Heartwood 7:6 – Montauk by Max Frisch

Montauk is a short autofictional novel structured around a long-weekend tryst the narrator has with a woman, Lynn, some three decades his junior. The narrator has worked as an architect, and as a writer of plays and fiction, and the events recounted in Montauk very much resemble those in the life of the author. After meeting on business in New York City regarding a U.S. book tour, Max and Lynn drive to the book’s namesake town, on the eastern tip of Long Island, where they take lodgings, share a glancing intimacy along with strained discussions, cook meals, play ping-pong, go shopping, walk on the beach.

Something about this weekend trip causes Max to want to write about it in great detail. He’d like to be attentive to everything and to invent nothing, to step free of associations or reminiscences, to simply become so concentrated in a sort of raw presence that he might begin to speak to himself as he never has in his writing or life. Of course, to discover this desire to write it up while the weekend is still underway means he is already distancing himself, stepping outside of the moment so he can observe it. And it may well be that this weekend in a foreign town, on a short-term romantic fling he knows will not last beyond these few days, triggers in the Swiss narrator the need to reflect on his life and its many messy, often unresolved, relationships.

The book is composed of interwoven fragments that fluctuate between phenomenological attention to his immediate surroundings and longer recollections of important people and events in Max’s life. These include his friend W. (since estranged), who provided intellectual and financial support, his fledgling work as an architect, his successful work as a playwright and novelist, a couple of failed marriages, his strained domestic relationship with writer Ingeborg Bachmann, and his almost non-existent relationship with a distant daughter. (I read the Wikipedia entry on Frisch after finishing this novel and was interested to see that it corroborated or clarified particular details of the narrative.)

It bears mentioning that Frisch switches periodically between writing in first person and third person, and the storytelling can be a bit challenging to track at times, as he drops one subject to pick up or return to another. But not to worry, these shifts quickly sort themselves out as you get used to the writing style, and the momentum of the story carries you along

Max comes across as neither egotistical nor self-effacing, as capable of simple joy but also tortured by self-examination. Not least, he is aware of his various failings and that he is now entering the later stages of his life. The reader closes the book on this flawed but sympathetic character with an understanding of his moods, dreams, and frustrations, and just how essential the act of writing has been to him. And indeed Frisch has accomplished something very fine here (even if it’s not strictly delimited to the present, and we are unclear about how much of it is invented): this account of his long weekend, woven with his past as it is in his many flashbacks, observations, and reflections is beautifully and attentively done.

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