There’s quite a lot I want to say about Max Frisch but I’m writing something for the Spring issue of The Scofield and don’t want to foreshadow that piece too much here. There is this curious quality though to I’m Not Stiller that I haven’t quite understood. It is often difficult to pick the book up, as though beneath it lay a dead rat that I’ll have to deal with. But when I start reading again I’m fully absorbed.
It is brilliant how Frisch dissects the nature of identity within marriage, or any long-term relationship. From where do we get this fallacious notion of fixed identity? How do we negotiate identity within the context of society, marriage, family and self? Frisch wallows in these questions in I’m Not Stiller. I don’t know whether I like the book but I’ve started to reread it without the encumbrance of plot and the suspense of not knowing where Frisch is taking the story. I feel a need to remove the screws and dismantle the clock, to question how he creates this resistant yet mesmerising quality.
I recently wrote about what modernism means to me in context of the writers I return to often. It is obviously an idiosyncratic view, very personal to me. I’m always thrilled when people discover writers through this blog but I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what to read. It’s why I don’t really write reviews here. I am without any significance to anyone but those who are linked to me through friendship of some sort. I’m certainly no expert in literature or anything else.
Instead of dragging Kafka’s axe out of the shed I’ll quote the Stranglers, “Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? / He got an ice pick / That made his ears burn.” I want to read books that hit me like an ice pick, that make my ears burn. When I reread Quignard’s The Roving Shadows this year, or discovered Brigid Brophy and Tomas Espedal last year, my ears burnt. When I get that sensation it’s like falling in love. I want to read every word those writers have written, even the dodgy bits they’d rather forget. I want to read first editions to share a bit of the thrill those writers must have felt when setting eyes on their long-baked work for the first time.
The books that make my ears burn more often than not are those I described. But I’m also quite happy to pick up a chapter of two of my daughter’s latest Stephen King. It isn’t snobbery that drives my reading but mortality. If I live five years longer than my father, I’ve got time for something like 2800 books. It isn’t enough. I want every one of those 2800 books to be ice picks.