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 center cancels his show and brings in another artist.
Having avoided one obvious climax, Stamm begins to set up another. Hubert has a brainwave for the show—an idea that he feels genuinely confident about. Once he discovers that his idea has come too late, and that another artist has been engaged, he is galvanized into a frenzy of competitive creativity. He loses himself in his work, barely stopping to eat or sleep, and the reader awaits a triumph over adversity in which art is redemption.
But no: Hubert suffers a breakdown and never finishes his work. Jill tends to him as he recuperates and even finds a job for him teaching art classes to Alpine tourists. Hubert is a big hit as a teacher and happier than he has been in a long time. Now we find ourselves in a kind of reverse Künstlerroman—the story of an artist learning to step away from an intensity of aspiration that was making him miserable. Rather than striving to set himself apart from society with his art, he submits to a useful, undemanding life teaching landscape and life classes to tourists, and he seems much the better for it. Teaching amateurs rather than art students even refreshes his sense of art’s value. “It’s amazing how many people paint in their free time,” he says with appreciation. Within just a few pages, however, this resolution, too, disintegrates and gives way to new events.
Stamm’s novels have a way of confounding expectations, of slipping sideways, dissolving and refocusing. His characters run away from home only to change their minds, sabotage relationships just when they seem to be flourishing, embark on journeys of discovery that turn out to lead nowhere in particular. They often seem to be fleeing something but rarely know what that something is. They throw away keepsakes, fail to answer phones, and delete e-mails and text messages without reading them.
Stamm has emerged in the past decade as an important voice in European fiction—he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013—and has become known for a stripped-down, objective style. Like his characters, Stamm travels light: language, description, and gesture are pared to the minimum, and the books are short. Much of the fiction writer’s traditional armory—set pieces, epiphanies, tragic events—seems to hold no interest for him. As one reads, it is often hard to say exactly what makes the novels so engrossing. They proceed in an almost improvisatory way (in interviews Stamm has said that he writes his first draft on instinct, then revises), but the overall impression is of a quiet fixity of purpose.
Stamm was born in 1963, in a town near Lake Constance. (Skinny-dipping in lakes features often in his work, almost always used to evoke carefree youth and incipient sexuality.) As a young man, he worked at a variety of jobs, including as an accountant and in a psychiatric clinic. He spent time in New York, Paris, London, and Scandinavia, and his earliest fiction—such as the stories collected in the volume In Strange Gardens—seems to draw on these experiences. The more lasting legacy of these years is his characters’ rootlessness, as well as a quietly international outlook. His protagonists are often Swiss-Germans living abroad—in Paris, say, or Queens. Stamm evokes locations with precision but without atmospherics, as if Swiss neutrality had enabled him to write with matter-of-fact at-homeness more or less anywhere.
In the 1990s, Stamm produced journalism and radio plays, before publishing his first novel, Agnes, in 1998. Currently out of print in English, it is hugely popular in German and features on school curriculums. It is easy to see why: the book is simple and haunting, a kind of parable without a message. It is unlike Stamm’s later work in the overt way that it establishes suspense and a self-referential tone. “Agnes is dead,” it begins. “Killed by a story. All that’s left of her now is this story.” The plot follows a Swiss-German writer living in Chicago who starts an affair with a young woman he meets at a library. To amuse her, he starts writing the story of their relationship, first narrating things as they have happened, then writing future occurrences for her to comply with—wearing a particular dress, moving in with him. His story often improves on reality; the fictional reaction to the young woman’s pregnancy is in notable contrast to his piggish response in real life. But as the book progresses, the story begins to express a darker side to the relationship.
Stamm rarely deploys self-referential gestures now, but other features of Agnes have become cornerstones of his method. He is adept at creating a sense of reality by leaving things out. Early on, the couple visits a restaurant and sees a dead woman on the sidewalk outside. Later, the narrator mentions that they went to her funeral and “learned her story” but the reader never hears what happened. In a similar way, an early story casually establishes a sense of veracity by telling us, “There had been an accident somewhere, a fire, I don’t remember what. At any rate, the train came from Geneva half an hour late.”
Stamm makes ingenious use of blandness. “It generally is cold in this city,” the narrator tells us on the first page of Agnes—surely the least interesting sentence it is possible to write about Chicago. (Michael Hofmann’s excellent translations effortlessly capture the controlled flatness of this style.) In Stamm’s hands, banality becomes a crucial technique for establishing character. After the narrator and Agnes first sleep together, he says, “In a way, we do carry on living after we’re dead. In the memories of other people.” The thought is pure cliché, but that’s the point. This is just pillow talk, after all, and it’s a thought that almost everyone has had at some point. Stamm almost never makes his characters sound cleverer than they probably would be in real life, but neither is there a hint of condescension or faux naiveté. Instead, by resisting the temptation to be interesting in the short term, he manages to convince us of the reality of the characters and relationships we encounter.
Something similar applies to Stamm’s descriptions, which can be economical to the point of parsimony. Early in the new novel, Jill returns from hospital, still horribly disfigured, and lies on the floor of her apartment:
She asked herself who had bought these books, hung up these pictures. A silkscreen print by Andy Warhol, Marilyn, the same face ten times over, lifeless as an advertising poster. The minimalist furniture, the soulless accessories, carefully chosen from expensive design shops, souvenirs though they were connected to no particular memories. She rolled onto her back and looked up at the Italian designer lamp that seemed to hang just above her.
