Celebrating the 15th Anniversary of #Quick Reads

I cannot think of a time when I haven’t taken reading and writing for granted. Of course, I was aware that not everyone could read but I don’t think I knew what that meant in numbers. One in six adults in the UK find it hard to read, and one in three do not read regularly. That’s such a shame as reading isn’t only educational, but can be so much fun and comfort. You can travel to new places, meet people you would never meet otherwise, learn new things, expand your knowledge.

Quick Reads, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, was developed by The Reading Agency. The programme which was launched in 2006, has helped many an emergent reader. The clever idea behind Quick Reads is to provide readers who aren’t as fluent, with engaging, enjoyable short texts that will not take too much time or effort to get through. And they are affordable. Each title only costs 1£. This year, for every book bought before 31 July 2021, a free book will be donated to a UK organisation helping those who aren’t as confident readers or lack access to books.

This year’s short books include:

OYINKAN BRAITHWAITE: The Baby is Mine (Atlantic)

–          Oyinkan Braithwaite’s follow-up to her Booker nominated debut sensation My Sister, the Serial Killer – a family drama set in lockdown Lagos (The Baby is Mine)

LOUISE CANDLISH: The Skylight (Simon & Schuster)

–          a dark domestic thriller from British Book Award winner Louise Candlish (The Skylight), who thanks reading for setting her on the right path when she was ‘young and adrift’ 

KATIE FFORDE: Saving the Day (Arrow)

–          an uplifting romance by the much-loved Katie Fforde (Saving the Day), who never thought she would be able to be an author because of her struggle with dyslexia

PETER JAMES: Wish You Were Dead (Macmillan)

–          the holiday from hell for Detective Roy Grace courtesy of long-time literacy campaigner and crime fiction maestro Peter James (Wish You Were Dead)

CAITLIN MORAN: How to Be a Woman, abridged (Ebury)

–          a specially abridged version of the feminist manifesto (How to Be a Woman) by Caitlin Moran: ‘everyone deserves to have the concept of female equality in a book they can turn to as a chatty friend.’ 

KHURRUM RAHMAN: The Motive (HQ

–          an introduction to Khurrum Rahman’s dope dealer Javid Qasim (The Motive), who previously found the idea of reading a book overwhelming and so started reading late in life, to find ‘joy, comfort and an escape’ )

*******

I’m very grateful to MIDAS PR for offering one of the titles for review. I chose Louise Candlish’s The Skylight because she’s an author I enjoyed previously.

The Skylight tells the story of Simone who watches her neighbour’s through their skylight from her bathroom window. They have no idea she can see them as from their flat it looks like the window is opaque. One day, standing at her window, spying, Simone sees something she didn’t really expect. It infuriates her so much that she decides to take revenge.

If you’d like to know what she’s seen and how the revenge goes, you have to read the novella for yourself. I thought it was very entertaining and offered a few unexpected twists and turns. I really enjoyed this short book. I might pick up a few other Quick Reads titles in the future as they are excellent introductions to an author’s work.

A book like this, short but entertaining, would have helped me during my reading slump at the beginning of the year. Now I know, where to look, should it happen again.

Thanks again to #QuickReads, @midaspr and @readingagency

 

Ljudmila Ulitskaya – The Funeral Party (1997)

I am one of those readers who have a tendency to jump from one new-to-me author to the next. I wasn’t always like that though. When I was younger, especially while studying French literature, I would often stick to one author and read one of their book after the other. When you like an author, it’s such a marvellous experience. You will see how their style developed, which themes and topics they are drawn too, recurring imagery and style elements. Lately, I feel like I don’t have the time, that there’s just too much to discover, so that I can’t do that anymore. But then I return to an old favourite and remember how rewarding it can be.

This finally brings me to Russian author Ljudmila Ulitskaya, an author whose writing I fell in love with when the first translations appeared in the 90s in German and French. I quickly read the first two, Sonechka and Medea and Her Children, and declared her one of my favourite authors. But then the third, The Funeral Party, came out, which I bought as well, but never got to. If it hadn’t been for a wonderful review of Jacob’s Ladder on Julé’s blog (here), one of Ljudmila Ulitskaya’s latest works, it might still be languishing on the piles. Returning to her work was like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in ages. Even though an eternity has gone by, so much is familiar and it’s all very exciting.

