Electric Literature has a lengthy piece by Scott Cheshire on “plotless novels” that a lot of Three Percent readers would probably appreciate. Especially Max Frisch fans. The article is worth reading in its entirety, and excerpting it doesn’t do it justice, but here are a few paragraphs to draw you in:
Sort of how space travel well beyond the stratosphere is still determined by our limits within it, Poetics set the rules novelists play against. For modern readers, the beginning, the middle, the end of a story no longer need be in that order, or even look familiar—but they are there. Telos, “the end,” meaning, remains central. It’s the way toward meaning, and the place of meaning, for writer, reader, and character. Lately, I’ve been giving lots of thought to why, in recent years, a particular kind of novel, what I think of as the “not knowing” novel, so resonates with me. Why am I attracted? Why are others palpably not? And why, it seems, are these novels attracted to me? People keep pressing them into my hands. Just a few months ago I was given by a friend, insistently, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, because I simply had to read it, and I would absolutely love it, etc. My friend was right. Lots of white space, no clear “plot,” it read like a narrator thinking out loud, unaware I could hear every word. The reading experience was intimate, felt almost invasive on my part, like eavesdropping. It also felt familiar. I mean this as compliment. It sort of looked like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (also recommended by a friend), and reminded me, in parts, of Shelia Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Most of all, it brought to mind one of my favorite books: Montauk by Max Frisch. All of these books are intimate, and share a near shapeless close-to-the-bone rawness you don’t find very often in novels. But they also read like writers in search of self-knowledge, in search of meaning. They are books that do not yet “know.” [. . .]
Perhaps my attraction toward books that read like a writer “not knowing” comes from my religious fundamentalist rearing, a rebellious response, because it seems the longer I am away from the church—this also being a significant difference, I was raised in family of Jehovah’s Witnesses—for over twenty years now, the more radical becomes my taste in books. I do know the first time I encountered a writer poking up his head, out of the text, not because he “knew” (the essence of meta-fiction, really) but because he did not: it was thrilling. It was Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, calling out, but not in name—“That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book”—once again disrupting the wonderfully melancholy contraption of that book’s plot, and sounding like a bewildered ghost trying to find his way home. Apparently, I liked this sort of thing. But why?
And so I revisited three books especially meaningful to me, not only in my reading and writing history, but during my extrication from the church — The Names by Don DeLillo, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson, and, of course, Montauk by Max Frisch. I re-read them, in that order, in order of discovery, to try and determine what it is and was about these books that remains so important to me. It was an experience increasingly intense and personal. If you can imagine a book as the lens through which a writer eyed the world, in search of meaning, The Names read like peering through a telescope, and Gilead a handheld magnifying glass. Reading Montauk, on the other hand, often felt like spying from the dark side of a two-way mirror. Telos was omnipresent. The search for meaning suffused every page. And that search belonged to Max the narrator, surely, but also Max the author, and somehow it was also mine. [. . .]
Max Frisch is best known for his 1954 “debut” novel I’m Not Stiller, generally considered a masterpiece of 20th century German literature. It’s certainly the book of his most read in America, and it’s a brilliant comic novel obsessed with identity. Famously, the first line shouts: “I’m not Stiller!” Thou doth protest too much, we think, and the remaining 375 pages consist of one Mr. Jim White, imprisoned, claiming a case of mistaken identity; that he is not Mr. Stiller. The rest of the world, an ex-wife, co-workers, etc., insist that he is. In fact, all of Frisch’s work is identity-obsessed—from his actual debut published some sixteen years earlier, dismissed (a bit unfairly, I think) by Frisch as juvenilia, An Answer From the Silence, on through his three fascinating Tagebuchs (daybooks, or diaries), and the novels, Homo Faber, Gantenbein, Man in the Holocene, Bluebeard, and the sort of unclassifiable and magnificent Montauk. The plot of Montauk (translated by Geoffrey Skelton) is simple: a brief love affair between a man in his seventies and a much younger woman, it lasts but a single weekend. But if I may use Hemingway’s metaphor, that’s just the tip of a large and life-sized iceberg. Montauk is really about memory. In fact the opening lines that place us specifically in space and time — “A sign promising a view across the island: OVERLOOK. It was he who suggested stopping here;” and from page two: “MONTAUK / an Indian name applied to the Northern point of Long Island, one hundred and twenty miles from Manhattan. He could also name the date: 5/11/74” — belie the real plot and setting. To be more precise, Montauk is about an older man sitting at his desk, with pen and paper, trying to write the story of a love affair, but failing, ever falling away in memory. Or as Sven Birkerts puts it, Montauk is a “book of retrospect, yes, but not of passive retrospect.” The older man is Frisch himself. Although it’s not until after six pages of relatively straightforward third person storytelling that his “I” makes a jarring entrance.
