Friday, 21 October 2016

Book Review: Montauk by Max Frisch

2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

At one point or another in life most people look back on their past to take stock of what they did (or failed to do) or went through and of how they feel about people who were at their side during short or long periods of time. This can be a rather painful process of re-evaluation, notably when dreams remained unfulfilled and when entire chapters of the biography have never been properly closed. Some people will rail against their fate. Some will make peace with what has been and therefore can’t be changed. And others may find that they should write their memoirs, if they are born writers or not. In the autobiographical novel Montauk by Max Frisch the renowned Swiss author in his early sixties relates his short affair with a young American who takes care of him during his book-signing tour around the continent and whose presence evokes many memories.

Max Frisch was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in May 1911. In 1930 he studied German literature and linguistics at the University of Zurich and wrote for newspapers to support the family. After his father’s death he abandoned his studies and worked as a full-time journalist for a while. During this time he brought out his first novel Jürg Reinhart (1934) that was followed by An Answer from the Silence (Antwort aus der Stille: 1937). After this experience he gave up his literary ambitions to study architecture, but as soon as he was drafted into the army he resumed writing. In 1939 appeared From a Soldier's Diary (Aus dem Tagebuch eines Soldaten), later published as Pages from the Bread-bag (Blätter aus dem Brotsack: 1940) and in revised form as Little Service Book (Dienstbüechlein: 1974). For a living, however, the author worked as an architect until the mid-1950s when his novel I’m Not Stiller (Stiller: 1954) became a success. Others of his most notable novels are Homo Faber (1957), Gantenbein (Mein Name sei Gantenbein: 1964; also translated as A Wilderness of Mirrors), Montauk (1975), Man in the Holocene (Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän: 1979), and Bluebeard (Blaubart: 1982). Max Frisch died in Zurich, Switzerland, in April 1991.

In May 1974, three days before his flight back to Europe and four days before turning sixty-three years old, Max Frisch as his literary self starts out on a weekend trip to Montauk, a village at the northernmost tip of Long Island, with his lover Lynn who is the age of his eldest daughter. She works for his American publishers and has been assigned to attend to the celebrated author during his book-signing tour across the USA, but she never bothered to read any of his works to know more about him. Passing so much time together, however, created an intimacy between the two that led almost inevitably to an affair that they both know will end with his departure. During their spree to the coast the author feels for the first time in his life the urge to write an autobiographical book, more precisely he wants to record the weekend with Lynn without additions or alterations. True to his plan he includes numerous reflections and memories that small details like the sea air or the way Lynn wears her long red hair bring to his mind. Most importantly he looks back on his turbulent relationships with women and how they all failed sooner or later, even his last marriage that in 1974 isn’t really over yet. With the “wisdom” of a man in his early sixties who is only too aware that he has reached the final stage of his life, he re-evaluates his behaviour toward his wives and lovers acknowledging that he must be difficult to live with and that male chauvinism is his biggest vice. With nostalgia he also evokes his youth friendship with W., which was important to him and which didn’t survive the author’s decision to follow his heart, i.e. his literary ambitions, rather than to stay a second-rate architect.

It would certainly be too much to call the autobiographical novel Montauk a memoir although in many flashbacks the author traces his steps through sixty years and exposes himself as well as the people closest to him, notably his last wife Marianne Oellers-Frisch and their writer friend Donald Barthelme who had an affair. Leaving out of account that Max Frisch changed the name of his American lover from Alice to Lynn and he referred to his friend Werner Coninx only as W. (maybe in the naïve attempt to protect them), there can be no doubt that he wrote the truth about facts and events, but it is only his own truth and in addition a quite fragmentary one built on momentary associations. However, authentic he wished to be, he couldn’t help being what he was: a story-teller, maybe even a liar in a certain way. The novel is necessarily very personal and yet its narrative perspective alternates between first-person and third-person depending on the author’s emotional involvement in the scene. I don’t know about the English edition, but in the German original the language is very clear and precise, almost matter-of-fact, and interspersed with English whenever Lynn actually says something.

For me reading Montauk by Max Frisch was a pleasurable experience that I have been looking forward to for a long time. I didn’t suspect its autobiographical, not to say unusually self-exposing nature. Only afterwards I found out that this late work of the Swiss author is very different from everything else that he wrote before, especially from the novels that established him as an author and allowed him to give up architecture in the 1950s. Twenty-five years after his death, Max Frisch keeps being among the most renowned German-language novelists and playwrights. With due right, I dare say as proves my recommendation of Montauk by Max Frisch.

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  1. I am always happy to hear of a man who admits he has been a male chauvinist and decides to change his ways.

    1. Well, I'm not quite sure that Max Frisch actually decided to change his ways, but as we say in German "Einsicht ist der erste Schritt zur Besserung", i.e. "a fault confessed is half redressed". And I reckon that in the 1970s it was quite something for a man to at least admit that he was a male chauvinist.


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