The Funeral Party is set in the 90s, during a hot sweltering summer in New York City. The protagonists, mostly women, are Russian émigrés, gathered around the sick bed of Alik, a famous painter. Alik lives in a big loft, where a small corner has been portioned off and serves as his sleeping room. Even before Alik became ill, the place was always full of friends and people who just passed through. Parties went on for hours and days. Now that he’s ill, and it’s obvious to everybody but his wife that he will die, there are even more people there to watch over him, entertain him, and care for him. Among these people are five women. They are lovers or friends of Alik. In the novel each woman gets her turn to tell her story. How they came from Russia to New York and what Alik meant to them. Some of them knew him already in Russia, others met him in the US. Those stories are so rich that each of them could be a novel in its own right.

It’s not often that you read a book about death and dying that is profound but at the same time uplifting. The end alone is worth reading this book. It will make you smile.

The Funeral Party is also about change. What will become of his entourage after his death? What will become of the émigré community since Alik’s death coincides with the fall of the Soviet Union?

This isn’t one of her longer novels, but the beginning was still a bit confusing as all the women’s names sound similar – Valentina, Irina, Nina, Joyka. Once it’s clear who is who, it’s a wonderful reading experience. The characters are so colourful and there’s a richness and generosity to this tapestry of Russian émigré life. Reading it was like going to a party where everyone is interesting.

I hope I could convey how much I enjoyed this book and how happy I was to rediscover Ljudmila Ulitskaya’s work.

Last year I reread Tolstoy’s famous The Death of Ivan Illych, such a sad and depressing account. I thought of it while reading The Funeral Party. These two books are great companion reads, like two sides of a medal, one black, one white.

If you haven’t read this important modern Russian writer yet, this is a good starting point. And so is her first, the novella Sonechka.

The Push by Ashley Audrain (2021)

I don’t usually buy books that have just been published without reading at least one review but in this case, I had to. In December, I saw The Push announced as one of the most promising debuts of the upcoming year. The premise sounded compelling and I was in the mood to read a suspenseful psychological thriller, so I got it when I saw it at the book shop. It’s one of those books that is massively hyped. Rights have already been sold to 34 different countries.

The Push is told by Blythe who addresses her husband, telling him, her side of the story. It starts with Blythe outside of his house, where he lives with their daughter, his new wife and young son. The story then goes back to the beginning, tells us how they met, the marriage, and Blythe’s first pregnancy with their daughter Violet. From the beginning Blythe is scared to be a bad mother as her own mother who’d been abused by her dysfunctional mother, abandoned her at an early age. Over the course of the book, we will get to know both stories.

What follows isn’t always easy to read. Blythe does things that are appalling but then again, Violet is a more than difficult child and would test the patience of many mothers.

It’s not easy to write much more as this book could easily be spoilt. I found it immensely readable, could hardly put it down. I didn’t think that the main theme – bad mothering will be passed on from one generation to the next – is that well executed but it’s an interesting idea. One that book clubs will love to discuss. What I loved was the suspense and finding out whether Blythe was an unreliable narrator. Were the things she said about Violet true? Was Violet really evil or was everything Blythe said just an invention to cover up her own bad mothering? But then again, is Blythe really a bad mother because she will have a second child,Sam, and with that child everything is so simple. Does she simply not love them the same?

While Blythe was scared to be a bad mother to Violet, in Sam’s case, she’s scared for her child. She’s turned into an overanxious mother. Maybe with good reason?

This is a chilling read. Thought-provoking, suspenseful, and creepy (not in a supernatural way). And, I would say, it does deserve the hype. It has been compared to We Need to Talk About Kevin but for me, they aren’t the same genre. I read this like a psychological thriller, which Lionel Shriver’s book is not. What they have in common, is that they both focus on the themes of nature versus nurture and the challenges of motherhood. But story, mood, style and pace are very different.

The Push is a compelling page turner, with short, bite-sized chapters, that will make you want gulp it down in one sitting. It’s also a perfect Book Club choice.

