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.
The Canvas is loosely based on the account of Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments (1995), a tremendously popular Holocaust memoir; like Minksy’s story it was proven to be a fabrication. But when I say loosely based, I mean loosely: Wilkomirski and Minsky are more like ghosts at the center of this book. There is plenty of plot, to be sure — murder, intrigue, interrogation rooms, the inevitable double-cross, and exotic locales — and the pages turn like in a supermarket thriller (or at least one daring enough to substantively tackle the inexhaustible questions of God, death, and memory). The book is ambitious in scope: it is about religious orthodoxy and the transgressive power of literature; it’s also about collective guilt and national identity. Yet The Canvas is so particular in its details that it comes with a glossary appropriately placed in the middle of the novel.
Most disturbing of all, in a novel ultimately about the mutability of memory, are lines like this one from Wechsler: “Someone who stole other people’s identities wouldn’t stop short of murder.” Is this true? And if so, what does it say about Minsky or Wilkomirski? Are they killers at heart? And what of Zichroni, who steals the memory of his patients by touch alone? And what of Wechsler, the man who steals Minsky’s “memories?” Or Wechsler, who confesses: “I am what I remember. I don’t have anything else.”
A fabrication of character and memory, The Canvas is both a great novel and a genuine Holocaust testimony, in that it bares witness to the lasting power of trauma and how it shapes the strange and subjective mystery of human experience. It is an upsetting book, unabashedly philosophical, refusing closure, and challenging the very notion of truth by reminding us how much depends on perspective. It also happens to be playful, suspenseful, and one hell of a page-turner. I could not put it down. Both times.
Additionally, Scott had the chance to interview translator Brian Zumhagen and talk about some of the translation issues in doing this book:
In the case of an idiom like that, I’m sure you’re worried about losing meaning with an English version.
Any translator, or anyone who reads translation knows there will always be a loss. And there are certain things you can’t do it at all. You can use a new idiom and hope it’s not too bound up with your own particular moment in time. There are those cases when you know the translator was trying to be a little too hip. That’s really painful. There’s one expression where Wechsler is talking about going to Spain and he takes a bunch of unsolicited manuscripts with him in a suitcase, and he throws it out. And the expression is der Koffer mußte dran glauben, or “the suitcase had to believe in it.” What the hell does that mean? It actually means the suitcase had to go, that it had to die. It’s a euphemism that sounds like the suitcase is getting its last rights. I wound up choosing the suitcase had to “bite the dust” because it has a similar meaning and has a similar gangsterish feel. I guess that’s the one point where twenty years from now it may seem a little cheesy, I hope not.
But in the book it also has the feel of an antiquated expression still in use.
Yes, and it’s that way in German as well. That kind of thing was fun. I don’t think anything in the book required too great a sacrifice. Which is why Benjamin’s so happy with it. And most of the things that were really challenging linguistically were interesting to do. And most of them came up in chapter two. The biggest problem: Whechsler quotes a German translation of a Polish poem, and in that translation is a play on words that only exists only in the German, and it becomes central to his own explanation of life in East Germany. “They live in the basements of huge tenement houses, and only the shop-sign WRINGER HERE betrays their presence” — In the German, mangel means “shortage,” as in the food shortage sense, but it also means “wringer,” as in pressing rollers used for pressing water our of clothes. I could have used the British term, “mangle,” which means the same thing, but then I’d be going with UK usage when the rest of the book is American usage. And then I found that “Wringer” is in the English translation by Czeslaw Milosz. And you don’t argue with Milosz. The problem then is than that I had to invent a new sentence, reveal the proscenium arch a little bit, and explain to the reader that in German the word for “wringer” is the same for “shortage.” This is the last thing you want to do. [. . .]
How did Stein respond to it? I’m guessing he appreciated how faithful you were.
He was fine with it because it retained the meaning. I had to make a radical move but it worked out well. In that same chapter there was a more fun radical move, in which I had to quote Tina Turner. And in a way that does not appear in the original.
This one I remember!
There’s a section when Wechsler’s wife is cataloging all of her book purchases, and Wechsler comments on the stories the inscriptions in her books tell. In one used book that she found at a flea market, there’s a loving dedication between two women, and he wonders what may have happened? Did somebody die? Did the relationship end? Wechsler’s wife, in the original, says, “Someone has sold their heart out for cheap.” This is the expression. And immediately I thought of Tina Turner’s “what’s love but a secondhand emotion,” because the German here, vertrödeln, contains the word for junk like you’d find at a flea market. So what Wechsler’s wife is literally saying is, someone has second-handed her heart. The closest thing in English would be “someone has trifled her heart away,” but nobody talks like that, and it doesn’t sound antiquated in the German. It’s too lofty. Nobody in the novel is saying anything like “forsooth methinks someone hath trifled away her heart.” I really hated the way it sounded. So finally I asked to Benjamin if he thought Wechsler’s wife would quote Tina Turner. I’m not sure he completely grasped what I was asking at that moment. So I went with: “I guess sometimes love really is a second-hand emotion.” Not a literal translation but it got to the heart of what she was saying. And he thought it was perfect.
Definitely worth checking out, as is Full Stop in general. It’s an excellent, excellent site.
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