All of us who are longtime readers have our few big books, the ones we came upon, maybe unwittingly, and that changed everything, working their way in under the skin, becoming like kept secrets, affecting our least perception of the world around us, stretching us, and at the same time holding out a promise: that while we were in their range of influence we had only to call them to mind—even just the idea of them—for life to come somehow right. The world could be seen into; it could be held onto, and the pages between the covers were the proof of that.
I don’t know that anyone gets more than a handful of these—the stuff of self is not endlessly elastic; views and understandings grow more rigid over time and are less likely to be upended by even the most original author’s presentation of the world.
Luckily there are all the other ways books have of mattering, and the dedicated reader can move among them happily enough, still waiting to be ravished, of course, but also grateful for whatever pleasure or instruction is passed along. Most of my reading these days is of the pleasure and instruction sort, less about radically changing my view of life and more about confirming, extending, sharpening—about finding the recognition moments that lift the eye from the page for some unspecified duration, while some thought or triggered association dissolves inside. And this dissolving, at times a pure pleasure, at times painful, or bittersweet—is one of the great refinements of reading. It is at the root of my addiction.
Max Frisch’s Montauk, packed with these dissolving moments, is one of a small handful of works toward which I feel proprietary, if not downright possessive. I alternately want to pass the book along to everyone I know and to keep it close like some private vice, though I’m not sure what underlies this latter impulse. It’s not as though I believe that a book can be leached or diminished by its enthusiasts. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll find out that my responses and identifications are not nearly as unique as I have imagined them to be.
Montauk will always be marked for me with specific memories of my early time in Boston and the tutelary presence of my friend Ed Wilmsen. In 1978 I was 27 years old and living in Cambridge. It was a rough period in my life. I was marginally employed, barely covering rent and skimpy groceries with what I earned as a textbook clerk in the basement of Boston’s first Barnes & Noble. I had broken up with my girlfriend of several years, my writing was stalled, and I dragged through my days in a state of what I would then have called high existential anxiety. Haunted by thoughts of failure, I didn’t know if I could hold things together. I was at every moment just a few dollars ahead of destitution, and it no longer felt Henry Millerish. I was now more like Knut Hamsun’s unnamed narrator in Hunger, the literally starving writer who schemes on every page how to find the next sustaining crust.
I was rescued from the worst of my dread by the arrival in town of my old friend Ed. “Friend” was maybe not quite accurate in the beginning. Ed and I had known each other at a distance through my sister and several mutual friends when we were all living in Ann Arbor in the mid-’70s. There were some dinners, some nights of drinking around kitchen tables. But I don’t think any of us finally knew that much about the man—we were far too taken up with his mythology. Fifteen years older, a well-known field anthropologist working with the bushmen in the Kalahari, a roving academic, Ed was the one with the stories: how he trekked for days with the !Kung, how he had once stayed alive eating tins of butter and jam in the Yukon. . . . If I can’t recall specifics now, it’s because the anecdotes have all bled together. The writer Howard Norman, one of this loose-knit group of friends, used to call Ed “ostrich egg”—a reference, I think, to this outsized exoticism.
In any case, Ed looked me up when he got to Boston that spring. He had been hired to teach at Boston University starting the following September, but until then he was living on a shoestring. Could I help him find a place and get settled? I had nothing but time, and I was thrilled to have a mission, so I went around with Ed, prospecting possible locations, settling finally on the North End, the old Italian neighborhood down by the harbor. There I stood by as he charmed an elderly man into renting him a shambles of a place on the top floor of an old warehouse building. A paper was signed, and right away—so it seems in the compression chambers of memory, anyway—the two of us were engaged in the most amazing scavenging expedition I could have imagined, picking through dumpsters for broken chairs and cast-off sheets of plywood, filling our pockets with nails and bits of hardware. I was mystified at every turn, but trusting.