Best Books I Read in 2020

Evening at home
       Edward John Poynter (UK, 1836-1919)

I think I’ve been saying this for three years in a row now, but I have to say it again – this wasn’t a great reading year. Looking over the list of books I read, most would say I didn’t pick many duds but unfortunately, I still didn’t like them. Of the books I’ve read, I found 60% disappointing and underwhelming, a few even quite bad. That’s possibly why I reviewed so little. I just didn’t want to write one negative review after the other, although some books would deserve it and I may still do it (“Queenie” I’m looking at you). Once you stop reviewing, it gets hard to get back into it again and so, sadly, I also didn’t review some of those I liked a great deal.

Leaving all the books that annoyed me aside, I was still left with something like thirty that I enjoyed, seventeen of which I loved. So maybe that’s enough? None of them made it onto the “all-time favourites” list though. That’s always a bit disappointing.

Best literary fiction

  

Cormac McCarthy – The Road – I read this early last year. Before the pandemic. I liked it more than I thought I would. Liked the style, the mood, atmosphere. I did, however, hate that it was so anthropocentric. The loss of animals isn’t mentioned or mourned. I can’t say that I found the thought that humans survive while all the other animals are gone uplifting or hopeful.

Richard Russo – That Old Cape Magic – One of the books that surprised me the most. I expected something more lyrical, which it wasn’t but instead it was witty, funny, and just brilliant.

From my review:

When I started this book, I expected something different. Something more lyrical, more atmospheric. But that’s not the way Russo writes. There’s a subtlety here but its more psychological, sarcastic, and humorous. I think it says a lot about a book when someone like me, who prefers lyrical, atmospheric books, ended up enjoying this as much as I did. It’s not only funny but says so much about family dynamics, marriage, broken dreams, family rituals, coming to terms with the past, and also the bond between parents and children and between spouses.

Angela Carter – Love – I loved this. One of the best Angela Carter books I’ve ever read, and I haven’t read anything bad by her so far.

From my review:

Opening an Angela Carter novel is like entering an opulent, sumptuously decorated room. It’s lush, it’s whimsical, it’s anything but minimalist. Love is no exception; it might even be one of the lusher ones I’ve read. Heroes & Villains has always been my favourite because of the imagery. Love has similar elements. The landscape, the apartment, the people, they are a bit wild, a bit mad, and reflect Angela Carter’s very distinct aesthetic. The book also reminded me of one of Le Douanier Rousseau’s paintings. He used to be my favourite painter as a child.

Molly Keane – Time After Time – My second Molly Keane. A delightful story about an eccentric and very dysfunctional family who lives in an old house that has seen much better days.

From my review:

In her foreword Emma Donoghue compares Molly Keane to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The book combines, as she says, social comedy, grotesque descriptions and plot twists. I’m not so fond of comparisons like that, but I agree, Time After Time, has all these elements, combined with a terrific writing style, that’s very much her own. For some people these characters might be a bit over the top, but I liked them very much. They are eccentric and mean, but tragic in their own way. And, most importantly, never dull.

Elizabeth Taylor – The Soul of Kindness – While this isn’t one of my favourite Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, as it focuses on too many people, it’s still in many ways a typical Taylor and therefore had to be on this list.

From my review:

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don’t think it’s as good as others. I believe it doesn’t succeed at being the portrait of one central character like Angel for example, but that’s how the beginning reads. All the initial chapters place Flora at the centre but this cohesion eventually fizzles out. As if Elizabeth Taylor had realized too late that Flora wasn’t a big enough character to carry a whole story. I could be totally wrong, of course, as critics have called this one of her, if not her best book.

Best classics

Hermann Hesse – Knulp – Three short stories about the life of the vagabond Knulp. They tell his story chronologically and from different points of view. I absolutely loved this and would urge anyone to read it, especially if you like Hesse anyway. For others, it’s a nice introduction to his writing.

Henry James – Daisy Miller – Daisy Miller is one of many of Henry James’ tragic heroines. It’s cruel to watch how she moves towards her undoing.

From my review:

The society James describes in this novella, is very cruel. They have their rules and if you don’t play by them you get shunned or ostracized. No matter how rich you are.

