EVEN BEFORE this oblique tale begins, much has happened. Her feet bound with adhesive tape, and with a sanitary towel in her mouth and a bunch of lilies on her chest, a call girl has been found strangled with a necktie. A doctor, Felix Schaad, has already been charged with the crime and acquitted; he now hears and rehears his interrogations by the public prosecutor, mostly while playing billiards with slapdash finesse, but also while taking Turkish baths, wandering in the woods, feeding swans, lounging with feet on desk in his consulting room, going out for coffee and schnapps, and doing a host of other mundane things that defuse his notoriety.
It is as if he did not register his trial at the time, but had his mind tape-record it. Into and out of the role of murderer he moves, somewhat blurred because he used to be married to the victim. In fact, he has had seven wives, and his married life seems to him not so much a continuity as a maze of splinters. No sooner does he marry one woman than he sets up with another, forever leaning forward into doomed promiscuity. He evokes Maurice Merleau-Ponty's idea of walking as a series of recovered falls. Only what has not come into being can save Schaad. His medical practice has failed, and he makes his Yugoslavian receptionist knock before she enters, otherwise she will see how little he has to do. Or so he says in one of the many confidences he lets drop. If she's really his receptionist, she already knows. The story is that sly, that skewed.
As the testimony of various witnesses comes back to him--by the six other wives, his friends, even his children and his long-dead parents--he regales himself with not only nothing but the truth but also everything but. He is a monster of completeness. The victim herself revives for phantom interrogation, but answers with only a smile akin to the one Schaad himself has worn throughout the book. In a sense he is guilty of not having killed the other wives, his friends, himself. His life has fallen to bits around him, and the only fixity left him is the murder, from which acquittal has severed him. So, to get back to it, he confesses, but too late; someone is already in custody.
The book reads like a mind's-eye closet drama, almost all talk, but spattered with leisurely asides. The prose is a mesh of clues, echoes, traps, d,eja vus and double entendres. Perhaps, after all, Schaad really is the latest incarnation of Bluebeard, the knight who buried his seven wives in the cellar. Rather, though, he is Bluebeard manqu,e, a failure even at lechery, a pathologically jealous, far from ideal, husband who lectures his wives even as he envisions another "not impossible she," his possessiveness about whom he can already taste. A fractured man, he comes together only in his head, where the wives chirp away as if in some forensic aviary.
Readers familiar with Frisch's other works will detect overtones of the play Don Juan or The Love of Geometry, in which a lonely mathematician winds up as a lethal, womanizing hedonist. Frisch's abiding theme of true and potential identity shows up again; and, true to type, Schaad acts out the role society assigns him: scot-free psychotic. Or he tries to, varying Frisch's Count Oederland, the prosecutor turned outlaw, and Stiller, who tries to make a new life but cannot budge the old one. Schaad drives into a tree and survives surgery only to discover that, like some Henry James character, his destiny is merely to witness the insolence of pain. We never learn the truth, and we suspect he cannot know it.
It's a sketchy tale at best, denuded and almost diagrammatic, far from the swarming complexity of clues in Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur or the mesmeric slight finitudes of Uwe Johnson's fascinating novel, Speculations About Jakob. Max Frisch's Bluebeard, with its seven types of sexual ambiguity, needs to be read aloud, done as a radio play perhaps. Psychologically curt, it is too trim and lean to satisfy on the level of explanation; but, on the level of guesswork, it yields an interesting enigma, not so much of the whodunit as of how Schaad has come to be the man he is, graduating from relief work in Biafra to the care of young addicts, to visionary looks at peeled asparagus, imaginary trips to Japan, planting a cross in the road, and in the next room watching the call girl perform with other clients, on closed-circuit TV.
The key to him is perhaps his eviscerated pet rabbit (here having almost the force of the Rosebud sleigh in Citizen Kane) or the viewpoint of his optician, who has "to peer right into his patient's eyes in order to measure the distance between the pupils. . . ." When the optician does that, Schaad has "no sense of being recognized." And we, as readers, are like the optician: we see into the eyes without seeing what Schaad has seen. If you guess, you're hooked; if not, you go back to simpler Simenon. CAPTION: Picture, Max Frisch, Copyright (c) By Henning Christoph.