The Swiss novelist Peter Stamm’s daunting project is to entertain us with an ordinary emptiness—lives without coherence or direction, stories that never take off, a style that shuns the emphatic or any local intensity of evocation, emotion, or climax. For all that, he is not an absurdist; there is comedy in these books, but never the loud comedy of Beckettian desperation. And if Stamm owes something to Camus, his work is free from the atmosphere of scandal that informs L’Étranger. Rather, as we turn the opening pages of his stories, we have the impression of a novelist whose main resource is to describe, with quiet patience, a reality we can’t help but recognize. Only as we adventure further do we become aware of how subversively Stamm treats the way we see novels and indeed life, and only as we approach the end of the tale do we understand that he is making fun of the way we insist on thinking about life according to the novels we have read.
The balance between content and rhythm is all important. Paragraphs in which a character’s routine is described with attentive but directionless detail alternate with others where it seems something important is happening; perhaps a rapid sequence of events unfolds, only for the little surge of excitement to exhaust itself almost before it started. Here is Andreas in On a Day Like This (2006):
From the Gare du Nord, Andreas took the suburban train out to Deuil-la-Barre. He took the same train every day. He studied the faces of the other passengers, ordinary, unremarkable faces. An elderly man sitting across from him stared at him with expressionless eyes. Andreas looked out the window. He saw rails, factories and storage facilities, an occasional tree, electricity towers or lampposts, brick or concrete walls spattered with graffiti. He had a sense of seeing only colors, ocher, yellow, white, silver, a dull red, and the watery blue of the sky. It was a little after seven, but time seemed not to matter.
Andreas is a high school teacher who, when asked what emptiness means to him, reflects: “Emptiness was his life in this city, the eighteen years in which nothing had changed, without his wishing for anything to change.” When something does happen, it is very soon as though nothing happened; the tone remains unchanged:
Andreas spent his spring break in Normandy. Once again, he had intended to read Proust, but he ended up sitting around in the hotel, watching TV or reading the newspapers and magazines he bought at the station newsstand every morning. He spent a night with an unmarried woman teacher he had met on one of his long walks along the beach. He had been fascinated by her large breasts, and invited her to supper. It took a lot of effort to talk her into going up to his room, and then they talked for a lot longer while they emptied the minibar. While they made love, the woman kept moaning his name out loud, which got on his nerves. He was glad to be alone when he woke up late the following morning. She had left him a note, which he glanced at briefly before balling it up and throwing it away.
Andreas has two lovers but neither is planning to build her life around him. He enjoys the fact that each year he faces a new group of children to teach: he will not grow attached to them nor they to him. Free of moral concerns, only two things disturb him: life’s intensity and the idea that other people lead more exciting, “real” lives than himself. That is, he is both drawn to and afraid of anything that could provoke deep feeling: when he drops a girlfriend he doesn’t answer the phone for a week; when a colleague who is dying of cancer retires, he finds a lame excuse to avoid the farewell party. He will not visit his parents’ grave, or get close to his brother or nephews. Though he remembers fondly, even obsessively, a girl he once loved and to whom he never had the courage to declare himself, he makes no effort to seek her out.
The opening fifty or so pages of On a Day Like This revel in the description of this aimless life, with the author apparently taking as much pleasure as Andreas in “the empty mornings when he would stand by the window with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and stare down at the small, tidy courtyard, and think about nothing except what was there in front of him.” But it is of the nature of novels that sooner or later they must conjure up the drama that will sweep such complacency aside. All the same, Stamm seems as lacking in enthusiasm as the heavy-smoking Andreas when finally he steers him and his chronic cough to a hospital for a tomography scan of his lungs. Inside the scanner Andreas “shut his eyes, and tried to imagine he was lying on the beach in the sun, but the clattering of the machine kept bringing him back to reality.”
What does reality mean for Andreas? Any unavoidable truth that brings with it intensity, urgency, feelings of freedom and fear, exposure, unprotectedness. It could be the beauty of the girl he loved and cannot forget. It could be news of incurable cancer. How to respond? Denial. Andreas senses that he will one day have to do something about his old love, but postpones a decision. Once he wrote a letter but did not send it. Invited urgently to the hospital to discuss the results of his tomography, he turns back on the threshold. He doesn’t want to go there.
