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Making Fun of the Stories We Know

Seven Years

by Peter Stamm, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Other Press, 264 pp., $15.95 (paper)

On a Day Like This

by Peter Stamm, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Other Press, 229 pp., $23.95

Unformed Landscape

by Peter Stamm, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Other Press, 161 pp., $14.95 (paper)
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Claudia Below
Peter Stamm, Winterthur, Switzerland, 2009

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.

She could hardly have chosen a safer adventure: Christian, a trustworthy e-mail correspondent, had never shown any desire to make love to her. All the same she feels obscurely that “there was something to be done.” The need to be living and doing, to have a story, is felt as a burden imposed from elsewhere: “She was even more afraid of a new life than she was of her old one.” This fear helps Kathrine understand her husband: one invents stories to construct an illusion of intensity without taking risks.

Storytelling is also important in On a Day Like This when a friend tells Andreas about a love affair that consisted only in fantasizing sexual adventures, not having them. Stamm uses these anecdotes, no doubt, to question his own storytelling vocation, its place in the world, and to invite us to examine our own expectations from reading. But it would be a mistake to think that he sees storytelling as mere evasion. It is essential to the mental world of his characters, who are constantly telling themselves stories, whether to spur themselves on or to allay their fears. Leaving her lying husband, Kathrine, too, makes up an exciting life for herself when she shares a couchette with a young man. However, her glamorous fantasy doesn’t solve the problem of feeling something is wanted of her. There must come a point, Stamm seems to suggest, at which the stories we tell ourselves engage with reality and push us in this direction or that. Deep down Kathrine knows she will have to seduce someone.

In Stamm’s first novel, Agnes (1998), a writer is invited by his girlfriend to write a story about her, but what he eventually puts down diverges sharply from their real relationship. In reality he is angry about her pregnancy; they split up and only get back together after she has miscarried; in his story the couple have a happy family instead. Yet he can’t help finishing the tale with the girl’s death, something that, in the novel’s ambiguous ending, seems to have prompted the real Agnes to leave him. In short, there is a traffic between imagination and reality such that it is hard to understand what importance to attribute to longings on the one hand and events on the other. At the core of Stamm’s work is the story of our attempts to confront this process.

The jacket text for Stamm’s most recent book, Seven Years, tells us that “Alexander is torn between two very different women.” This is not the case. There is a man, and a wife and a mistress of sorts, but Stamm’s characters are never “torn.” Rather they oscillate; they act and they retreat from action. To be “torn” would imply greater intensity and perhaps a moral dimension, a sense of guilt. There are puritans and moralists in Stamm’s books: Kathrine’s father-in-law in Unformed Landscape; Alexander’s mistress and her friends in Seven Years. But their moral interpretations of events only provoke the hero’s incomprehension. He cannot take their rhetoric of right and wrong seriously. Imprisoning oneself in a moral code comes across as just another strategy for avoiding life.

If On a Day Like This shows its maturity by moving away from the literary tropes of the earlier novels (the writer in the work in Agnes, the blatant use of Arctic geography in Unformed Landscape), Seven Years marks another departure by offering a first-person narrative with a far longer time span, not seven years, in fact, but twenty, from Alexander’s graduation as an architect to his separation from his wife Sonia after eighteen years of marriage. The sense of the title is given to us by Hartmeier, a landlord who, having befriended Alexander’s long-term mistress, Ivona, one day demands that Alexander meet him:

She loves you, he said, and sighed deeply. I shrugged my shoulders. With all her heart, he added. She’s waited for you for seven years, the way Jacob waited for Rachel. I only vaguely remembered the story, but I remembered that at the end of seven years, Jacob had gone off with the wrong woman. Leah, Hartmeier said. And then he had to wait another seven years. I didn’t understand what he was driving at…. But the Lord saw that Leah was less beloved, and he opened her womb, said Hartmeier, and then I understood…. He didn’t speak, and it was as though I caught a glimpse of secret triumph in his face…. Ivona is pregnant, said Hartmeier.

As a model, the biblical story is comically inappropriate. In love, Jacob worked seven years for the father of his beautiful Rachel, only to be tricked into marrying her plain sister Leah and forced to work another seven years for Rachel. For his part, seven years before this conversation with Hartmeier, Alexander married, of his own choice, his beautiful, intellectual architect wife Sonia but has nevertheless continued to visit his plain, uneducated Polish mistress Ivona without ever being in love with either. The only real parallel element is the seven years of dull routine, something that in Stamm’s world means a relatively happy time. Alexander remarks:

My relationship with Ivona had been from the start nothing other than a story, a parallel world that obeyed my will, and where I could go whenever I wanted, and could leave when I’d had enough.

Ultimately, however, that story produces the reality of a child. How can Stamm avoid melodrama now?

