Structuring Memory: Narrative Perspectives in German Autobiography

Term Paper 2004 13 Pages

German Studies - Comparative Literature


The Poetics of Memory and Fragment in Max Frisch’s Montauk and Peter Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück

Nägele warns of the dangers of proclaiming a general trend towards autobiographical fiction in the 60s and 70s[1] and de Man even doubts the existence and status of the genre.[2] Therefore, I want to aim at a simple comparative perspective and just look at the comments Max Frisch and Peter Handke make on memory (and so inevitably also on the self and our perception of self) in Montauk (1975) and Wunschloses Unglück (1974).

The extent to which these works really are autobiographical is irrelevant. It is not whether or not a text is autobiographical and what it tells us about the author’s life that is interesting. How one author fictionalises a personal event is also obviously impossible for criticism to analyse (and subconscious). What interests me is not how Montauk (M) and Wunschloses Unglück (WU) are two examples of the genre of autobiography but what they disclose about the processes of literary production in general and what this can reveal about our perception and reminiscence of experiences, and how it contributes to the ‘invention’ of the self.

The writer ‘invents’ characters all the time regardless of genre and these characters will always be selves, what else? Autobiographical writing is no different from other fiction in this respect, only the writer can do this more directly, even give his character his own name (‘Max Frisch’). The only difference is perhaps that autobiographical writing makes this fictionalising process its main topic[3] and sheds light on this process rather than try to hide it in what would then be a coherent narrative. Neither of these texts is coherent in the sense that it smoothes over ‘a fragmented experience of reality’[4], instead they use fragmentation, and in so doing automatically draw attention to the act of narration through an alienation effect. Fragmentation therefore seems to be ‘aesthetically appropriate’ to discussions of memory.

Fictionalising and Other Perspectives

One way in which these texts make the process of fictionalising of experience and self their main topic is through establishing two types of narrative, which are juxtaposed to comment on each other. These comments are, I believe, not just essayistic, as it would be too simplistic to say that one is literary (i.e. the week-end in Montauk and the mother’s story in Wunschloses Unglück which are both told in the traditionally story-like third person) and the other a meta-literary, an ‘almost’ critical discussion[5], (i.e. the flash backs narrated in the first person in Montauk and the son’s account of the difficulties of writing his mother’s biography and therefore in a way also his own in Wunschloses Unglück).

The distinction between critical text and narrative in Wunschloses Unglück that Nägele calls for is important because after all a distinction is made in the text and should not be omitted in the criticism thereof, but this also overlooks how the more ‘critical’ parts, are not only related to the narrative by way of straightforward commentary, they are also literary as part of the narrative and so is their relation to the ‘story’. In Wunschloses Unglück, for example, language is represented as impeding the mother’s individuation. The son, in the other narrative, is aware of this in his mother’s life and yet he encounters the same when he cannot reconstruct her individuality or overcome his loss through language.

In Frisch’s Montauk the two narrative perspectives are more complex simply because both are ‘autobiographical selves’ – or alternative self- fictionalisations – which are often even entangled in a single sentence [my italics]:

Ich weiß nicht, wie er auf Baudelaire kommt, FLEURS DU MAL, Lynn kennt sie nicht. (M106)

Sein Englisch ist bescheiden; ich weiß natürlich, was er jeweils sagen möchte, […] Zum Beispiel sagt er, dass ich in meinem Leben nie im Bordell gewesen bin […] Ihre Ansichten dazu, ich wundere mich über seine. (M107)

sie gleichen sich überhaupt nicht, das Mädchen in meiner Lebensgeschichte und die Figur in einem Roman, den er geschrieben hat. (M166)

Count Down

in 48 Stunden fliege ich … Lynn erwartet nicht, dass er umbucht. (M185)

There are many more instances[6] and they create a multi-facetted author-narrator-subject relationship that makes it possible for Frisch to comment on the processes of self-fictionalising while using only a few ‘essayistic’ insertions and thus show this problem within the structure of Montauk rather than tell about it.

“Er” and “ich” narrative are contrasted as two different types of fictionalising. Shipe gives a detailed analysis on how Frisch is “‘inventing’ himself as a character within his story, then ’reinventing’ his previous writings as intertextual objects within the fictional universe of the story.”[7]. Indeed, the following quotation demonstrates this sufficiently:

Ich probiere Geschichten an wie Kleider

Immer öfter erschreckt mich irgendeine Erinnerung, meistens sind es Erinnerungen, die eigentlich nicht schrecklich sind; viel Bagatellen, nicht wert, dass ich sie erzähle in der Küche oder als Beifahrer. Es erschreckt mich nur die Entdeckung: Ich habe mir mein Leben verschwiegen. Ich habe irgendeine Öffentlichkeit bedient mit Geschichten. Ich habe mich in diesen Geschichten entblößt, ich weiß, bis zur Unkenntlichkeit. Ich lebe nicht mit der eigenen Geschichte, nur mit Teilen davon, die ich habe literarisieren können. Es fehlen ganze Bezirke: der Vater, der Bruder, die Schwester. Im vergangenen Jahr ist meine Schwester gestorben. Ich bin betroffen gewesen, wieviel ich von ihr weiß; nichts davon habe ich je geschrieben. Es stimmt nicht einmal, dass ich immer nur mich selbst beschrieben habe. Ich habe mich selbst nie beschrieben. Ich habe mich nur verraten. (M156)

Self- fictionalising becomes problematic, it is even described as ‘Verrat’; and yet, paradoxically, there is also a duty to do exactly this, not to omit anyone.