We tried to reissue Montauk years ago, but that all fell through. Sounds like it’s time to try again!
And while you’re waiting for your used copy of Montauk to arrive, you should read Scott’s debut novel, High As the Horses’ Bridles, which came out from Henry Holt a couple months ago.
Ah, the storied Swiss Alps: snow capped mountains, fields of wild flowers, burbling streams of clean water, simple folks out doing what simple folks do in such settings. Take for example the flock of sheep accompanied by blond haired girl along a winding path. Especially of note is how she picks up a rock and wings it at errant sheep.
In this, his second novel, Frisch gives a modernist take on the heroic quest for meaning by the solitary man in nature. Balz Leuthold, 30 years old, is a sorely disappointed man. Seventeen years ago he had accompanied his older brother (himself 30, soon to be married) in these same mountains. He had vowed then not to settle for the ordinary, but instead achieve the extraordinary in . . . something.
You could still tell yourself: you’re only twenty, everything’s still possible. And how proud you are when everything was still possible! Later it was: twenty-five’s no age at all, and you like reading about people who had achieved nothing at twenty-five, which was something out of the ordinary, and those around them who did not believe that they had this or that achievement in them. True, you still didn’t know in what field your future achievements would lie, but in the meantime you wore ties and hats of a style that would never occur to a ordinary citizen, and even at times you were afraid you might be ridiculous . . . and worthless and worse than anyone else on earth, it was a painful thought but not without its comfort; at least it gave you the feeling that it made you a special person, perhaps a criminal, and it was only when you failed to achieve anything by way of misdeeds that others could not do equally well, that a new and more despairing fear set in that your extraordinary achievement might not happen.
Hipsters beware! As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “nothing new under the sun.”
As the novel unfolds Balz is revealed as not such a total failure, except in his own eyes. He has a Ph.D., is ready to take on his new job of teaching (although in that system it sounds like he will teach school-aged children), and is engaged to a woman named Barbara.
After a trek he arrives at an inn at the base of some mountains, and the reader learns he intends to climb one by a route never achieved before, the North Ridge. (The helpful afterward by Peter von Mott explains that Frisch’s contemporary readers would have recognized this as the North Wall of the Eiger Mountain which many had failed to climb yet, with upcoming tries much in the news.) Balz spends a day or two at the inn during bad weather, strikes up a relationship with Irene, a woman who has come to the inn with a married couple. He makes a practice climb on another rock face, one which we hear has been only successfully climbed by a few; clearly he is fit and experienced, not as wholly delusional as the reader might have feared from earlier descriptions. When he reaches the top of this climb he stands in the silence in an anticlimactic moment, an achievement with no self-evident meaning.
Balz sets out to climb the North Ridge. Irene follows, and turns out to be no innocent lured by the dashing young man. His fiancé Barbara arrives at the inn after their departure, gets the picture, reveals that she actually doesn’t really love Balz (nor he her). Yet she goes to the camp where Irene has stayed, and they have an agreeable conversation; at nightfall Balz has not returned and a rescue party is sent out.
Balz does return, changed. It’s safe to say he won’t feel the need to achieve the spectacular anymore, and he does have an answer of sort for his living the rest of his life. No need to reveal what forms those developments take. To me the resolution seemed satisfying, “correct.”
This novel is 100 pages and a quick read in an evening. It’s an entertaining book to see in the context of modernism in general and Frisch’s overall works specifically. As the Afterward points out, the themes in this novel are ones Frisch returned to frequently. I had read Man in the Holocene in college, and lent it out never to be returned. It’s good to find a great writer who holds up.
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