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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.