No sooner had I tracked down Peter Stamm’s Seven Years in January as one of those books I had meant to read last year but had never got round to, than there was his name (which I had previously been quite unfamiliar with) on the short list for the Man Booker International Prize. Not only do I discover that he has written a number of novels prior to Seven Years but that Michael Hofmann has done an admirable job of making him available in English. Even this novel was originally published in America in 2010.
Seven Years is, I suppose, a novel about love, but one in which its main characters seem unusually unacquainted with the emotion. Its narrator, Alex, spends the novel torn between two women: fellow architect Sonia, whom he marries, and Polish illegal immigrant, Ivona. On the surface there doesn’t seem much of a choice. Ivona is described as follows:
“She was probably our own age, but she was completely unattractive. Her face was puffy and she wore her midlength hair loose…Her clothing looked cheap and worn.”
As Alex points out:
“Sonia was the absolute opposite of Ivona. She was lovely and smart and talkative and charming and sure of herself.”
Yet despite this Alex finds himself attracted to Ivona, a girl he only meets as one of his friends invites her to join them as a cruel joke. He is not won over by her personality, which is difficult to decipher in her long silences, nor her sexuality, as she refuses to sleep with him or even let him undress her initially. For this very reason, however, Alex finds himself desiring her:
“I hadn’t been so excited in ages, maybe because I so completely didn’t care what Ivona thought about me.”
After their first meeting, Alex has no intention of ever seeing her again, yet within a few days he is searching her out. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the novel: more than once Alex decides that it is over, only to be drawn back to her, sometimes years later. It becomes clear that the only character capable of love is Ivona, who loves Alex so unselfishly that she allows him to use her whenever he wants.
Meanwhile Alex creates a separate life where he is married to Sonia and they start up their own firm of architects. Professionally the relationship is based on a compromise: Sonia does not leave to work abroad and Alex puts design to one side to run the company. This compromise infects their whole relationship where their marriage seems more a partnership than a love story. Alex first considers a relationship with Sonia when he photographs her sleeping, suggesting the superficiality of his feelings.
Alex and Sonia’s selfishness can be seen most clearly when Ivona falls pregnant. Sonia has not been able to conceive and so they decide to adopt the baby:
“I felt bad about taking the child from Ivona, but I was firmly convinced it was the best for all concerned.”
It’s difficult to know whether the ‘all’ in this sentence includes Ivona. Their daughter, Sophie, is never told about her mother.
The cleverness of this novel is that Alex and Sonia are clearly ordinary, likeable people, but their treatment of Ivona (in which Sonia is complicit as she knows about the affair when accepting Sophie) is monstrous. Stamm doesn’t labour this point but lets it seep into the novel. By the end, when their marriage finally falls apart, and Alex says, “I wasn’t happy exactly, but for the first time in a long while, I felt very light and alert, as though I’d come round after a long period of unconsciousness,” I saw it not as liberation for him but as a further self-absorbed delusion.