The experience remains vivid. I remember Ed shooting me a disbelieving smile as he pulled up in front of a pile of abandoned packing crates. “Look at this! This is perfectly good wood.” In minutes I was helping him carry armfuls of rescued goods up the many flights of stairs to his rooms. Then we worked, yanking off the decaying fiberboard ceiling, prying the paneling from the walls to expose the original brick behind the lathing. Nothing was wasted. The clean back face of those same panels became material for a long countertop, which was trimmed with strips of recovered lathing. Lumber from the street, sanded, was fast-forwarded into a wall of shelves. I was enthralled. I did whatever Ed asked me to do—hauled bags down to the alley, scraped old paint from the window sashes, painted. I was, as a grown-up, playing out a fantasy first stoked by Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson: living by taking what was to hand and making do. And when, some days later, the job was done, when Ed was fully installed in his bright, airy space above the street, every surface clean, every furnishing somehow holding the glow of his ingenuity and our labor, he made a meal, a spicy paella full of things from the local fish market and simmered through the afternoon in a freshly scrubbed hubcap he had picked up on his street the day before.
What does all this have to do with anything literary? For me the connection was established some days later, when Ed’s various boxes had at last been shipped to him and he invited me over, when I stood in front of his shelves—now stocked with books—and found myself perusing a copy of Frisch’s book. “That—” Ed was bent over in his minuscule galley space, jabbing the air with a piece of bread. “That might be my favorite book.” He must have said more—I remember that we did talk about Montauk later, when he used it as a kind of model for a book he was writing—but I don’t recall specifics. What I know is that at that moment I soldered in the lasting association between Frisch’s book and my friend, an association strong enough that even now I have only to glance at the cover painting of two abandoned beach chairs to be back in those rooms, the reclamation of which finally helped me to get solid ground back under my feet.
But there are other connections, too. If Ed was, for me, the original bricoleur, the genius of assemblage, working at his nest like a magpie, then Montauk, the book he “gave me,” is itself an assemblage par excellence, an entirely unique cobbling together of the inwardly dispersed materials of a life.
It is significant, then, that Montauk should have come to me from Ed. The charisma of his hunter-gatherer ethos aside, he was also at that time in my life, cliché be damned, a kind of father figure. In him I discerned, as I didn’t in most of the older people I knew, what I thought were the mysteries of true adulthood. He had worked various jobs—architect, professor—before taking up the adventuring life; he had married, raised children, divorced; he was a reader and a writer. I projected all kinds of exaggerated aspirations and fantasies on him, which he must have sensed and permitted. All this meant that when I first read my way through Montauk, as I did soon after that evening, it took on the coloration of my imaginings about Ed. Most of these are too diffuse to convey with any accuracy, or else I have forgotten them. Even so, my most recent return to the book brought it all back, not just Ed and our project, but something of the eager and unsettled person who patrolled the back alleys of the North End with him.
Montauk is in every sense a book from the other side of the watershed, a book that could only have been written when its author had already begun filtering every experience through the scrim of memory. A book of retrospect, yes, but not of passive retrospect. Montauk is not the end of day’s rendering of accounts. Rather, it offers its narration from the time of life when the reflex of association is not only automatic, but nearly incessant. This, I’m beginning to realize, is what life feels like when the page has finally been folded over and the script sprawls from recto to verso. While there is very little sustaining drama in the account of a weekend in an older writer’s life, the lifts and drops of memory are vertigo-inducing.
Writing this, I have to wonder: What did a young man not yet thirty encounter in these pages? Montauk is, among other things, a story of late-life recognitions—how the step grows tentative with the thought that at any moment the ground might buckle up; how a woman’s single gesture—a toss of hair or a way of turning—opens in memory onto scenarios of bitter regret. . . . I had no real basis for connection. Not through any shortcoming of my own, but because I simply hadn’t, as they say, done the time. Still, I loved the book, pulled it possessively to myself. If all the truths did not register with me yet, the truth-telling itself did. I had enough experience under my belt to recognize that this was a man speaking of things as they are and—I’m fairly sure I saw this—as they will one day be. Ed had certified the book, and what I did not yet know directly, I took on faith.
