As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of destruction. Gillian’s and Hubert’s struggles to understand the emotional basis of these incongruities provide dramatic tension in this taut and provocative novel.
Although Gillian survives an auto accident that kills her husband, the crash damages and permanently alters her face. As she convalesces, she recalls the weeks leading up to the accident, in particular her televised interview with Hubert, a local artist, and her post-interview request that he paint her portrait. Gillian shares with Hubert the hope that his painting of her will reveal truths to which she has been blind. All that she understands about herself is derivative of others’ impressions and reactions, and she longs for Hubert to interpret and reveal to her, her true self. Instead, Hubert soon becomes frustrated with his subject. “I don’t see anything in you. I’ll be pleased if I manage the exterior half decently,” he tetchily tells Gillian during a sitting. He accuses her of intentionally concealing her inner self, of “acting,” and of an unwillingness to reveal any vulnerability, an accusation that is not new to her.
With her post-accident convalescence complete, Gillian moves out of the city and relocates to a secluded mountain resort. No longer Gillian, she is simply known now as “Jill.” She seeks to refashion her life, far from the television cameras, cocktail parties, and celebrity status that constituted her existence. Yet in this new world Jill’s authentic self remains elusive. When Hubert re-enters her life, this time as an artist-in-residence at the resort, Gillian again looks to him and his art to “find” her. But now Hubert is undergoing his own crisis. He has lost creative inspiration and self-confidence as an artist, and after succumbing to an emotional collapse finds that he is now able to create art only through the slow work of destruction:
As a boy he had often whiled away the hours like this, had pulled one thread after another from a piece of rough cloth, or picked away at a rope until there were just thin fibers left, broken up a blossom or a fir twig into its constituent parts, hatched and crosshatched a piece of paper with pencil till it made a shiny even surface.
Hubert even negates his many, previous sketches of Gillian through intricate, penciled cross-hatchings that cover his earlier markings, making the underlying picture unrecognizable. And when Jill finds the drawings of her that Hubert has destroyed, she begins to do the same to the ones that Hubert left untouched:
She started covering one of the sketches with her own hatchings, the one of her kneeling on the bed with her hands behind her back, as though chained. The pencil was too hard, so she took another one. She deleted the picture, as though burying her unprotected body under a layer of graphite, making a fossil that no one would ever discover.
This purposeful destruction of the sketches symbolizes Gillian’s and Hubert’s separate, existential battles, and for each it marks a turning point to finally acknowledge the unvarnished, imperfect reality of who they are.
Michael Hoffman’s masterful translation retains the integrity of Stamm’s crystalline prose—precise, clean, and spare. While the writing is strong enough to keep the reader engaged, the novel’s plot, really a pair of character explorations, is not entirely satisfying. It is difficult to empathize with two people so very self-conscious and yet not at all self-aware. And the aimless drift of Gillian’s and Hubert’s lives resounds (perhaps intentionally) in the indecisive meter of the novel as though Stamm himself is unsure how to find a narrative resolution for his two muses—lost souls searching for the means to balance the created and the authentic.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .