I'm Not Stiller Essay - Critical Essays

Max Frisch

Critical Context

I’m Not Stiller is a mixture of many literary styles. On one level, it can be viewed as a Bildungsroman in which Stiller makes self-discoveries and finally comes of age. The book also follows the tradition of romantic realism in the vein of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), a novel often mentioned in the text, for it examines in detail the psychological torments of modern relationships, but I’m Not Stiller goes beyond realism, using many of the techniques of the late modernist. The narrative structure is fractured so that incidents appear out of chronological order. Stories are filtered through several narrators; Stiller tells the story of Rolf’s marital problems as they are related to him by Rolf and narrates his own actions in the third person. The same incidents are related from the viewpoints of two or three of the involved parties. Many times there are conflicting accounts. Sybelle and Rolf relate different versions of their last confrontation before Sybelle leaves for America.

In keeping with the modernist tradition, I’m Not Stiller creates a montage effect, interweaving dreams, fabrications, fanciful stories, and eyewitness accounts. Anticipating the postmodernist tradition, I’m Not Stiller introduces parody into a serious novel. For example, Stiller’s adventures can be seen as a pastiche of several Ernest Hemingway narratives. Stiller fights in the Spanish Civil War (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940), reenacts the bravura of bullfights (The Sun Also Rises, 1926), falls in love with a nurse/medic (A Farewell to Arms, 1929), and becomes obsessed with an act of cowardice (“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” 1936). Moreover, Stiller is a parody of a Hemingway hero living in a Kafkaesque world in which the bureaucratic machinery of the state puts him on trial, primarily to prove to him that he is really himself. I’m Not Stiller is the novel which established Max Frisch’s reputation, not only in German-speaking countries but also around the world. It stands in the forefront of the postwar renaissance of the German novel.