Quick Review: I Am Not Stiller

February 21, 2008 | One Comment

I had to read Max Frisch’s 1958 novel, I Am Not Stiller, recently and I’m (almost) glad I did. It opens with its narrator’s adamant declaration “I am not Stiller!” and tracks his determination, through seven notebooks, to be a stranger to everyone, only to end with this joyful, spontaneous confession after seeing his dying wife, “She recognized me!” I was completely unprepared to sympathize with Stiller so strongly despite his truly monumental effort at self-deception.
The plot is Kafka-esque; the man who denies being Stiller is locked in a Swiss prison charged with an undefined crime. In his attempt to persuade the prosecutor that he is not Stiller, he shares stories of his adventures in the Spain and Mexico. These tales of murder, lust, and betrayal are related in vigorous, lively language, vivid with local detail and authentic description, yet carry a shadow of the familiar. Later on, we discover Stiller’s bookshelf, and realize that he may know Spain only through Hemmingway and Mexico from Greene, and my suspicions of his perpetual lying are validated. “We live in an age of reproduction,” he says. “Most of what makes up our personal picture of the world we have never seen with our own eyes … our knowledge comes to us from a distance, we are televiewers, telehearers, teleknowers.” I found Frisch’s novel eerily prescient in these lines written almost fifty years ago, for this is the age of ‘truthiness.’
This novel is of particular relevance to the writer. “Can one write without playing a part?” asks Stiller. Perhaps this is why I find writing non-fiction so tricky, because of my fear of not being authentic. “You can put anything into words, except your own life.”
To be human, Frisch seems to say in this remarkable novel, is to suffer from a terrible kind of freedom. Although we are free to invent ourselves for tomorrow, we can never be free from who we were yesterday, or from what we may have said or done. And we must find a way of living with this. Living with all this terrible regret.