The first thing to reckon with in reading Montauk is the genre-status of the work. Is it, as it is sometimes billed, a novel? Or is it, as it clearly appears to be, a memoir? And: Is this a difference that matters? My complicated and unsatisfying answer would be that, yes, what we deem the genre to be does matter to the reading, but that it is also impossible to determine unambiguously what that genre is. If I read Montauk as a novel—one that draws deeply on actual events in the author’s life experience—then I have to admire the cunning of its craftedness, the ways in which Frisch exploits its deliberate resemblance to memoir. But that admiration, that aesthetic spectatorship, distances me, slightly but tellingly, from the confiding nature of its contents. I feel no such distance if I assume, as I am also invited to do, that these are the actual materials of a life artfully arranged. The issue for me is only whether Frisch has taken any inventive liberty with the episodes recounted or the feelings expressed. As a reader I project myself differently depending on whether I believe something to be “created” or simply transposed from life.
The uncertainty, never fully resolved, makes Montauk an exemplary boundary work, and theorize how I will, I am, in practice, suspended between genres and forced to abide the dissonance. Even the flap copy (probably not by Frisch) contributes. Opening the cover, I read: “Rather than veiling personal experience in the trappings of fiction, he writes of it as though he were ‘telling a tale,’ casting himself as both subject and observer.” As though. . . . Then, with a flip of a few pages, I find Frisch’s epigraph, from Montaigne, the father of the free-spoken, unvarnished presentation of the self: “For it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. . . . Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of the book. . . ."
And indeed, this is the conceit. A writer, visiting the U.S. to promote a book, spends a quiet off-season weekend at Montauk with a younger woman. Max is in his early 60s; he is married. Lynn, an editor, is a 30-year-old divorcée. Though they do make love, once, they are more companions than lovers, and the book reports on the almost domestic trajectory of their “getaway.” This is part of Montauk’s honesty, but if the book were only an account of their walks, their desultory conversation, with observations of the surrounding scenery, even perfect candor would not be enough. There must be memory—unpredictable, assaultive, only occasionally sweet or consoling. With memory come the textures and tangles of a lived life, and that sense of depth opening upon depth that makes the forward progress tensely exhilarating.
Frisch has devised a structure that lets him braid together two voices. He narrates the progress of the weekend—the drive, walks, ping-pong, eating—in the third person and uses the intimacy of the first person to narrate the memories. This has several effects. One is to cut against the illusionism of a simple memoir (or novel), reminding us at every turn of the author’s formal intervention. The other is that it takes advantage of the differential between first and third persons, using it to amplify the power of the encroaching memories. The shift, moreover, deepens our sense—one of the triumphs of Montauk—of the self as almost geologically sedimented, layer upon layer of time, of memory.
It is the present, third-person Max who, while stopping off at a roadside boutique with Lynn, has the idea that will occasion the book: “In the car (Lynn driving) he knows what he was thinking in the boutique. It was: 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” (54). And in this narrated recognition Frisch neatly embeds the subtle self-reflexiveness that becomes part of the elusive complexity of this outwardly simplest of books: he incorporates the idea of the book into the writing and, further, makes it part of the fait accompli of the work.
“. . . how it came about . . .” In fact, Montauk has very little of the emotional charge we would expect from an account of a man and woman who have slipped away for a weekend. I almost wrote “tryst,” but there is not enough erotic voltage for the term to stick. No, this is something more obscure. While Max feels more than simple friendship or paternal affection for Lynn—he worries, at times, that his gestures of affection will be rebuffed, or that he will fail in performance—there is the sense that these are more like old, familiar romantic reflexes working on autopilot. His real attention is elsewhere, focused on the past, directed toward contemplation of the relationships of a lifetime and what has come of them. His is mainly, though not exclusively, an emotional self-accounting, with very little consideration of his life as an artist, or father, or public figure, and when the accounts are all tallied, he sees that he has lived mainly on the debit side of the ledger.
Very early on, Frisch makes it clear that his subject is memory and regret, and in this light Max’s weekend with Lynn is almost more pretext—a provocation of buried materials—than a subject unto itself. In a short section headlined “Erinyes,” he writes, using the second-person address:
They do not tear you apart, they just stand there, on some corner or other: here, up on the third floor, you once lived, waverly place/christopher street, twenty-three years ago. As if I didn’t know! I do not even glance up at the house front, I just note that the shop on the ground floor is now different . . . once a flowerpot fell off my windowsill, but it hit nobody.
Where will the Erinyes get me?
