The Sweet Indifference of the World

Peter Stamm has always been interested in the decisions which define our lives, and, in that sense, the shape those lives take. Often his novels involve a character instinctively breaking from the life they are leading without any obvious plan – see, for example, Thomas leaving his family at the beginning of To the Back of Beyond, or Andreas abandoning his life as a teacher in Paris in On a Day Like This. The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by the ever-dependable Michael Hofmann) also has at its heart such a decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena, but on this occasion Stamm explores not only Christoph and Magadalena’s lives but those of an alternate couple who seem to be following in their footsteps years later, Chris and Lena.

The story is told by Christoph to Lena as he tries to convince her that her life with Chris echoes is own:

“The scenes look different, even the words can be changed or cut, but the action follows its unvarying course.”

Christoph is a writer with one successful book behind him – written after his relationship with Magdalena ended. He first encounters Chris when he returns to his home town for an event in the local bookshop, working as a night porter in the hotel where he is staying:

“I saw his face next to the reflection of my own but not until he held the door open for me did I realise that he was me.”

The “younger version of myself” apparently notices no such similarity, but Christoph is not only struck by the physical resemblance but the fact that he, too, once worked as a night porter:

“It was as though a playmate had copied my every word when I was a child, copied every movement, which used to put me in a seething rage.”

Christoph’s feelings about Chris are confused. On the one hand he sees this alternate version of himself as a chance to avoid the mistakes he feels he has made:

“I wanted to live in the illusion that I was young again and could give my life a different turn.”

However, at points he feels that Chris has taken his life from him: “It was as though he was stealing my life from me by living it himself.” This is particularly true when he speaks to Chris, telling him about the novel he has written, and Chris can find no trace of the book:

“If the book didn’t exist, what else about my story and my memories could possibly be true.”

He also becomes angry when Chris and Lena’s life diverges from his own, for example when Chris writes his novel without breaking up with Lena. This is partly because he sees these two defining events as inextricably linked; that is, he was only able to write his novel by giving up Magdalena. As Lean tells him:

“The question is, are you prepared to allow him a better life… or do you want to wreck it just like you wrecked your own?”

Chris and Lean’s lives become a story Christoph is writing – exactly what had happened previously with Magdalena: “…as though the written Magdalena was more important to me than the living woman.” Magdalena, we feel, is not understood by Christoph as an individual:

“The fictive Magdalena had covered the real one, as a mask covers a face.”

Both Magdalena and Lena are actors and this further obfuscates Christoph’s ability to see Magdalena clearly: “sometimes I had the sense that she was playing part.” Mainly, however, he is so focused on his story that he does not notice the stories of others unless they are connected, hence, perhaps, his desire to make Chris’ story his own. He is also, despite more than once pointing out the difference between fiction and reality, frequently tempted to interpret his life as though it were fiction, “as though my life were a story.” This, in turn, affects the way we remember our past, as he tells Lena when it transpires the story of his first meeting with Magdalena is not the whole truth:

“Looking back, you believe that kind of thing when you find your narrative.”

The Sweet Indifference of the World is cleverly constructed so that the two stories are told concurrently though not necessarily chronologically. Stamm does not offer us any easy answers as to the veracity of Christoph’s claims – in fact, even in the final pages he introduces further mysteries, leaving us to question what influence Christoph may have had on Chris’ life, and even whether Christoph is who he claims to be. More pointedly, this vital, provocative writer questions our relationship with fiction and with fate, and our refusal to accept the sweet indifference of the world.

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8 Responses to “The Sweet Indifference of the World”

  1. Tony Says:

    Really enjoyed this one, a bit of a return to form, I felt. Of course, there’s still ‘Marcia aus Vermont’ waiting to make it into English now 😉

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Every time I read one of your Peter Stamm reviews I am reminded that I really must get around to trying him! This one sounds particularly intriguing, the sort of story of connections and identity that would make a very compelling film. I’d love to see someone like Christian Petzold adapting this. He directed Transit, the film based on the Anna Seghers novel of the same name, so he’s got form in this area.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oooh, sounds very clever. I haven’t read him but this sounds like it has the kind of elements I’d like!

  4. Best Books of 2020 Part 3 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] a book I freely admit is unlikely to feature in anyone else’s best of the year – Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann). As a long-time admirer of Stamm, I found this one of his best yet. […]

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