Posts Tagged ‘peter stamm’

Getting Dark

November 10, 2022

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.

Best Books of 2020 Part 3

December 29, 2020

Finally, here are my favourite books from 2020:

Firstly, this was the year I finally got round to reading Bae Suh. Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is a beguiling and disconcerting reading experience which is difficult to summarise. Over its four parts, it tells numerous stories that may also be one story, a text of incessant echoes from characters with uncanny similarities to the repetition of specific lines. What begins as a quest for identity ends up questioning whether certainty is possible

Identity is also important in Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron (translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona McIntyre). Everything from Argentinian national identity to sexual discovery, colonialism to class, is covered in the guise of a rip-roaring adventure. The novel wins its place on energy alone, and is another reminder of the excellence of Charco Press. It is also the only Booker International long-listed book among my favourites, which suggests I think it should have won

Next is 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. As is often the case with his work, it begins with a single decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena. On this occasion, however, Christoph later discovers another couple whose lives seem to exactly replicate his and Magdalena’s. How he reacts to these doppelgangers makes for a fascinating exploration of how we tell the stories of our lives

Another writer I particularly admire is Annie Ernaux, whose work, thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, is now reaching a wider audience in the UK. This year saw the translation, by Alison L Strayer, of A Girl’s Story. Here she tells of her early sexual experiences at a summer camp, but, as Ernaux explains, she does not regard the story she tells as ‘hers’ in the sense we would normally understand with biographical writing: “I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo.” What I love about Ernaux’s work is how she forensically captures the details of the time alongside truths of human experience which remain as insightful today as ever

Finally, Vigdis Hjoth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (translated by Charlotte Barslund) stood out for me this year as much as Will and Testament did last year. I was transfixed by the way a story of mid-life crisis became one of transformation and hope via the fight to preserve the postal service. It was a reminder that regarding ‘mental health’ as something entirely abstract, existing only in our heads, is a dangerous mistake. Interestingly, it joined the other four books in offering a version of hope in a year which needed it more than most.

The Sweet Indifference of the World

April 25, 2020

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.

On a Day Like This

November 26, 2019

As with so many of Peter Stamm’s characters, Andreas, in his 2006 novel On a Day Like This (translated, as always, by Michael Hofmann), makes a series of apparently impulsive decisions which will change his life dramatically. Typically, Andreas’ motives are not entirely transparent, though we understand that his life as a teacher in Paris has gradually been drained of meaning:

“Emptiness was his life in this city, in eighteen years in which nothing had changed, without his wishing for anything to change.”

With a secure, if increasingly unrewarding, job and two casual lovers, Andreas considers himself settled into the pattern of his life, but there are signs that he is beginning to long for change, imagining, for example, what it would be like to be run over by a bus:

“The collision would be the end of what had been thus far, and at the same time a sort of fresh start.”

Nothing quite so dramatic occurs – as Stamm has said in interview, “The behaviour of people in daily crisis seems much more varied than when big things happen” – and Andreas continues to feel both the insignificance of his life and his detachment from it:

“He was both an extra in the imaginary film and a member of the audience.”

He will also complain:

“He life was too formless, and at the same time too much of a tangle.”

Much of his dissatisfaction is rooted in a story from his youth, a summer afternoon when he went swimming with two friends, Fabienne and Manuel. While Manuel is swimming in the lake, Andreas kisses Fabienne. Nothing more happens, and later Fabienne and Manuel begin a relationship that will end in marriage, but Andreas feels that “Fabienne and Andreas was a love story that had never quite happened.” This has allowed Andreas to continue to idolise Fabienne – “he couldn’t imagine Fabienne sweaty or tired” – and this, in turn, at least partly explains why he has never sustained a relationship with a woman:

“From that time, she had accompanied him through all his relationships.”

Though Andreas seems, unconsciously at least, to be longing for change, it is, as previously stated, a series of minor decisions, rather than one major one, which lead his life in a new direction. Stamm has described his writing technique as:

“…more to do with feelings than with thoughts. I use my intuition to decide whether a person would do one thing or another. There is no planning, most of the time it’s not even real decisions.”

