Max Frisch, Stiller


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2003


First it seems as though there were a mix-up when the travelling gentleman, who calls himself Mr. White, is recognised as the Zurich sculptor Anatol Ludwig Stiller and immediately arrested. He vehemently protests against this accusation in the following weeks. "I am not Stiller!", he  repeatedly tells the police, the attorney, the defending lawyer, his guard Knobel and the former ballet dancer Julika, who happens to be Stiller's wife. She only recognises her husband who went missing 6 years ago and tries to confront him with their shared past. When Julika was suffering from Tuberculosis, not only did he cheat on her with the attorney's wife, Sibylle, but he also left her while she was ill and alone in a sanatorium. But the supposed Stiller sticks to his story – this was not his life. Instead he tells his guard Knobel about his murders in the jungle, in Mexico or Texas and gets tangled up in his own stories.


"Stiller" is the first one of the three notorious identity novels by Max Frisch (1911-1991). "Stiller", which was published in 1954 before "Homo faber" and "Gantenbein", brought Frisch international success and allowed him to make a living of writing. The novel has been read worldwide. It was included in the ZEIT -library of 100 books and it was the first novel to be manufactured by the million at Suhrkamp. 


A particularly striking trait of the novel is the intensity of the protagonist's denial in his diaries. He is supposed to write into notebooks in prison but he never speaks of himself as Stiller but instead uses the third person to repeat what his visitors have told him about Stiller. Frisch uses this unique narrative structure to demonstrate that the protagonist renounces himself too strongly and thus reveals his true self. Although it becomes increasingly obvious that he must in fact be Stiller, he still refuses to acknowledge this, as he cannot live with Stiller's past.


It is especially during the dialogues with Julika that the gripping conflict of the novel appears: Is it possible not to define a person by their past actions but rather let go of all memories and stay open-minded for their new and changed self? Despite the fact that Julika demanded this during their marriage, it seems to be her, who cannot see a different person in Stiller.


Stiller's identity-crisis itself however, is even more relevant, particularly in our time. While society pushes people to depict themselves as flawless and constantly optimise themselves, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept one's own fallibility. Failed relationships, dark chapters in our lives or wrong decisions seem intolerable when comparing ourselves to other people. Consequently, Stiller is not a constructed isolated case, but a projection of the difficulty of self-acceptance.


In combination with the prisoner's exciting stories of Mr. White, the novel thus turns into a complex net of truth and lies. No wonder the novel has been regularly read in schools for years and has become the favourite novel of an entire generation. 


Christina Schlögl


Signet Sunflower Foundation