Man in the Holocene
Stiller, published in 1954 and translated into English as I’m Not Stiller in 1958, carried Max Frisch into the class of international writers, eliciting comparisons with Kafka and Thomas Mann that may have been more automatic than reasoned. I’m Not Stiller could have been called “I’m Not Swiss—Or Not Entirely.” “In Germany they click their heels, in the East they rub their hands together, in Switzerland they light a cigar and strain after a pose of surly equality as though nothing could happen in this country to a man who behaved correctly.” The eponymous (or not) hero maintains that he is not a Swiss, but a man called Sam White, an American of German origin. The implication is that anyone who doesn’t “grasp the opportunity of being Swiss as a boon” must be either crazy or criminal, possibly a spy. You can scold Switzerland for its complacency and self-righteousness, for its materialism, for what Stiller (generalizing from his small, clean prison cell) calls its “oppressive adequacy,” but you can hardly reproach it with the kind of calamities and evils caused by or occurring in some other countries. There would seem little chance for budding Bölls or Grasses among its German-speaking authors!
Even so, it is tempting to think of I’m Not Stiller as a study or critique of Swissness, if only because the alternative (alas, the correct one) is to see it as an exercise in “identity,” an attempt to escape from one identity and embrace another. If “Stiller” were a fascinating character, one might care more about his identity. His obsessive interest in himself is amazing by reason of its intensity and protraction, but that self is an enigma doubtfully worth the solving. The novel has much in the way of incidental attractions—topographical beauties, insights into other lives, some splendidly mimetic writing—but at its heart is a cloud that grows darker and more diffuse as we proceed. The hero is a menace to others, and before long becomes a bore to the reader; the novel a small spun-out storm in a large tea urn. Or a late example of Expressionism, made more human—and more humorous—perhaps as far as it can be, but not as far as it needs to be.
Montauk (1975) is prefaced by a nicely self-deprecatory passage from Montaigne: “Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject. So farewell.” And farewell it nearly is, when on the second page one is informed that, to light his pipe, “he” has to stop briefly and use five matches. Well, it is windy. Is the wind material, then (or merely hot air)? But yes, one sees that this may be in line with that “truthfulness of presentation” on which Frisch insists. What does this truthfulness have to do with fiction—or, since the diary-like Montauk is doubtfully fiction, with truth?
Yet this interrogation …