When Andreas decides to walk one of the younger teachers, Delphine, home at the end of term, and they end up sleeping together, it does not seem particularly out of the ordinary; afterwards, knowing that she will be going to a new job after the holidays, he assumes “that would be the last either of them would ever hear of the other.” This choice, however, coincides with an event Andreas has less control over, a small exploratory operation, which leads Delphine to move in with him while he recovers. This, too, ends abruptly – “I want you to leave” he tells her – but he is not only reacting to the threat of someone getting close to him (“He had always been careful not to be loved too much himself”) but to fear of the results of the biopsy:

“Someone had made a diagnosis and come to certain decisions about him, someone he didn’t even know.”

In the end, he cannot face finding out that something serious may be wrong with him, and he misses the appointment. It is this which leads him to decide to return to his home town in Switzerland, abandoning his life in France by selling his flat and buying a car instead, and asking Delphine to go with him, while at the same time intent on seeing Fabienne again:

“He had to begin a new life. That, he thought, is my only choice.”

The novel then contrasts the relationship with Delphine – casual, uncertain – with his feelings for Fabienne. As with many of Stamm’s novels, this represents a contrast between fiction and reality – if we weren’t sure that Andreas and Fabienne’s ‘relationship’ was ‘fictional’, Stamm has already made this clear by connecting it to the story in an instructional booklet which Andreas uses to teach German. Though he is set on meeting Fabienne again, “He didn’t know what he expected from her. He didn’t even know what he wanted.” It is almost as if he, too, wants to believe that part of his life is not real:

“He wanted to convince himself that the only reason that his love had lasted so long was that it had remained unrequited.”

Fabienne also makes the point clearly:

“What I have with Manuel isn’t a story. It’s reality.”

In many ways Andreas is an unsympathetic character, showing little understanding of others, but it becomes clear that this originates in a lack of self-knowledge – “He had never had a very clear sense of himself.” His failure to follow up on the moments he shared with Fabienne (“You were so dismissive, after you kissed me”) is what he has been missing in holding on to that memory.

On a Day Like This is another fascinating Stamm novel, its title capturing both the banality of Andreas’ world and his long-stifled hope for change.

To the Back of Beyond

May 20, 2018

Peter Stamm’s To the Back of Beyond (not a literal translation of Weit uber das Land but an astute appropriation of the common English phrase denoting a distant but vague destination by Stamm’s usual translator Michael Hofmann) tells the story of Thomas and Astrid, a married couple with two children (Konrad and Ella) who are separated when Thomas leaves one night. Rather than focus on Astrid or on Thomas, Stamm details the experience of both in alternating sections, revealing that his interest lies not in Thomas’ desertion or in Astrid’s survival but in the relationship itself .

Thomas’ walkout is a surprise to both of them: they have just returned from a family holiday and there is no tension or animosity in the relationship. His departure is occasioned by “less a thought than a vision”, that is a vision of the next day, the day after their return. Even as he leaves, having made no preparations, he has no clear sense of what he is doing:

“Even though he was stone cold sober, he had a sense of moving like a drunk, slowly and self-consciously.”

Despite this, he has an unconscious desire not simply to leave but to disappear:

“I’ll be safer in the woods, Thomas thought, I need to get off this road. He still wasn’t being sought, presumably Astrid wouldn’t have remarked his disappearance yet, but he didn’t want to run into anyone who would remember him later.”

Meanwhile Astrid is initially uncertain of Thomas’ whereabouts:

“Astrid tried to think whether Thomas had said anything about some apportionment or something, but by then the children were getting up, and she needed to see they didn’t forget anything.”

Even when Thomas does not appear for lunch, as is his usual routine, Astrid is convinced “There was bound to be some perfectly ordinary explanation for his absence.” When he does not return that night, however, she becomes concerned, but her first instinct is to cover for him, lying to her children and Thomas’ office:

“She was surprised at the way Konrad, at the way everyone, seemed to accept her crude lies without a murmur. She seemed to be the only one who actually registered the fact that Thomas had disappeared.”

In the novel’s middle section Astrid attempts to find Thomas, both on her own and with the help of the police; his use of their credit card in a shop selling outdoor clothes and equipment allows her to get close to him but he has already headed into the mountains. Here, Stamm uses elements of the thriller, ending one section with Thomas falling (“For a moment he had the sensation of flying”) and the next with the police appearing at Astrid’s door to tell her, “We’ve found him.” In fact, the police have found evidence suggesting Thomas has fallen to his death.

