Having spent the best part of August holidaying in Germany, I decided to choose a few German books recently translated into English for my next reviews. First cab off the rank is Montauk by Max Frisch.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, Swiss writer Max Frisch belonged to the group of post-war “uber”-authors which included Nobel Prize winners Gunther Grass and Heinrich Boell. Whilst famous at the time for his widely popular allegorical political plays and three novels: Homo Faber, My Name is Gantenbein and I am not Stiller, his works have somewhat faded away in the minds of the reading public since his death in 1991. Not even an international film production of Homo Faber under the title Voyager starring Sam Shephard and Julie Delpie could trigger a sustained renaissance of his work. This is a great pity given that Frisch was always the more international, outward looking writer among his peers, whose prose in particular has remained fresh and relevant. It is thus admirable that the small Portland-based publisher Tin House Books has decided to republish Montauk which first appeared in 1975 in German, and then only a year later the now out-of-print English edition.
Montauk tells the autobiographical story of an ageing writer, Frisch or at least a version of him, spending a weekend with his much younger lover, Lynn, in the holiday town of the same name on Long Island. It is the story of an affair between a famous author abroad and a journalist originally assigned to interview him, a story about two people of vastly different backgrounds negotiating their life experiences for a brief period of time.
Montauk is also a radical departure from Frisch’s previous prose in which he played with fictionalised possibilities of identity and biography. This book, in contrast, is an attempt to dispense with his writerly tricks and devices and truthfully tell the story of this particular weekend. With this, Frisch strays into the auto-fictional territory more recently claimed by Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard and his wildly successful series of autobiographical novels provocatively called My Struggle – something that might have contributed to the decision to republish Montauk.
Yet, while Knausgaard has elevated artlessness into an aesthetic program to depict his life, Frisch thankfully fails in his attempt to reach a deeper truth by switching off the artistic impulses of the fiction writer in him. He laments early in the book that his mind automatically selects events according to their potential artistic worthiness and Montauk is, among other things, also a potent reflection on the difficulties and limitations of the artist trying to represent reality.
The activities of the weekend – the drive out of the city, the walk on the beach, checking into the hotel and so on – are not laid out in Knausgaardian mundane and comprehensive detail but are presented in a compressed way, skilfully woven into a tapestry of reminiscences of old affairs, previous marriages and failed friendships.
Does this artifice make Montauk a less truthful book? I don’t believe so.
Frisch looks at himself unsparingly, unflinchingly. His failings as a lover, an architect, a writer and a friend are shamelessly on display. There is, of course, always a special kind of vanity in publicly presenting oneself “warts and all”, but also bravery, an act heightened at the time of publication, when most of the characters featured in the book were still alive.
Some critics at the time have dismissed Montauk as simply a roman-à -clef. His ex-wives and lovers as well as the “who’s who” of German post-war literature make at best thinly disguised appearances. In one instance the two even combine when Frisch recounts his passionate and ultimately doomed affair with the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann. The passing of time has removed the distraction of reading the Montauk for its gossipy qualities, the personal disclosures revealed within now seen as a serious attempt to achieve a genuinely intimate text.
Montauk is a book suffused by a profound and elegant melancholy, by a sense of things coming to an end. Both Lynn and Frisch know they will part ways after the weekend and Frisch suspects that this will be his final trip to New York and the resulting book his last. In real life, Frisch was wrong about this on all th counts, but that doesn’t detract from the emotional truth at the time of writing. In Montauk, a simple weekend away presents an opportunity to take stock, to look at oneself as both creator and prisoner of one’s own history; an opportunity to reflect on shame and regret, failure and success as well as the diminishing possibility of redemption through love and companionship.
Max Frisch. Montauk (translated from the German by Geoffrey Skelton). Tin House Books