Daisy Miller is highly readable and very accessible. Even though the end is tragic, it’s neither sombre nor depressing as so many of James’ other books.

Gustave Flaubert – Un Coeur Simple – This impressed me because Flaubert manages to capture a whole life in a few pages.

From my review:

It’s a story that is famous for the way Flaubert handles time. It’s masterful. In sixty pages, he manages to tell the story of a whole life, alternating between fast-forwarding and slowing down. At the end, we almost think, we’ve read a novel because, thanks to his writing style and technique, there’s so much to find in this novella.

Eduard von Keyserling – Am Südhang (not translated)

From my review:

It’s a beautiful novella. Rich in emotions and descriptions. Nature and the weather always play important parts, mirroring the feelings of the protagonists. In this story, the garden descriptions are so very lush. Von Keyserling paints with words. He captures scents and sound, colours and forms. We sit next to Karl Erdmann in his carriage and feel the cool shade under the trees, hear the soft rustling of the dew in the leaves. We can see the family waiting for Karl Erdmann’s arrival, the women in their white summer dresses standing on the stairs.

André de Richaud – La douleur (not translated)

Albert Camus said that André de Richaud’s novel La douleur  – The pain – inspired him to become a writer. When it came out in 1930, it created a scandal. The author was just twenty-three years old and had sent his manuscript to the Jury of the Prix du premier roman of the Revue Hebdomadaire. The jury was so shocked but impressed by the writing, that nobody won the price that year. While they considered La douleur too shocking for publication, it was clearly the best book. Despite the risk of a potential scandal, Bernard Grasset published the novel anyway that year, as he liked it so much.

From my review:

Edith Wharton – Summer – This was not what I had expected. I knew it was called the summer version of Ethan Frome and for some reason that made me assume it was more light-hearted. It isn’t. It’s just as tragic as Ethan Frome, only takes place in summer. As usual, I was impressed by Wharton’s style.

Best YA

Jacqueline Woodson – If You Come Softly – This moved me so much. It’s a love story with a tragic ending. It shows that if you’re an African-Americaa, one tiny little mistake can have fatal consequences.

From my review:

As I said before, this is a short book but it’s powerful and tightly written. You won’t find a superfluous word or passage. Only key scenes that manage to move and touch.

Best crime /sadly none of them reviewed)

At the beginning of the pandemic, I couldn’t read any crime anymore. Crime usually works as escapism, but not in this context. From May on though, I read one after the other and several were very good, some more than just good.

Good

Jane Harper – Force of Nature

Emily Barr – The Sleeper

Nicci French – The Lying Room

These three books have a lot in common. They were highly readable, absolute page turners, each with a striking premise but sadly, all three of them with a slightly implausible denouement. In each case, I found the perpetrator unbelievable, but since they were so well written and gripping, they still deserve to be among the best of.

In Force of Nature, a survival workshop goes very wrong. One woman doesn’t return.

In Emily Barr’s The Sleeper, a woman who usually takes the sleeper train to London, disappears. The first parts, told from the POV of the woman who uses the sleeper train was so good. It gave me a great idea of what it must be like to commute like this every week.

In The Lying Room an adulterous woman finds her dead lover and tries everything to cover up the relationship.

Very good

Benjamin Myers – These Darkening Days – I regret that I didn’t review this as I found it amazing. It’s obvious that Myers is way more than ‘just a crime writer’. He’s a stylist. His writing is impressive, and the story and characters were convincing too.

Megan Abbott- The Song is You – The Song is You is historical crime fiction based on a true story, the disappearance of. the starlet Jean Spangler in 1949. She left for a night shoot and never returned. Abbott is a wonderfully atmospheric writer, and this was as good as some of the noir it was inspired by.

Max Billingham – Lifeless – This book has been on my piles for ages. Last year, I read an interview with Billingham and liked what he said about writing. Remembering that I got this on my piles somewhere, I picked it up and finally read it. The book is set in London among the homeless community. The detective who works on the case goes undercover and investigates among the homeless. It’s a chilling read. We learn a lot about what it means to be homeless. After a while, I forgot that this was a crime novel. I was far more interested in the social commentary. That it was suspenseful was just a bonus.

*******

I hope your year has started well and wish you all an excellent reading year ahead.

