I'm Not Stiller (Harvest Book) Paperback – 1 May 1994
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A single consciousness contains multitudes: in fathoming it, Frisch evokes the complex reality of a dangerous and enthralling world.
It exudes postwar high seriousness: it cannot wait to show off its many layers of meaning . . . Then comes the voice of Stiller himself: treacherous, evasive and compelling as an Edgar Allan Poe murderer or a Raymond Chandler detective . . . When the curtain comes down one last time on the life of Anatol Ludwig Stiller, it is truly harrowing: it is a spiritual blackout.
"Readers cannot but feel the force of what remains one of the most important novels of the post-war years."--"Times Literary Supplement" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Michael Bullock, himself a novelist and poet, was for many years the official translator of Max Frisch. His translations of books and plays from French and German now number close to 200 and have received many awards.
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There are other existential questions the story deals with: trust, for example, or self-expectation, or the question of guilt in human relations. For those of you who are more interested in psychological highlights than in philosophical issues: the book contains superb descriptions of the Swiss mentality and the American style of life, of men and women and their differences, of architects and prison warders and so on. Max Frisch is a very clear-sighted, accurate observer, and even when he is describing in every detail the scenery of a deserted building site on Sunday, it's not boring for a second! The only thing I wonder is if the book is perhaps too European for a Non-European reader. But find out by yourself!
Who are we? Why are we? Can we really ever change...and, even if we manage to do so, why won't *they* let us change? Are we truly `condemned' to be who we are? These are just a few of the major themes that Frisch dramatizes in *I'm Not Stiller.* His penetrating psychological study of the title character, Anatol Stiller, is both unforgettable and devastating, as are the studies of each of the novel's supporting players. One would be hard-pressed to think of any author who'd dissected the human character so minutely and exactly as Frisch has in this novel. You come away with the feeling that he's as much a psychiatrist as an artist.
Ultimately, *I'm Not Stiller* is a novel about self-acceptance--but not necessarily in a positive way. Self-affirmation, not as celebration, but as a kind of resignation to a wisdom that is as hopeless as it is true, as sad as it is necessary...the end of a long journey where we are surprised ((and not pleasantly)) to find the person we least expected waiting for us, after all. The person we cant escape no matter how hard we try or how fiercely we struggle: our true selves.
He is a prisoner in Switzerland (a country "so clean one can hardly breathe for hygiene") and the Swiss officers who arrest him are convinced he is a certain Anatol Stiller, who disappeared six years ago, leaving behind a wife, a mistress, a moderately successful career and a few minor political scandals. But he insists he is Jim White, an American with a past that includes Mexican peasants, Texas cowboys, the docks and back alleys of Northern California, and three murders, as yet untraced.
Murders are committed, as it turns out, but as Stiller is brought face to face with the woman who says she is his wife and with the prosecutor who says Stiller has had an affair with his wife, it becomes clear that the murders in question are emotional, metaphorical and discreetly bourgeois. What binds Stiller and his strong-willed but long-suffering wife, Julika? A vacuum: the fact that they have never felt happy together or complete apart. What sets his dream of being another man in motion? A failure of nerve while fighting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. And his homeland, economically secure, politically neutral Switzerland is "incapable of suffering in any way over a spiritual compromise," he says.
Mr. Frisch is not really a novelist of ideas; he's a dramatist of ideas. We live out our ideas through our daily lives, after all, and he grasps every nuance of those daily habits and compulsions. It is the tension between these details and the larger ambitions -- so grandly imagined, so absurdly lived out -- that makes the novel work.
White is confronted by the wife of Stiller, Stiller's brother, and a host of other acquaintances, all who identify White as Stiller. White (still denying that he is Stiller) dutifully records the impressions of these people--of how they saw Stiller, and he begins to draw conclusions as to what this Stiller must have been like. At this point, the book is less Kafkaesque and more like the blind men and the elephant. This the element of the book that resonated most with me--the way that author Max Frisch provokes the reader into looking at the idea of how we see ourselves, how others see us, the relative 'truth' of either position, and the gaps between the viewpoints of those we consider to be closest to us is builds slowly but dawned on me midway through the book in a pleasantly surprising way. It seemed all the more profound from the subtle way Frisch was able to elicit it.
After a beginning that seemed intent on illustrating man's helplessness in the face of the modern world, and a middle that is like a portrait painted by Marcel Duchamp, the ending is something else again--something that I had a difficult time connecting with. I'll say the fault rests with me--I was still contemplating the ideas that Frisch raised in the earlier chapters, and whatever his intent was in the last pages of the book was lost. The last section, which functions much like an epilogue, I thought could easily have been dropped, and the book wouldn't have suffered at all. It's as if, after raising such thought-provoking ideas, that resolving them in any way seems like a bit of a letdown. However, others may not see it as resolving the issues so much as completing the thought. Either way, a very compelling and worthwhile examination of identity. Four-and-a-half stars.
An American citizen called White is arrested upon entry into Switzerland and accused of being a man called Stiller. White is jailed and given a legal representation, a lawyer who persists in addressing him as Mr.Stiller.
White denies emphatically that he is this Stiller. We are not informed why he must be jailed if he is Stiller. We must assume that Stiller has committed a crime.
This uncanny atmosphere of absurdity gives Frisch's novel a Kafkaesque tone that I had totally forgotten. I have now revisited it after over 40 years and can't reconcile what I read now with my expectations based on memories. Quite possibly I did not even notice the absurdity in the text then. I certainly forgot the playfulness of the identity games.
White, in jail, likes to tell stories, and he likes to talk about crimes that he allegedly committed. Tall tales of adventure and murder. Stiller's wife identifies White as Stiller and calls his contrary insistence 'hirnrissig', a suitable German adjective that implies a fissure in the brain. Wacky.
The novel is nearly unhistorical. We learn that Stiller had fought in the Spanish civil war and was jailed for that in Switzerland for a few months. WW2 does not seem to have happened. Hitler and concentration camps are mentioned in passing, as it were.
The narrative structure is delightful. The novel is 'written' by White in his cell. His lawyer gives him writing pads for the purpose of learning the 'truth'. White writes things that the lawyer can't use. An extreme case of unreliable narrator.
He meets Mrs.Stiller and has long talks with her. He writes a history of her ballet career, which was ended by time on Magic Mountain. He writes a history of the hellish Stiller marriage, like a neutral observer. One can easily see why he would not want to be Stiller any more, if he were Stiller. He writes about Stiller's love affair with the wife of a state prosecutor.
Frisch was a powerful story teller with a sharp sense of humor. There is much world and time in this plot, we are not stuck in a prison cell in a given time span. Frisch had great language. The novel is interesting and amusing.
Its core subject of identity should be taken with a grain of salt though. Look at the quote that I put at the beginning of my review. Is there truth in it, can we really not narrate our own life? In its alleged contrast to all other subjects this radicalism is nonsense, in my view. We can narrate our own existence with the same confidence and truth as any other invention of ours.