternoon: as if everything had been solved (as often before) once and for all, a look back without anger and without self-pity, everything solved and purified (only the hexameters still missing) once and for all, and now he comes to a halt on the top of a sand dune, shoes in hand, to cry out in English:
In the first place the sea is not the color of mother-of-pearl, the gulls are not white, the sand is neither yellow nor gray, not even the grass green or yellow, the deep clouds not violet—
I am always ignorant of the true position.
And we’re left, as a reader, DAMN!ing ourselves, turning over Frisch’s words in our heads, using his lovers and friends as a jumping off point for our own reflexive ruminations. We see why this book has found its way into the hearts or minds, wherever helpless people regret things, wherever we choose to shrug to ourselves over things that can’t be taken back. Or so it seems to me, but I am always ignorant of the true position.
Jeff Waxman (http://www.jeff-waxman.com/) is a marketing consultant connecting independent publishers, magazines, and bookstores with the reading public. A former bookseller at the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago, he now lives in Brooklyn.
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