The Turncoat – Der Überläufer by Siegfried Lenz – Literature and War Readalong Meets German Literature Month

The Turncoat, published posthumously in 2016 for the first time, was actually Siegfried Lenz’s second novel. His first novel Es waren Habichte in der Luft came out in 1950. Because it was successful, the publisher signed a contract for a second novel with Lenz. The first draft of the manuscript received a lot of praise but after he rewrote parts of it and handed it in for a second time, the publisher refused to publish it. They didn’t want a novel on a deserter who joined the partisans. The novel was forgotten until 2014, when Lenz told his publisher about it.

The Turncoat tells the story of Walter Proska, a Wehrmacht soldier. It is set on the Eastern Front, towards the end of the war, during summer 1944. The Wehrmacht has already withdrawn from the front, but there’s still a ramshackle Fortress, in the middle of the forest. After almost being blown-up by Polish partisans, Proska, who was looking for his unit, is told to stay at the Fortress. The Fortress is located near the Ukrainian border and run by a Corporal who is constantly drunk and gives the most absurd and shocking orders. It looks like he’s gone completely mad. The Fortress is populated by a motley crew of simple soldiers. Among them is a cook who has a chicken as a friend, a young student whose philosophical ideas slowly awaken Proska, and a soldier who mounts young birch trees in sexual frustration.

Days at the Fortress are absurd and boring. They are filled with dangerous patrols, disgusting food, mosquitoes, and orders the soldiers don’t feel like following. They are surrounded by partisans who try their best to kill them all. After finally being overrun by partisans, Proska and the young student join them.

There is a sort of love story between Proska and a young Polish woman who belongs to the partisans. He meets her before he joins the unit and later again in the woods.

I was surprised by this book. I expected something a little different. Not a book with such a colourful cast of droll, whimsical characters. The novel is satirical, which served to underline the absurdity of these last days of war. The soldiers wonder constantly what the heck they are doing there. What’s going on? What are they fighting for? Not one of these characters is a patriot. They are conscripts and couldn’t care less about the war; they want it to end and go back home.

While it had so many amusing, bizarre scenes, I still found it hard to read. There are several instances of cruelty against animals. Some in flash backs, some happen during the story. Animals and the way they are treated or mistreated is a frequent trope in war stories. It mostly serves to either emphasize that people have lost their humanity or that they are worse than animals. The scenes are short but I still found them upsetting.

What I liked the most was the writing. Lenz is a powerful, evocative, and very descriptive writer. I loved the symbolism, the figures of speech that run through the novel, especially in the nature descriptions. I also liked the way the characters were described. Each one of them is so different, quirky. Their dialogue is often sarcastic and humorous. My only reservation regards the ending. I found it a bit confusing, but that didn’t lessen my appreciation of this book. The Turncoat is one of those novels that show the cruelty and absurdity of war. There are no heroes here, no winners, only losers.

The Turncoat has been made into a mini-series. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an English trailer.

“The end, we failed it. Both of us.” (Max Frisch) – Ingeborg Bachmann and Max Frisch

When I was in my early twenties, I went through an Ingeborg Bachmann phase and read almost everything I could find by her. I loved her poetry so much. Sometimes when you revisit a writer that you loved ten or twenty years ago, you’re in for a disappointment. But rereading Bachmann’s poetry just made me realize again that she’s one of the greatest poets of all time. Her poems are mysterious and haunting and every time you read them, another part becomes meaningful. It’s not always easy to pin down what exactly her poems are about but that is what makes them so fascinating.

Back when I first read her, I wasn’t aware that she stopped writing poetry in the early 60s. There are still a few late poems, but most of her poetic work was written before 1961, the year she published her short story collection The Thirtieth Year. In an interview, she said she stopped writing poems because she didn’t want to be one of those who’d found a way to write successful poetry and would then go on, writing the same poems over and over again. She didn’t want to imitate herself.

There is, however, another interpretation, which, is more tragic. From 1958 to 1962 Ingeborg Bachmann was in a relationship with Max Frisch. The relationship ended in 1962. Both writers never really got over the ending, as Frisch clearly states in the quote I chose as blog title. “The end, we failed it. Both of us”. While Frisch would struggle until his death to come to terms and make sense of their relationship, the end almost killed Ingeborg Bachmann. She never really recovered.