In his forties, Alexander tells his tale to an older friend of his wife’s, Antje, a painter, on the occasion of her visit to their Munich home. Flashbacks and reflections alternate with the moment of telling and this, together with Stamm’s decision to mix dialogue and narrative without clear punctuation, means the reader is constantly struggling to establish the chronology and status of the events told, a condition that mirrors Alexander’s perennial uncertainty, especially when it comes to women. In fact the novel opens with him watching his wife through the window of an art gallery where Antje’s paintings are showing: “Like the paintings on the walls, to which no one paid any attention…[Sonia] seemed somehow not there, or only superficially there.”

What Alexander tells Antje, perhaps because he senses that the story of his marriage is approaching its end, is that shortly before his graduation, while sitting in a Munich beer garden, a friend invited a “completely unattractive” Polish girl to join their party. Without conversation or art, the girl ruins the evening, “From the very outset, Ivona was disagreeable to me,” Alexander tells us. “I felt sorry for her, and at the same time I was irritated by her docile and long-suffering manner.” All the same he tries to have sex with her. Religious, modest, Ivona does not allow herself to be undressed. Alexander is inexplicably excited. He spends the night with her. She tells him she loves him “like the statement of an immutable fact.” For the rest of his life, sometimes on a regular basis, sometimes after long intervals, he will seek her out, but only for the briefest of encounters and without any communication between their meetings; for her part, Ivona will always be available; she will never have any other lover.

For a man who has two women, Alexander gets precious little sex. Sonia, who at the time he met Ivona was dating another architecture student, “was the absolute opposite of Ivona. She was lovely and smart and talkative and charming and sure of herself.” But not loving. “I always found her presence somewhat intimidating,” Andrea tells us. He entertains “the idea of falling in love with Sonia,” but it is some time before their discussions about architecture finally lead, with Antje’s encouragement, to their becoming a couple.

Stamm distinguishes the two by their architectural preferences. Cerebral to the exclusion of all animal warmth, Sonia is a fan of Le Corbusier, of buildings that “improved…people” by encouraging decorous rational behavior. Alexander favors structures that would grow “like a plant,” “sculptures of light and shade,” yet the buildings that actually give him a sense of well-being are enclosed spaces, even the prison cells of an old castle: “Oddly, I had a sensation of shelter and protection rather than confinement.” Arguing against Sonia’s ideas, he insists:

A living room is first and foremost a place of refuge. It has to offer protection from the elements, the sun, hostile people, and wild animals. Sonia laughed and said, well, I might just as well go to the nearest cave in that case.

Ivona is that cave, or rather Ivona’s room: “stuffed full of junk, faked memories of a life that hadn’t happened…. The pokiness, the untidiness, and the absence of any aesthetic value only seemed to intensify my desire.” With Ivona, Alexander feels “a mixture of freedom and protectedness” such as “I hadn’t had from childhood.” On the other hand, when he first kisses Sonia it was not “out of some whim…the kiss was a decision we had come to together.” Everything is reasoned. Everything is planned. Their first love-making, after extended ablutions and discouraging interruptions to purchase contraceptives, is a comedy of frigidity. Alexander has been chosen, but as part of Sonia’s career. Before they marry she makes him an architect’s model of their future home.

The originality of Stamm’s novel is to have taken one of the oldest plots in the world and made it new, convincing, even urgent. Sonia is so much the right woman for the middle-class Alexander aspiring toward the more sophisticated world she moves in. But she is “incapable of passion.” So far we might be in a story by D.H. Lawrence or a hundred other writers. It is Ivona, and all that is implied by Alexander’s attachment to her, that is the novelty. This is no Fabienne, not a woman to dream of, not a lusty lover, not a good companion, never an alternative to Sonia. But to a man exhausted by a purpose-driven, achievement-obsessed world, her submission and quietly animal existence are irresistible. Alexander is “beside [himself] with lust.” In the end it seems only natural that while Sonia’s carefully laid plans to have a child come to nothing, when Alexander finally penetrates Ivona she conceives at once.

When Stamm’s characters—Kathrine, Andreas, Alexander—meet the disasters they fear, their paradoxical reaction is relief. The doubleness of their lives, the tension between seeking and fleeing intensity, is wearisome. Now they can be like men who go “freely to their graves, to protect themselves from death.” So on hearing Hartmeier’s news of Ivona’s pregnancy, Alexander “felt a great feeling of calm and a kind of relief. I would have to talk to Sonia.” There will be a showdown, everything will be simpler.

Not at all. Sonia is not a woman for showdowns. They don’t suit her plans. So Stamm can quickly defuse the melodrama he has set up. Sonia agrees to take the child herself. It will save her the animal trouble of pregnancy. And Ivona will again be utterly submissive to Alexander’s requirements, surrendering her child without protest. So the story can go on more perversely than before with the brilliant sterile wife bringing up the child of the dumb but fertile mistress. The genius of Stamm’s book is its perfect meshing of three characters, each of whom in quite different ways uses the others to strike a precarious balance between mental world and practical existence.

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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