There is an element of flatness to Stamm’s writing, and his characters; that is, we struggle to see much more than what is there at that point, at that page. Though he reveals characters’ feelings of the moment the reader generally has little access to any thoughts regarding past and future. Appropriately, Thomas has no plans for the future, and Astrid cannot make any. Yet the lack of a past can make Thomas’ motives seem obscure. There is no suggestion he no longer loves Astrid, saying at one point that “their love seemed as strong now as in the first months of their relationship.” If anything, he is rejecting routine:

“What as it all for? In the course of their daily exertions, there was never a moment when they could ask themselves such questions: maybe they were scared of them, or they had understood that such questions were impossible to answer and hence should not be asked at all.”

In his vision of the next day which drives him to leave Thomas mentions that, by the time he got home for lunch, “the newspapers and the wineglasses would have been whisked away.” Stamm returns to this later when Astrid leaves the newspaper and half-empty wine glass:

“She left them both outside, as though that were way of keeping time from moving forward.”

Her routine, too, has been disrupted, a disruption that by the novel’s end we are encouraged to see differently, not as a rejection but as an affirmation. Though To the Back of Beyond is about separation, it is, above all, a love story, Stamm, as so often, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, and back again.

Unformed Landscape

November 25, 2016


Having read Peter Stamm’s last three books to be published in English (Seven Years, We’re Flying and All Days Are Night) the time had come to delve into his back catalogue (Stamm has been well served over the years by his translator Michael Hofmann). Fellow Stamm fan Tony Malone recommended Unformed Landscape as a good place to start, and German Literature Month seemed a good time to read it.

Unformed Landscape is a relatively short novel in which a lot seems to happen. The novel opens one particular Saturday with Kathrine heading out across country on her skis:

“Finally, after perhaps an hour, she moved away from that last landmark at a sharp angle, and glided out into the limitless white of the fjeld.”

The “limitless white”, as we shall discover, is the first hint of the unformed landscape of her life. Stamm, however, moves quickly from this particular morning to more general summary of Kathrine’s life:

“Kathrine had married Helge, she had had a child, she had divorced Helge.”

Soon the two methods of narration are transposed:

“After work she went to her mother’s. The three of them would eat supper together, later Kathrine would pick up the child and go home. Eventually, the child learned to walk, and she didn’t have to carry him anymore. That was in summer. Then the days grew shorter, autumn came, the first snow, and then winter.”

This sense of time passing quickly suggests Kathrine feels her life slipping away. She looks to others to change that, for example a visiting Dane, Christian, who is installing new machinery at the fish factory: “Kathrine waited for him to kiss her, but he didn’t kiss her.” Alexander, a Russian ship’s captain she befriends in her job at customs, tells her:

“You expect too much from other people. You’re responsible for your own life.”


Kathrine, however, still looks to others to change her life, marrying again. Her attraction to Thomas is perhaps best summed up in the sentence, “His life was going somewhere.” That marriage, too, falls apart – his controlling family accuse her of infidelity (by sending a letter to everyone she knows) and Thomas moves out of the flat they were sharing while waiting to move into his family home. Typical of the way the story is told, we learn of this before we hear much about the marriage itself. Clearly Thomas has attempted, and Kathrine has allowed him, to imprint himself upon her life, as can be seen from the furniture in their flat:

“He had been generous, and bought expensive, new things. He hadn’t liked her furniture, he had mocked her collection of books…And every time they tidied up…she noticed that something disappeared, until there was hardly anything left.”

It is at this point that Kathrine decides to become responsible for her own life, leaving her village, her job and her son, and setting out to find Christian in Aarhus. This may be the first time she has seized control of her destiny in such a way, but this does not man she has transformed into a different person overnight; the haphazard still plays a large part in her life. She stays with the sea captain who took her across the Arctic Circle for a few days, and when she reaches Aarhus Christian is not there; neither is she entirely clear why she wishes to see him, except that he represents a chance of escape she didn’t take.

The novel questions how far Kathrine can take control of her own life. She represents the many people who remain largely where they were born, not because they choose to stay there but because they do not choose to move away. She is aware she is not entirely happy, and is not afraid to walk away from that unhappiness, but is less certain about where to walk towards. She searches for the (male) catalyst which will transform her life only to be disappointed, but not disheartened.

This makes Unformed Landscape an unusual novel: Kathrine is neither powerless in face of its plot, nor the power behind it. Like most people, her life is a confused combination of choices and chance. It is this that gives the novel both its depth and its resonance; her very ordinariness makes her extraordinary. It is certainly the best of Stamm’s novels that I have read so far.

2012 Catch-up – Seven Years

February 8, 2013

seven years

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.