Erinyes, the mythological furies, are here the demons of memory, the monstrous incarnations of the bygone, and the ostensibly secondary, but in fact dominant, action of the book is Max’s adult self-confrontation in the wake of these visitations. It is as if the book’s title is the answer to that last question.
More than just a staging of specific memories, then, Montauk is a meditation on regret—on opportunities missed and bad choices made, on relationships misjudged, and on failing the needs of others, on the psychological complexity that makes happy compromises almost impossible.
Early in the book Frisch has an extended recollection of the great friendship of his younger years with the man he calls simply W. It is not quite clear from his narration of the Montauk weekend just why he should think of W. when he does, unless it is the short flashback immediately preceding the section, which has Max remembering something Lynn said to him early on: “you are a rich man, i am sure, but this is a business lunch. you shouldn’t pay for this—it’s just silly” (18). And in fact the connection might be that in that friendship Max always felt in W.’s debt. But of course memory is not so literal in its associations. We don’t choose what we remember—it is the Erinyes who lie in wait for us. It could also be that the memories of W. just happen to be the first extrusion of what will turn out to be a sequence of long-stored regrets.
Whatever the prompt, at one point Max announces: “Recently (though now it is already years ago) I chanced to see him again from a distance in Zurich (on the Limmatquai); a weighty man now. We had been at school together in Zurich. No idea whether he saw me too; he did not turn around, and I felt guilty because I remained standing where I was and did not at once go after him” (18). His reaction naturally informs on his basic character, but it also underlines what he understands to be the hard truth about human relationships, including the most important ones, which is that feelings change, or die, and that as time goes on we become the reliquaries of what had felt like undying passions or affections. And this, more than the pain or bitterness or impossible yearning these people occasioned, is the real sorrow of living.
Brilliant, talented, and very rich, W. had been a mentor to Max in his younger years, and in what may be the longest free-standing section of the book, we hear in some detail the evolution of their relationship, how early on W. took Max in and helped him, put him onto work, how the two gradually grew distant once Max established self-sufficiency and began to make his way as a writer. Part of the point of such a substantive account is that it gives Frisch an unobtrusive way to sketch in the basic background facts for the reader, giving some sense of the texture of the past which he will at various points invoke. But the real interest—and power—of the section is found in the admission with which he concludes. “When I recently recognized W. in the street in Zurich,” Max writes after some pages of recollection, “I felt a sense of dismay: there was an awareness in me of what I owed to him, but no feeling. I did not write to tell him that I had recognized him in the street. Today I am no longer even interested to know what W. thinks of our long association. It is this above all that distresses me” (32).
Here is the first real sounding of the theme of the death of feeling, and straightaway it becomes the psychological ground, the backdrop against which we view all exchanges and intimacies between Max and Lynn. The death of feeling is one of the truths that the old keep from the young. And Montauk is, as I have suggested, a work from the other side of the divide. Reading Max’s account of his relationship with Lynn, we do not imagine there will come any flaring of genuine passion. Our scale of expectation is considerably reduced. We watch to see if the connection they are nurturing will somehow prevail against this worrisome blanking out of the affections.
The weekend with Lynn makes a curious armature for the book, for as the narration proceeds, it becomes clear that romantically there is very little at stake. Lynn and Max circle each other in companionable orbit. His feelings for her, his affectionate impulses, are intransitive: they will not lead to anything. Writes Max: “This being together all day: not boring, but then I am seeing them both from the outside; they will never get to know each other” (77). This fact, this realization—on our part and theirs—reinforces the strong sense of her autonomous otherness, and a part of their exchange becomes a mutual effort to break down the distance, or at least to fathom it.
Finally, though, we don’t partake much of Max’s probing of Lynn. The artifice of Montauk, announced in the Montaigne epigraph, is that it is an unvarnished self-portrait, and Frisch uses Lynn’s questions, often set in capital letters, as strategic prompts to his own self-inspection—a one-way procedure. “MAX, ARE YOU JEALOUS?” she asks, and, “IN CASE YOU ARE, COULD YOU KILL A PERSON? AND IF SO: HER OR HIM?” Here I do have to wonder about the degree of verisimilitude, for the kinds of questions she poses, and her style of posing them, recall the procedures used by the author in his two Sketchbooks, both of which feature questionnaires, the point of which is to put the thorniest inquiries in such a way as to reflect the preoccupations of the asker: “Have you ever genuinely been without hope for a day or even an hour? Even the hope—as far as you are concerned—that things will one day end?” (Sketchbook 1966–1971).