Another resource is diversion: choose a lesser intensity and explore that in order to hold the greater one at bay. Andreas’s life has been a series of unimportant girlfriends to keep the one who matters at a distance. His job has been just about interesting enough to prevent him from throwing himself into some bolder adventure. But to hold off the fear of imminent death, more radical diversions will be necessary. It is the end of term. The summer holiday deprives him of his protective routine. Andreas starts an affair with Delphine, a colleague much younger than himself, a loving woman in search of a husband. It is not enough. He sells his apartment and his furniture, quits his job, buys a car, and decides to drive to Switzerland, to his home village, his brother, his parents’ grave, and above all Fabienne: the girl of his life about whom he knows so little.
The car is an instrument of escape, but Andreas contrives to make it an emotional protection. He buys an ancient Dyane, the kind of car young people were driving around the time he met Fabienne. It is a source of nostalgia. And though traveling toward an old love, he takes the new one with him; Delphine is invited along. It’s not clear here which girl is protection from which. There is a disquieting stop-start to Andreas’s relationships. Earlier, he spent a wonderful evening with Delphine, then packed her off home in the middle of the night. Now, heading at last for the obsession that is Fabienne, he is glad to have the lesser intensity of Delphine beside him. And he will use his attachment to Fabienne to warn Delphine that he is not a man to marry.
Stamm’s achievement in all this is to align the tone and movement of his narrative very closely with the ambiguous wanderings of his main character; it is as though he appreciated that a writer must deal with the great questions of love and death, but would far rather be talking about the car, the journey, the landscape. There is a fine moment during the drive from Paris to Switzerland when Delphine, who is learning German, slips a cassette of listening exercises into the car’s tape player:
Andreas wanted to take the cassette out, but Delphine put her hand over his, and they listened to the woman slowly and clearly speak the examples.
Tomorrow I shall see you again. Tomorrow you will see me again. Tomorrow we will see you again. Tomorrow you will see us again. The parents see their children again. The children see their parents again.
Then a man’s voice, equally warm, intoned:
My day. I get up at half past five in the morning. I always get up at that time, because I have to be in the office by eight. It is only on weekends that I can sleep in. After getting up, I go to the bathroom, clean my teeth and shower, first warm, and then cold at the finish. After that, I feel thoroughly awake, and well. Then I get dressed and comb my hair. I go to the kitchen to have breakfast. I make myself some coffee, eat bread with jam or cheese or sausage…
The man’s voice had something strangely cheerful about it. It sounded as though he had yielded completely to the course of such days and years, a destiny without subordinate clauses.
It is a teasing parody of the earlier part of the novel, a rapid recall of the swaddling clothes of routine and repetition, before we face the imperatives of intensity: the encounter with Fabienne, the showdown with Delphine, the visit to his parent’s grave, in short, the obligatory dramas to which both Andreas and Stamm seem to move as sheep to the slaughter, or assassins to a murder. After Andreas finally makes love with Fabienne, we read:
She seemed very naked and vulnerable. Andreas was put in mind of police photographs of crime scenes, pale, lifeless bodies by the side of the road, in forests or rushes.
Stamm’s earlier novel, Unformed Landscape (2001), also features a journey that the traveler, in this case a woman, again presents to herself as a move toward an intensity she both fears and desires and away from a situation she can no longer face. Still in her twenties with a child from a first marriage, Kathrine is a customs officer in northern Norway. She has never been south of the Arctic Circle. Marooned in a sexless second marriage, she chooses to flee when she discovers that the supposed achievements of her husband Thomas—his being a champion swimmer and skier, inventor of a successful computer game—are the merest inventions. He is a compulsive liar. Although we later hear that “her favourite days had been the ones where everything was exactly as always,” Kathrine is so shaken by this discovery that she sets off south to a warmer world and a man she met some time ago, a Dane whom she eventually tracks down in Boulogne.