Montauk’ s complex narrative structure has prompted Müller-Salget to claim that Frisch has escaped fictionalising altogether and that Montauk ’s literariness relies on structure rather than ‘inventing’: “Nicht Fiktion ist das Prinzip dieser ‘Erzählung’, sondern Konstruktion”[8] and he continues: “Fiktion ist ‚ Montauk ’ allenfalls in jenem Sinne, wie ihn Uwe Johnson in einem Brief zu diesem Werk verwendet hat: als bewusstes bildnerisches Verfahren im Auswählen, Weglassen, Zusammenfügen und Gewichten, als Konstruktion also, wie oben gesagt wurde“[9] and that “das Konstruktionsverfahren hebt den Text bereits über das ‚normale’ Erzählen hinweg.“[10] But what is ‘normales Erzählen’? Yes, structure is used to draw attention to the act of story-telling (as fragments or a story within a story always do) but I disagree that this can ever be an escape from ‘fiction’ or indeed, that there is anything else but fiction.

First of all, I believe that the fictionalisation of the weekend is quite similar to fictionalisations in earlier works and it is there precisely to contrast with the I narrative to raise that question. But more importantly, I do not see how structure and construction can ever constitute an escape from fictionalising. Although it is apparent how one can read Montauk as trying to employ structure in this way, there is no escaping fiction. Not even the description of a simple weekend with a clean-cut ending lends itself to this, because the writing of experience in the form of a story with an end is always a fictionalising of some sort. It does not help either to reverse the narrative and not tell it chronologically, or otherwise fragment it. In addition, Montauk has a very art ificial structure with the fragments referring back and forth to each other and encircling the narratives.

On the contrary, I believe that structure is one of the central aspects of fictionalising, albeit one that is not limited to literature but that we also use to narrativise our lives, for example by choosing a turning point[11] or just where we begin and end our stories, thus applying literary concepts to life and turning it into comedy, tragedy or hyperbole[12] depending on the part of it that we choose to tell about, be it in writing or orally. In life or in literature a simple recounting of life’s coincidences with a sudden ending would be unbearable, (WU43), in its absurdity, which Handke calls ‘die Idiotie [des] Lebens’ elsewhere.

By opposing the two types of narrative, Frisch makes statements about the nature of fiction as well as the fictionalizing tendency of human perspective in general:

White Horse:

der Schriftsteller scheut sich vor Gefühlen, die sich zur Veröffentlichung nicht eignen; er wartet dann auf seine Ironie; seine Wahrnehmungen unterwirft er der Frage, ob sie beschreibenswert wären, und er erlebt ungern, was er keinesfalls in Worte bringen kann. (M16)


[1] Nägele, pp.388-390

[2] de Man, “Empirically as well as theoretically, autobiography lends itself poorly to generic definition; each specific instance seems to be an exception to the norm;”, (p.920)

[3] Shipe, “The real subject of Montauk is how autobiographical material came to be transformed into a work of fiction. Montauk is about its own writing.”, p.55

[5] Nägele criticises the treatment of both discourses as literary: “Eine solche Annäherung wird problematisch und paradox zugleich erscheinen: problematisch weil sie die strikte Trennung von kritischem und erzählerischem Text aufhebt”, (p.388) and the treatment of both voices as fictional characters: “Der professionelle Literaturkritiker könnte sich das Problem erleichtern, indem er es umgeht und einfach vom “Erzähler” schreibt. Dieser [...] Kunstgriff hat seine Berechtigung als Kritik an einer naiven Identifizierung von Autor und Erzähler, führt aber, mechanisch angewandt, zu einer ebenso naiven bloßen Umkehrung ...“, (p.392) For the sake of clarity, I must nevertheless use this ‚Kunstgriff’.

[6] Müller-Salget counts over 60, p.117

[7] Shipe, p.57f, “Ich probiere Geschichten an wie Kleider” is such a quotation from Mein Name sei Gantenbein.

[8] Müller-Salget, p.114

[9] ibid., p.119

[10] ibid., p.120

[11] Alan Sheridan focusses on this idea of the turning point in autobiographical writing.

[12] This is an idea Hayden White applies to history writing.


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University of Cambridge – Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
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Structuring Memory Narrative Perspectives German Autobiography



Title: Structuring Memory: Narrative Perspectives in German Autobiography