Lynn is a kind of aide-mémoire. It is almost as if Max uses the distance between them—the lack of erotic charge or real romantic possibility—to exacerbate the workings of his memory. The memory scenes present evidence of considerable passion: there were turbulent marriages and affairs, including, notably, his long involvement with the writer and philosopher Ingeborg Bachmann, who eventually committed suicide, though not, so far as we can judge, on account of Frisch.
Of that relationship, he recalls:
We got the apartment, with a balcony and a view across Rome. Frequently she was away for weeks on end, while I waited in Rome. Once, when I knew she was on the way back to Rome, I could not wait a moment longer and drove to the outskirts of the city to watch for her on a roadside bank. I was waiting for her blue Volkswagen. To welcome her. In case she did not recognize me at the roadside I had my own car standing ready, pointing toward ROMA/CENTRO. Occasional Volkswagens drove up, some of them blue, so I waved. Perhaps she had stopped for a meal in Siena, RISTORANTE DI SPERANZA. I had plenty of time. When she came, she did not in fact see me, but it did not take me long to catch up with her. I saw her round head, her hair, from behind. Obviously she did not understand the hooting behind her, and some time passed before I could overtake her in the way police do when stopping a vehicle. She was also a bit frightened. I had been a fool, and I knew it. Her independence was part of her radiance. Jealousy was the price I had to pay for it, and I paid it in full. Lying on the summery balcony with its view across Rome, I slept with my face in my own vomit. By suffering I only increased my tender longings. But when she was there, she was there. Or was I deceiving myself?
But Max does not dwell on the passion. The tenor of this memory, and of others that follow, is of self-scourging. The past is, for this man, a succession of failed relationships. Passion, he finds, cannot sustain itself; it must lead to conflagration or else to the turning away of the heart that is in the long run just as hurtful to both lovers. And while the mention of places, the gathering up of sensuous details, suggests a varied and abundant life, the tone betrays a man tallying up his memories as evidence of failure rather than as the riches of lived experience.
Why am I so drawn to this little book? Do I really share with Frisch the darkened perspective, this sense of loss and diminished expectation? I suppose I must—our affinities do betray us—though I find my own outlook is still leavened by a faith in a future full of yet unguessed possibilities. But I would be lying if I did not admit that the bitter has gained on the sweet. Since crossing the perimeters of middle age, which I did loudly and self-consciously when I turned fifty, I have been more aware, season by season, of certain inward shifts which, though I can only list them serially, usually make themselves felt at the same time, one impinging on another. There is, for instance, the recurrent feeling that one has had one’s sharpest, brightest experiences, that the formative encounters—vivid because original—are now mainly in the past, while present-day events feel more and more like reprises: life at one remove. Moreover—worse—in many cases I find that the affect of those early, heightened moments has dried out, whether from recounting, from artistic exploitation, or simply from the passing of time. Increasingly, my memories are not of the thing itself, but of a prior memory of the thing. When I think of my great high school love (about which I have written), I no longer possess any clear feeling. I have a carefully preserved private account, a memory narrative, which I watch over with a shopkeeper’s keen eye, even as I know that it is a very dim impression of what was once a storm. How can I not feel reduced—aged—by that recognition?
This sense of the receding past is then heightened, rendered more somber, by the complementary awareness of my changed sense of future. Not only is there, obviously, less of it, but some good part of what it holds involves loss, diminution of powers, and unforeseeable scenarios of decline. I offer nothing new here—it is the basic look of things for all of us—but I am aware now that my basic sense of well-being on any given day depends either on my ability to immerse myself to the point of distraction in foreground events, or else on the degree to which I am able to accept the possibility of some kind of redemption, most notably that one might still arrive at an enlightened perspective that masters loss and offers a sufficiency of meaning.
