Read an Excerpt
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 after-ward, 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 that 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 retrospective 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 this ignorance, this amicable shallowness, is the key to their genuine affection for one another:
"Presumably she too had been somewhat nervous that this 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 other 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 this 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 boom, which is really about the primacy of personal sentiment, should come to us uncomplicated even by its own recent history.
There's nothing on my shelf I flip open for inspiration as often these days as Daniel Fuchs' three novels about Brooklyn, set and written in the 1930s: Summer In Williamsburg, Homage To Blenholt, and Low Company. They were last reprinted in 1961 in one volume by Basic Books as 3 Novels (I noticed two copies on the Strand shelves last week, hurry!), then in paperback from Berkley Medallion in 1965-a moment of rediscovery now as forgotten as the original publication. Fuchs published in The New Yorker, was a buddy of Cheever's at Yaddo, and somewhere John Updike compared him to Willie Mays for the ease of his effects, but unlike Willie Mays he's nearly vanished from the record books. In the Williamsburg trilogy his grittily enchanted, Dickensian vision of Brooklyn bubbles forward on a jetstream of vernacular babble-his characters jabber in poetry, compressed and glinting, warmer than Don DeLillo's Bronx argot in Underworld, less tragic and neurotic than that of Henry Roth's Lower East Side Jews in Call It Sleep, but worthy of them both, and of the sprawling, teeming immigrant culture he made his subject. Fuchs' Williamsburg is full of Communists and bookies, wanna-be Edisons hoping to make a fortune, young lovers trysting in McCarren Park on hot nights, Talmudic scholars, jewelers, and crooks-he wrote a world, now a lost world. On plot summary, two of the three books would seem crime novels, but the muddled schemers and righteous bullies Fuchs depicts are embedded in his fundamentally comic vision of endurance and suffering, their outbursts of brutality falling like weather or fate. Fuchs' genius is for the unlikely reverie stolen in a moment of outward tumult, for the glint of sunlight between tenement roofs, the marriage proposal whispered under a screaming neighbor's window, the trapped butterfly thrilling a sweaty carload of subway passengers. His sensitivity to the place of the movies in his city dwellers lives-my favorite is the ten-year-old who's in love with Marion Davies as well as his talent for dialogue, probably made Fuchs' defection to Hollywood inevitable. He spent most of his career there, resurfacing to write sweetly humble introductions to the republished volumes, then one last novel in 1971. A natural.
You can read The Burnt Orange Heresy as either a murder mystery or a parable about the hoax element in modern art. Charles Willeford's 1971 novel-which Carroll & Graf will reissue in January 2000-gives satisfaction on both counts. It is an inverted detective story in the approved noir manner: the first-person narration takes us into the killer's mind. Yet not until digesting most of the book does the fallible reader guess who is to be murdered and why. The plot centers on a painter named Jacques Debierue, avatar of "Nihilistic Surrealism," whose most famous work is "No. One." meaning both "number one" and " nobody." Debierue, a European transplant, lives in Willeford country: Palm Beach, Florida. James Figueras, an art critic with his eye on the main chance, obtains an interview with the great recluse. To ingratiate himself with an influential collector, he agrees to steal one of Debierue's paintings.
The catch is that there are no paintings to steal. Like a character in a Borges fable embodying the aesthetics of Mallarmé, Debierue is convinced his ideas are so far superior to any possible execution that in logical consequence he does not paint. Instead he has committed his life to the "unfulfilled preparation for painting." He puts in his four hours daily, "a slave to hope," yet always refuses in the end to violate "the virgin canvas." Figueras has no such compunction. After breaking into Debierue's pristine studio and discovering there is nothing to pilfer, he sets fire to the place, counterfeits a painting by Debierue, forges his signature, then writes the article that offers the definitive interpretation of works that never existed. In a curious way it is as if painter and writer have colluded to invent Debierue's "American period." Willeford, highly esteemed for his Hoke Moseley novels, weaves the aesthetic theory and the criminal mischief expertly together. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a rich enigma: a monument to "a qualified Nothing," suggestive of "deep despair" on the one hand and total "dedication to artistic expression" on the other. It is noir not only in the sense of, say, Ad Reinhardt's black-on-black canvases, but also in the violent romantic sense of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past."
Since I've never climbed a mountain and never hankered to, it's weird that I obsessively read and reread mountaineering books. I'd guess what I'm hankering for is the sublime, in the antique literary sense of the term: terrifying majesty, majestic terror. The summit ridge of Everest in whiteout conditions, the Second Step looming hopelessly high above already- exhausted climbers, that psychedelically scary moment when they suddenly see no more mountain above them and understand that they're, at the highest place in the world. But- and here's the weird thing within the weird thing-my favorite of these books, writer and photographer Galen Rowell's In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, only tells about the second-highest place in the world. Pakistan's K2, less than two rope lengths lower than Everest, is a shapelier Mountain-if looks like nature copied it from the label of a soda bottle- and a tougher climb. Everest, of course, has the single best mountaineering story-Mallory and Irvine--but there's a handful of K2 stories almost as creepy-deepy, and Rowell tells 'em the way I like to hear'em. "Wolfe and Pasang dangled from the rope ... Only two hundred feet farther down, great ice cliffs dropped off 6,500 feet toward the Godwin- Austen glacier ... The fall was only an overture for the entirely unanticipated tragedy to come."
Rowell devotes most of the book, though, to his firsthand account of the luckless, rancorous 1975 American K2 expedition led by Jim Whittaker, whose lead climbers had to turn back while still more than a vertical mile from the summit. After bad weather and strikes by the hundreds of local porters they'd hired-with eighteen other expeditions in the Karakoram Himalaya that spring, it was a seller's market for labor-the defeated team came home to zany allegations that they'd been the Trojan horse for some high-altitude CIA operation. But even before they reached the mountain, the climbers had begun to hate each other and split up into factions; amazingly, they were willing to keep the commitment they'd made to hand Rowell their diaries. "Wick is sitting on the fence, I think," wrote one team member of a colleague, "wanting to stay in good with Jim ... I hope it's a picket fence and he gets one up the ass." Another wrote that Whittaker's twin brother, Lou, also on the expedition, "should end up with an ice ax in the back of his head or a bullet between his eyes." Sublimity and soap opera: just the right combination for the nightstand.
This isn't the book Rowell, an ambitious climber and a heart-on-sleeve romantic, had wanted to end up writing. No wonder it works so well: his conflicted feelings are all over it, from the grandiloquent title to those near-psychotic diary entries, from illustrious past expeditions to the 1975 fiasco, from his calendar-ready color photos of soaring Mountain peaks to his black-and-white shot of an excrement-strewn field many days' march from the nearest PortoSan. "A three-day porter strike," he writes, "meant eighteen hundred turds." This from the guy who early in the book tells us that he came to the Karakoram hoping to find "the land of my dreams ,-a cliché that would shame a " real" writer, but that tells more about him than he could've revealed after eight hours of Flaubertian agonies. In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods is utterly transparent: even its crude suspense-building devices ("only an overture for the entirely unanticipated tragedy to come"), which Rowell must have learned from his own reading in mountaineering books, are perfectly straightforward in their manipulativeness. To read it is to be there with Rowell and his unhappy colleagues in the icy landscape they're loving and defiling-and safe at home at the same time, warm and guilt-free, thousands of miles and a quarter of a century away.