I'm Not Stiller

by Max Frisch

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I’m Not Stiller is the story of a man’s fight to deny his past and to create a new identity for himself. At every juncture he is forced to confront the image of the man he once was and does not want to be. Anatol Stiller’s story is told in two parts: in the accounts recorded in seven notebooks written by Stiller/ White in prison, and in a postscript written by Rolf, Stiller’s public prosecutor and friend.

On one level, the prison notebooks reveal the story of Anatol Stiller, a failure trying to be a hero. After proving himself a coward in the Spanish Civil War, the mediocre sculptor Stiller, insecure about his masculinity, marries a ballerina, Julika, a beautiful but frigid woman. Unsuccessful in his attempts to bring out the “woman” in his wife, the restless and moody Stiller embarks on an affair with Sybelle. Meanwhile, his tubercular wife is confined to a sanatorium in Davos. Haunted by guilt and abused by his mistress, Stiller jumps a ship to the United States. After several years of drifting through the American wasteland, Stiller tries to put a bullet through his head, narrowly escaping suicide. Confronted by an inexpressible presence, which he calls his angel, Stiller considers himself reborn and returns home to Switzerland, where he is arrested and put on trial to prove to him his identity.

On another level, Stiller’s notebooks document his struggle to maintain his fabricated identity as James White, a smuggler, wife murderer, and American soldier of fortune, who rescues women from burning huts, survives volcanoes, and murders millionaires in the heart of the jungle. In order to make him accept his old identity, the court presents Stiller with irrefutable evidence: photo albums, testimony from his wife, verification by his former mistress, and corroboration by five of his friends. Stiller is taken back to his favorite restaurants, to the sanatorium where he deserted his wife, and finally, to his former studio, which he physically demolishes as he pleads with his wife to accept him as his new self. In the end, the court condemns him to be Anatol Stiller and he acquiesces.

In the second part, Rolf, Stiller’s public prosecutor, recounts the years after Stiller’s trial. Stiller reclaims Julika as his wife and settles down as a potter in a ramshackle farmhouse in Glion. The marriage, however, self-destructs; Julika is hospitalized, and Stiller, obsessed with becoming her savior, sees himself once again as her murderer. On Easter Monday, Julika, who had always been dead in Stiller’s eyes, dies. The novel ends on an ambiguous note: “Stiller remained in Glion and lived alone.”

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