I do, yes, from time to time attain glimpses of such possibility and live with a deferred determination to pursue them more zealously: Tomorrow I will focus; I will get somewhere. But then I read a passage like the following and feel admonished by the sober reckoning of “how it is”:
I dream a lot about death. Even with no dream to remind me, I sometimes wake up in alarm: I am now sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three. As when one looks at one’s watch and sees how late it is: What, already? Fear of old age is melancholy, but awareness of death is something different: one is aware even in times of happiness. Like everybody else I am afraid of an agonizing death. When I attempt before a journey to put my affairs in order, it is a considered act. I am now older than my father was at the time of his death, and I know that I shall have soon reached the age of average life expectancy. I do not wish to live to a very old age. Most of my time is spent among younger people; I see the differences in everything, even where they perhaps can see no differences at all, and there is much that cannot be explained; so, like them, I speak of my future work. (140)
I am, no question, drawn to Montauk by affinities of temperament. Frisch reflects back to me my own sense of anxiety and regret, only rendered more explicit. I use him preemptively. I read the book in part to see what the future might hold psychologically, but also to put perspective to my own losses and failings. I do feel, more and more, that my connection to my past is waning, and it braces me to find Frisch facing this same thing so directly.
Montauk is in many ways a depressing book. Fond as they are of one another, Max and Lynn know that they are going to part, and as the end of their weekend together looms, the anticipation colors everything. “Forty-eight hours until take-off . . . Lynn does not expect him to change his plans, and he does not expect her to ask him to do so. Their understanding is complete. In the evening Lynn comes to his hotel. His ticket is lying under the yellow lamp” (128). They agree that they won’t seek each other out. The time together will be what it was, nothing more. Max will return to Europe, to his wife. Lynn, as we learn from one of the few forward-looking asides, will leave her job and travel. Both refuse the consolations of sentiment, nor do they voice vain hopes. Yet within the frame of their determined matter-of-factness, there is room for affection, small gifts, and other gestures of care.
Finally, though, it’s time:
We did not talk regretfully of my impending departure. We just looked: at the gulls, at the black barges and the foam they were pushing in front of them. Lynn glanced at her watch, I lifted my arm from her shoulders. We had risen to our feet to kiss. More lightly than now, as we went down a dazzling flight of steps, it would be impossible to walk. All we still had to do was to find the exact place to part, and to keep an eye on the traffic. We joined hands when we had to cross over the avenue and ran. FIRST AVENUE/46th STREET—this was obviously the place. We said: BYE, without a kiss, then a second time, with raised hand: HI. After a few steps I went back to the corner and saw her, her walking figure. She did not turn around, she came to a halt, and it was quite a while before she was able to cross the street.
I can’t help feeling a genuine twinge here. This is the core human sadness, what Joseph Brodsky meant when he wrote: “Partings below hint at partings beyond.” How do we continue with things in the face of “never again,” except with a determined Beckettian thrust: “I’ll go on"?
But if Frisch more than most pushes me up against the hard truth of things—how it is that we carry the baggage of our erring selves everywhere at all times, how we lose the people that have been at times our vital center, how we have to keep facing the unyielding ultimates—he also reminds us, subtly, implicitly, of the available solace of art. “Solace . . .” I considered writing “redemption,” but I don’t believe that Frisch, in his austere insistence on fending off illusions, would necessarily go that far. Myself, I haven’t made up my mind—if one ever does.
This brings me back to my friend Ed and the great life lesson he gave me. For the story I have created for myself—the account of being rescued from a fear of powerlessness and failure—connects in some way to my devotion to Montauk and my desire to write about it. There is, of course, the basic association I make between my friend and the book—he was the one who put me onto it. But at a whole other level, I think, I find in both book and memory a deep lesson in transformation. What Ed let me glimpse was the ethos of the bricoleur—the idea that with the right spirit, and with sufficient cunning, one can salvage and renew, that one can shape a purposeful unity from the scattered materials, the disjecta membra, of ordinary life. His was at once a literal and symbolic instruction. From Montauk, which I took to heart during this same period, and then again at various times over the years, I took the news that the far-strewn contents of one’s own life are held in memory, and that they can be summoned together and shaped by the form-giving impulses of art, and that while this process may not necessarily be redemptive, it is the closest secular approximation we have. Memory inflicts wounds, yes, but present in memory, as a latent possibility, are the patterns and figures that give us a purchase on the lives we have lived. And this is no small thing.