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Making Fun of the Stories We Know

A word about Peter Stamm’s Swissness and Michael Hofmann’s excellent translations from the original German. On opening the promotional material accompanying a recently published German novel, Funeral for a Dog, I read: “Thomas Pletzinger is German, but you wouldn’t know it from his debut, which is both wise and worldly,” the implication being that the last thing the American reader wants is to be bothered with foreignness. People must be “worldly” but not from somewhere else in the world.

Stamm is one of a growing group of writers—one thinks of the Norwegian Per Petterson or the Dutch author Gerbrand Baaker—who, whether consciously or otherwise, have evolved a style to suit the requirements of a global literary market. None of these authors write exclusively or even first and foremost for the country they live in. Nor do they write about those countries, in the way that, say, Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen writes about America. Stamm keeps culture-specific detail to a minimum while his prose is lexically and syntactically spare to an extraordinary degree. This does not mean that translation was easy; good translation is always difficult and Hofmann’s rhythm and tone are impeccable. But it means that such a translation was possible, something that is not always the case with more elaborate writing.

What we are seeing, then, is the development of styles of writing that are no longer to be understood in relation to the literary tradition the author grew up in, but to the new world of international fiction, books translated no sooner than written into a dozen languages. Stamm’s cleverness is to align a spareness that works in translation with his characters’ instinctive fear of all things rich and intense. Lean as it is, his prose is wonderfully “literary” in its fine integration of voice and story. The constant disorientation of his characters, their sense that their lives are interchangeable with any number of other lives, seem peculiarly suited to this era of globalization.

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