Getting Dark

How real are other people? This seems to be the question Peter Stamm is asking in his latest collection of short stories, Getting Dark, translated once again by Michael Hofmann. In these twelve stories, characters are attracted to people who don’t exist, to different version of themselves, and even begin to fade from existence entirely.

Perhaps the most obvious example is ‘Supermoon’ where the narrator doesn’t seem to be so much leaving her job as fading away completely. “I’m sure they didn’t mean any harm by it, they were in the elevator, chatting, and they just didn’t notice me,” it begins innocently enough, but soon the narrator will struggle to get anyone to notice them – colleagues, a young man on the tube, even their partner, Hedwig. Initially the narrator can make themselves heard by repetition, speaking a little louder, but soon even that doesn’t seem to work; they stop receiving emails, their colleagues go out to lunch without them, they find their home empty. Their insubstantiality begins to have a physical effect as they struggle to unlock their own door:

“I’m tired, but have a great feeling of lightness, weightlessness.”

In summary it sounds less subtle than it is, but the questions it raises are probed in more straightforward scenarios in stories such as ‘Sabrina 2019’. Here a young woman is asked to model for a statue. Once the statue is put on show, she becomes attached to it, visiting it every day at the gallery. It is bought by a wealthy art collector, Robert, who has (according to the gallerist) “an amazing house”:

“It was strange, but suddenly Sabina envied her silvery double the chance to live in a beautiful house, remote from the unpleasantness of daily life…”

The reality of the statue becomes more attractive to Sabrina than her own reality, and she becomes obsessed with visiting Robert.

The idea of a different life waiting for you can also be seen in ‘Nathigal’, where David sits in a café with a squirrel mask and unloaded pistol in his bag, watching the bank across the street. He tells himself he is planning to rob it, but it soon becomes clear he is far from a hardened criminal, and by the story’s end it is difficult to differentiate reality from daydream, though the causes of David’s unhappiness are clearer. Other characters use fantasy to escape their mundane lives. In ‘The Most Beautiful Dress’, the women working for a design company creating information boards for an archaeological dig become infatuated with the chief archaeologist, Felix:

“He was the George Clooney of dendrochronology, said Nicole, our boss, after their first meeting.”

In ‘Dietrich’s Knee’ a man finds a flirtatious email to his wife from the titular knee. Not wanting her to know he has read it or discover he has deleted it, he sends it again from a different email address which he then uses to correspond with her as ‘Dietrich’. As with many of the stories, the ending is not quite what you would expect.

Interactions with a different version, or at least a different perspective, of reality also occur in ‘Cold Reading’ and ‘First Snow’. In the former, a woman on holiday encounters a medium as she tries to escape a sudden rain shower. Although she is sceptical of all she is told, she is still changed:

“Still, I felt as content as if at the end of a good book or a film I’d enjoyed.”

In the latter, a man heading for a skiing holiday with his family is distracted by work and left at a service station by his wife. When she doesn’t return, he sets off on foot:

“My irritation with Franziska was long since gone, and I took a quite delight in the beauty of the snow-covered hills.”

He eventually comes across a school, and a teacher takes him in, treating him like child and asking him to draw a picture for his wife. As strange as this encounter is, it ultimately makes for a very moving story.

The first story, ‘Marcia from Vermont’, also set in winter, was originally published separately. It brilliantly captures the different versions of reality which exist within memories. The narrator is invited to an artists’ retreat in the USA, a country he visited as a young man. As memories resurface of that earlier visit, he discovers that the retreat is funded by the family of a woman he met at that time, Marcia, with whom he had a relationship that also involved another couple. While there, he also encounters different versions of that period – a story written by the other man, photographs taken by the Marica – which make him reconsider his own memories.

All the stories in Getting Dark probe our relationship with reality in Stamm’s usual provocative manner, but all grounded in ordinary life. For some reason UK publishers only seem interested in his novels, but his short fiction deserves an audience just as much.


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9 Responses to “Getting Dark”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I’ve always been meaning to read Peter Stamm and this sounds good. More than that, it really looks nice—love the cover. Added to the wish list!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Like Joe, I keep meaning to try Peter Stamm – every time German Lit Month comes around, your reviews of his work are a useful reminder! I think I have one of his books on my kindle, so I ought to start there – nevertheless, the themes in these stories (identity, the fragile nature of reality etc.) really appeal.

    (PS The cover reminds me of the artwork on Harvill Secker edition of Urs Faes’ Twelve Nights, a novella I loved when I read it a couple of years ago.)

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ll third this, as I’ve not read him either and these do sound good!!

  4. Tony Says:

    Yes, a nice collection, and as I mentioned a while back, the Anglophone reader is spoiled with this novella + stories bundle! I’ll be rereading and reviewing the stories before the month is out, and (like you) I think they’re excellent 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, they’re great, aren’t they? The novella fits in quite well, not only because of the winter setting but also because of similar preoccupations. Looking forward to your review.

  5. German Literature Month XII Author Index – Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume 2) Says:

    […] 1 Sanyal Identitti 1 Seghers A Price on His Head 1 Schirach Punishment 1 2 Stamm Getting Dark 1 2 Susskind The Pigeon 1 Winkler Blue Jewellry 1 Zweig Amok and Other Stories […]

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