Two thirds of the way through the Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm’s most recent novel, events appear to be moving toward an exciting climax. An artist has been commissioned to do a show at a small Alpine cultural center. He is determined not to repeat the work that made his name, a series of female nudes in domestic settings—“naked housewives,” as his gallerist calls them. But he has no fresh ideas. Recently separated from his wife and weighed down by teaching commitments, he’s badly blocked.
At the cultural center, he meets someone he once knew, a former presenter on a TV arts show, who was badly disfigured in a car crash six years earlier. (The novel as a whole is chiefly the story of her life after the accident.) Shortly before the accident, he had appeared on her show. They had an unconsummated flirtation, and he photographed her nude. Now, in the mountains, they become a couple and she shows him a folder that she keeps of images of her facial reconstruction surgery, leafing through it backward in time:
From page to page her face changed. It looked as though it was crumbling, even though it was always the same face. Sometimes Hubert clutched Jill’s hand and asked her to go back one. Then there was a picture of Jill’s nose, which looked like a large red potato, and another in which her whole face was cut and bloody. It was so swollen around the eyes that he could hardly see them, and everywhere there were patches of raw flesh. There was no nose.
That’s what I looked like after the accident, said Jill. They took the photos in the hospital.
Hubert turned away. It wasn’t the last picture, but Jill dwelled on it for a long time before turning the page. The next was a portrait of her as she was at the time Hubert had met her. Her face had an expression of vulnerability, as though she sensed what was in store for it.
Suddenly, Hubert recognizes the pre-accident images as the photographs he took of Jill in his studio. “Do you want me to exhibit these?” he asks. Clearly this extraordinary sequence of images should be the artist’s salvation. They give him the chance to produce something that is both a continuation of his previous work and a comment on it. There’s even a sense of art influencing life: Jill explains that if her husband, who died in the accident, hadn’t happened to see the photographs, they wouldn’t have quarreled, wouldn’t have got drunk at a party, wouldn’t have crashed their car.
But the moment passes. Hubert and Jill go to bed together. He makes a few sketches of her, but doesn’t do anything with them. Not long after, the cultural…
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