I remember being surprised, at twenty, when I read that she was in a relationship with Max Frisch. Back then, I found it hard to imagine that a flamboyant personality like Bachmann would be with someone like Frisch who comes across as rather homey. They were so very different. Frisch, who was newly separated and about to get a divorce when they met, was used to a traditional family life. Before becoming a full time writer, he would work as an architect, while his wife was a housewife. Later, he would write in his attic, while his wife would do the housework and cook. It doesn’t seem like he ever expected this of Ingeborg Bachmann, but he expected a more structured life. From the beginning, living together would prove difficult. He found Bachmann rather chaotic. But that wasn’t the only difference. The biography I read pays a lot of attention to the way they experienced their surroundings, notably the landscapes, countries, cities, they lived in. Bachmann always looked for a mirror, an echo to her soul, while Frisch could just admire a landscape, explore a city and enjoy it. They met in Paris but then moved to Frisch’s hometown Zürich. For someone who was used to live in big cities like Vienna, Paris and Rome, Zürich was a shock. Switzerland in the fifties and sixties wasn’t exactly an openminded place. People frowned upon their living together. Bachmann found Switzerland stifling. They then moved out of the city to the country, which was even worse. Finally, Bachmann decided to move back to Rome and Frisch followed her.

Now she was in her territory but still the relationship remained difficult for many reasons. Ingeborg Bachmann would travel a lot and not tell Frisch when she’d be back. She would also keep their relationship apart from other people in her life. Almost as if she was living an affair. Even though, their life together was so dufficult, Frisch wrote continuously, driving Bachmann mad with the constant noise of his typewriter. It seems it even triggered writer’s block in her.

In the end, Frisch, who was genuinely suffering because she always held him at arm’s length, left her for another, much younger woman. Ingeborg Bachmann never really recovered from this blow.  She didn’t see it coming, never would have expected that he’d leave her.

It wasn’t easy to read this book. I felt sorry for Bachmann, but not because Frisch left her, but because the portrait that Ingeborg Gleichauf paints, shows someone who suffers from mental illness. I would even say she had narcissistic traits. One of the things that got to Frisch for example, was that she didn’t seem to have a sense of humour. She took absolutely everything seriously and personally. He had to be very careful what he said and how he said it, because it could trigger difficult reactions. It would be too easy to blame Frisch, because he’s the man, and it looks like he just exchanged her for a younger partner. Bachmann herself seems to have given the story this spin occasionally. She also said that relationships between men and women were murder. There are many instances in her work that refer to that. I would have to read a Bachmann biography to find out more where this came from. It’s clear that she was damaged and suffering long before she met Max Frisch. I can’t blame Frisch for wanting to leave her. I think most people would find it hurtful, not to be introduced to their partner’s friends. Not to be mentioned in phone calls. Not to be told, when the partner would return from a trip. Frisch couldn’t take it any longer. Leaving Bachmann for another woman, was his way to protect himself. Of course, this is problematic, and it seems to have been a pattern in his love life. He often ended things like this. Whenever a relationship got stale or difficult, he would end it and jump right into another one. Preferably with a much younger woman.

Writing this biography wasn’t easy for Gleichauf as the correspondence between Bachmann and Frisch is not available yet. There aren’t even any photos of the two together. We’re told they loved each other very much but it’s hard to understand why they were together.

Bachmann’s life went downhill after the separation. A suicide attempt, abuse of pain killers and other drugs and, finally, her tragic death in Rome, in 1973. Seen from outside, Frisch did much better, but he does admit in interviews that he, too, never got over her.

While their respective work can be read without any knowledge of their relationship, knowing about it helps to understand the deeper meaning. Everything they wrote from then on, always did, to some extent, deal with their failed love story.

This is just a very brief introduction to a chapter in two great writer’s life. One could write much more about this complex and sad story.

Here is one of Bachmann’s most famous poems

Harder Days Are Coming

Harder days are coming.
The loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.
Soon you must lace up your boots
and chase the hounds back to the marsh farms.
For the entrails of fish
have grown cold in the wind.
Dimly burns the light of lupines.
Your gaze makes out in fog:
the loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.

There your loved one sinks in sand;
it rises up to her windblown hair,
it cuts her short,
it commands her to be silent,
it discovers she’s mortal
and willing to leave you
after every embrace.

Don’t look around.
Lace up your boots.
Chase back the hounds.
Throw the fish into the sea.
Put out the lupines!

Harder days are coming.

 

Here’s a short documentary on Bachmann. It’s well worth watching. Unfortunately, it’s only available in German.

 

 

Max Frisch – Montauk

When I decided to do Max Frisch and Ingeborg Bachmann weeks, I wasn’t entirely aware how ideal it was to pick Montauk. Although Frisch and Bachmann were a couple for a few years that doesn’t necessarily mean that their work will reflect that, but in their case it does. I’ve read Montauk alongside a biography of their relationship and the poems of Ingeborg Bachmann and it was uncanny to find them both so present in their respective work.

When Montauk came out in 1975, it caused quite a stir. Frisch was by that time famous for his novels and his plays and Montauk, even though it’s called a novella, was a departure from those genres. As Frisch states in the book, he wanted to write a story about his life, not inventing or adding anything, just stating the facts.

Montauk has a frame story. Frisch stayed in the US, in 1974, for a book signing tour. The last two days of his stay, just before his 63rd birthday, he spends with 30-year-old Lynn, a publisher employee. They decide to take a trip to Long Island and visit Montauk. The novella tells the story of this trip and the brief love affair he has with Lynn. This story frames memories of his life, his youth, the relationships and friendships he had. For many readers at the time, Frisch was too outspoken. He wrote about the women in his life, jealousy, affairs, impotence, money, fear of death and a lot more.

Two of the most interesting and longest parts are about his friendship with a man who isn’t named and his love story with Ingeborg Bachmann. The relationship with this man left a wound as he was his patron but never encouraged him to write. He always encouraged him to become and stay an architect, as he clearly didn’t think much of Frisch as a writer.

Frisch did initially want to become a writer and had a brief career as a journalist but then became an architect and, for the longest time, didn’t write full time.

The chapters about his love story with Ingeborg Bachmann are some of the most intense. I won’t say too much about it now, as I’ll be writing more about their story next week.

Initially, I wasn’t too sure about the book but then found it more and more engaging. It makes sense to call Montauk a novella, even though Frisch says that he hasn’t invented anything, that everything happened exactly as he describes it. This may be true but there is still an artistic choice. A choice which is reflected in the things he decides to tell and those he doesn’t mention but also a choice of structure and narrative voice. As I said before, there’s a frame story that is interwoven with passages describing scenes of his life. Another style element is the switch from first to third person, as if Frisch was writing from his own point of view and then switching to an outside perspective, writing about himself as his observer. It’s a very interesting technique.

The book can be read in three different ways. First, as a story that is engaging and interesting, without taking into consideration that it’s autobiographical. But you can read it as an autobiographical text too, and it will tell you a lot about the man Max Frisch. Not so much about the writer, as writing isn’t mentioned that often. He seems to have a very matter-of fact view of himself as a writer. He even says that he has no imagination. Writing is a craft he’s good at and that has brought him fame and fortune. Not more, not less. At the same time, since this is also a metafictional book, we can find implicit views on his literary production. This leads me to the third way of reading this book – as metafiction. Montauk says a lot about the production of autofiction or the choices an author has when writing about his life. He could have just told the story of his life chronologically, or, like Annie Ernaux, picked moments, zooming in on them, magnifying them. In many ways, he does the opposite. Yes, there’s the story of the Montauk weekend, which takes up more space, but the rest of his life is condensed.

At the time, when Frisch wrote this, Ingeborg Bachmann was already dead. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this death, which must have shaken him, even though they were no longer together, might not have triggered this work. When someone dies who is or was very important to us, it invariably makes us look back, reminisce, think about our life and contemplate our own mortality. In Montauk, Frisch does all this, using spare, minimalistic prose, and a gentle, melancholic tone. Montauk is this rare thing – a pleasure to read and a book that makes you think long after finishing it.