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Lost & Found: Jonathan Dee on Max Frisch

We journey back to our second issue for Lost & Found from Jonathan Dee on Max Frisch’s unflinching autobiographical work, Montauk. We’re pleased to announce that Dee will be part of the faculty for this year’s Summer Writer’s Workshop. For the rest of our lineup and information about registration, go here.

In the early 1970s, the polymorphously great Swiss writer Max Frisch, renowned in this country, though not renowned enough, for novels such as I’m Not Stiller, Man in the Holocene and Homo Faber—flew to New York to embark upon one of those humiliating treks through the border region of celebrity known as the book tour. This one, though, took an unexpected turn: in the offices of his American publisher, Frisch, who was then in his early sixties, met and quickly began an affair with a woman more than thirty years his junior who worked in the publicity department. The centerpiece of this fling was a secret weekend trip to an inn on the eastern shore of Long Island; not long afterward, when his tour came to an end, Frisch flew home to Switzerland and the young publicist returned equably to her tiny Manhattan apartment and low-paying job. They spoke by phone only once after that.

To write a nonfiction book about such a liaison sounds, at first blush, like an exercise in self-aggrandizement. Montauk is anything but. For as it dawns on Frisch, over the course of the eponymous weekend trip, how perfectly the truncated, ersatz intimacy of this no-stakes love affair suits his stunted emotional capacities, his middle-aged satisfaction gives way to a kind of horror—and Montauk becomes a prism through which the author reviews, freshly and pitilessly, a lifetime of mostly catastrophic relationships with women: three failed marriages (one to the Swedish poet Ingeborg Bachmann), an adult daughter to whom he rarely speaks. All this personal history lies beneath Frisch’s May-December idyll like an iceberg whose true dimensions and dangers his young lover will never have to see; and even as their weekend ends contentedly in a Sunday evening traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway, Frisch (writing sometimes in the first person, sometimes in third) cannot make himself forget that his ignorance, this amicable shallowness, is the key to their genuine affection for one another:

“Presumably she too had been somewhat nervous that the weekend might go wrong. Now it is no longer necessary to gloss over the nervousness . . . They know too little and at the same time too much about each just to chat superficially. He does not even know yet in what area Lynn is vulnerable and what would lead to their first quarrel. Lynn does not seem in fact to be thinking about it at all. Once in a while does no harm. You need a marriage, a long one, to become a monster.”

Frisch died in 1991, at the age of seventy-nine. It beggars belief that his technically and morally inspirational template of the autobiographical art could have fallen out of print just two years after its American publication in 1976. Or perhaps it shouldn’t: maybe it’s inevitable that this decade’s memoir book, which is really about the primacy of personal sentiment, should come to us uncomplicated even by its own recent history.

Jonathan Dee is the author of several novels, most recently The Privileges, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, a frequent contributor to Harper’s, and a former senior editor of the Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School.

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