From a different kind of writer this would seem superficial, even lazy. Surely the overall impression—of sterile luxury—should be particularized more and suggested more subtly. Most novelists showing us the protagonist’s home for the first time would take the opportunity for lavish description. Stamm rarely even tries to do this, and for his particular fictional world it is the right choice. His characters are usually not connoisseurs, and, like most of us, they take the basic tone of their surroundings at a glance. The flatness of description entails its own kind of realism. Although Jill and her dead husband chose the furniture “carefully,” whether they ended up buying Eames chairs or Marcel Breuer chairs doesn’t really matter.
There is a critique here (which Stamm is careful not to express more emphatically than Jill would): the essence of a luxury is to be expensive—what it actually looks like is secondary. At this point in the novel, Jill is coming to see her former life, as an affluent, attractive media personality, as “one long performance”: “It must have been a lie if it was so easy to destroy with a moment’s inattention.” The sense that successful lives entail inauthenticity is recurrent in Stamm’s work.
There are risks to Stamm’s method. One involves a tension between credible motivation and larger implications. In his second novel, Unformed Landscape, a woman from Arctic Norway is stricken with disorienting dread:
Kathrine was confused, and her confusion frightened her. It was as though she had lost all her orientation, as though she had stepped out of her life like a house, a house she was viewing now from the outside, from below, from a foot above the ground, from the point of view of a dog, or a child.
Leaving her young son behind, Kathrine leaves her hometown, wanders as far afield as France, and returns. The sheer haphazardness of her itinerary is beautifully controlled: because we don’t quite understand what she’s seeking, we stay interested.
By the time she returns, however, it has become clearer that the recent breakdown of a marriage, her second, is what has precipitated her crisis. For Kathrine this is a gain in self-knowledge—“I’m not going to run away a second time,” she decides—but for the reader there is a slight disappointment. It’s as if one were to discover, at the end of L’Étranger, that Meursault’s crime really had its roots in genuine distress at the loss of his mother. For as long as her problems were inchoate, the journey seemed like a pure quest. Once they are more cogently articulated, it’s easier to see her as simply a neglected wife acting out. The ordinariness of Kathrine’s experience is clearly important to Stamm, but his novels are at their most effective when characters hover at a slight remove from psychological motivation. Nameless dread is more interesting than dread with a name.
The other great risk is that, in being so patiently attentive to the momentary vacillations of his characters’ impulses, Stamm denies himself many of the effects that novels do well. It’s telling that his most powerful work to date remains his previous novel Seven Years, which comes to a climax in a way that the other books do not. A spectacular tale of erotic obsession, it follows a German architect, Alex, whose outwardly perfect life—he and his beautiful, talented wife Sonia run a firm in Munich—is offset by his fixation with an unattractive, unsophisticated Polish illegal immigrant.
The deliberately provocative premise is drummed home with calm brutality. Of his mistress, Alex says “Her ugliness and pokiness were a provocation to me”; of his perfect but unemotional wife, “She was like one of those dolls whose clothes are sewn onto their bodies.” Propulsive and convincing, the novel makes full use of standard novelistic techniques. The profession of architecture assumes thematic importance (Alex’s wife even makes an architectural model of their future life together) and elements of the plot come close to melodrama—an inconvenient pregnancy, a business reversal, a terrifying descent into alcoholism.
By contrast, All Days Are Night marks a return to the more meandering style of Unformed Landscape and On a Day Like This (in which a man who fears a cancer diagnosis sells his apartment, leaves his job, and severs personal ties before embarking on an erratic European road trip). But although it is a quieter book than Seven Years it shares many of the same preoccupations. Jill, like Alex, feels the shallowness of a seemingly perfect, enviable life. Attractiveness, again, seems untrustworthy: Jill appears to be a better, happier person once she is disfigured. (Her surgery is a success but some scars remain.) The handling of this theme is subtler than in Seven Years, and certainly Jill gets a fairer hearing than unapproachably perfect Sonia did. She is capable of recognizing her own superficiality and becomes for a while deeply curious about what faces reveal and what they hide—for instance, rewatching her interview with Hubert frame by frame to catch momentary ambiguities of expression.
This is also the first novel of Stamm’s to enter the point of view of more than one character. We start with Jill just after the accident recalling her life before it; jump to Hubert’s narration six years later; then end with Jill’s perspective again. This gives the novel a more forgiving tone than its predecessors. We see two sets of meandering impulses, and the characters get a more nuanced treatment than they might have otherwise. Hubert being interviewed by Jill seems sure of himself, even arrogant. Once we’re inside his perspective, we see how much his brooding persona reflects real doubts about his career as an artist.
In recent years, many novelists have declared themselves bored with the conventions of fiction, with what the critic James Wood has called “cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict.’” The trend has produced some strong work, but can lead to conventionalities of its own. Stamm’s work, in its unassuming way, points to a different way of resolving these discontents, showing, as Wagner once said of Brahms, “what can still be done in the old forms when someone comes along who understands how to use them.”
Stamm proceeds from the central, unopposable truth that life, no matter how urgent our experience of it, is inevitably a procession of clichés—of breakups, attractions, family tensions, professional impasses, midlife crises, occasional unforeseeable cataclysms. The surprising, almost directionless twists of plot come from a patient accretion of ordinariness. Stamm works to combine obvious elements in quietly surprising ways, showing that clichéd events need not produce clichéd outcomes. His ability to balance the reader’s desire for some sort of resolution with our experience of life, in which resolutions are interim at best, explains the power of his output. Its lack of emphasis is its strength.