THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN IN GOOD FAITH, READER
and what does it keep concealed? And why?
The above, capitals and all, is one of the shorter stand-alone paragraphs in Max Frisch's 143-page book MONTAUK, published in 1975. Although perhaps best known as a playwright, Frisch wrote several novels such as I'M NOT STILLER and HOMO FABER; he also published four volumes of journals. Which is this? The ostensible story is a weekend drive from New York City to Montauk Point at the Eastern tip of Long Island in the company of a young woman called Lynn, thirty years his junior. Frisch sets himself the task of total objectivity: "I should like to be able to describe this weekend, this thin present moment, exactly as it is, without inventing anything." And so he does, in sections scattered throughout the book: a walk through scrubland from a roadside parking lot, a stop in well-groomed Amagansett, arrival at the hotel, sitting side by side on the beach, a game of ping-pong, breakfast looking out on the pouring rain, missed directions on the journey back, buying provisions for supper at a supermarket. It is a small masterpiece of deceptive honesty.
Deceptive because Frisch uses the story of himself and Lynn merely as the portal to an entire edifice of memories and reflections, built of truth, no doubt, but as carefully constructed as a work of fiction. Perhaps there are changes -- the real Lynn, for example, was a young woman named Alice Locke-Carey -- but I have little doubt that they are insignificant. The fiction is not in the times they share together, but what they do not necessarily share: the things he keeps to himself yet shares with his readers. All true also: "There was little need for lies when silence would do." Gradually we piece together his life as a student looking up to a rather more sophisticated mentor, his financial difficulties, his brief career as an architect, his marriages (he has a wife waiting for him back in Berlin), his long affair with the writer Ingeborg Bachmann, his fear of death. But not so obviously; the ideas emerge gradually, out of sequence, sometimes with deliberate confusion. The pronoun "she" may refer to one woman at the beginning of a sentence and quite a different one at the end of it. He switches between "he" and "I" in the same paragraph, simultaneously being the actor in his objective description and the author commenting. Most paradoxically, there is fiction even in his use of truth. "I have been serving up stories to some sort of public," he writes, "and in these stories I have, I know, laid myself bare -- to the point of non-recognition. I live, not with my own story, but with those parts of it that I have been able to put to literary use."
Unfortunately, Geoffrey Skelton's fine translation of this extraordinary little book is no longer in print, and even used copies sell at the rate of about four pages per dollar! The GERMAN ORIGINAL is available through Amazon, however; I have a copy by me, though do not read easily enough to make that my primary source. One interesting thing that could not be reproduced in the translation, however, is that most of the capitalized paragraph headings which break up the text are in English in the German edition also, their linguistic gear-changes and shifts of direction lending a springing rhythm that lightens the whole. It is a fascinating work, making a link between the French nouveau roman and the "fictional autobiography" as practiced, say, by J. M. Coetzee, most recently in SUMMERTIME. But it is also an absorbing account of an interesting though not especially admirable man, artist, and lover, off his home territory, shown warts and all, and well worth reading for its own sake.