31 July 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The narrator of Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, originally published in 1998 and now available in the U.S. in an able translation by Michael Hofmann, is a young Swiss writer who has come to Chicago to research a book on American luxury trains. In the reading room of the Public Library he meets Agnes, a graduate student in Physics. They have little in common. The narrator values his freedom more than his happiness. Agnes is prey to various fears—of windows that don’t open, of air conditioners, of elevators—and locks herself in the bathroom to change. It’s unclear that either likes the other, though each claims to be in love.

Despite these unpropitious signs, the two embark on a relationship that is aimless until they turn it into a narrative. “Write a story about me,” Agnes asks the narrator, “so I know what you think of me.” At first both enjoy the challenge she’s set him. But what begins as a flirtatious parlor game soon turns darker. When tragedy strikes, the narrator turns to the story to reverse the past. But eventually he no longer writes their story; the story writes them.

Agnes is most affected by this turn of events. Having already expressed her difficulty with reading—“It feels to me as though I’ve become the character in it, and the character’s life ends when the books does . . . I didn’t want books to have me in their power”—she now becomes one with her character in the fiction within the fiction, leading to an ambiguous ending in which the end of Stamm’s novel mirrors the end of his narrator’s tale.

It’s clear the novel’s most important relationship is not between the characters, but between fiction and reality. But it’s equally unclear what the nature of that relationship is supposed to be, especially because the novel regularly teases us with metaphors that promise but fail to tell us how to understand it.

At one point, for example, Agnes explains her research into the atomic structure of crystals in terms that seem to offer a key to understanding the narrative: “Almost everything is symmetrical at some level,” she tells the narrator, before adding, “it’s asymmetry that makes life possible. The difference between the sexes. The fact that time goes in one direction.” This claim chimes with the narrator’s belief that “life doesn’t go for endings, it goes on.” Does Agnes adhere to these ideas about form? Is the way the story and the story within the story are symmetrical a sign of its impossibility, to use Agnes’s term? In offering an ending that loops around to the beginning, is the novel mimicking the narrator’s idea of life, which doesn’t go for endings, or only emphasizing how different narratives are from life?

Similar questions arise when, in the course of his research, the narrator studies the Pullman Strike of 1894, interpreting it not in political or economic terms, but as a reaction by workers against “the complete control of their lives by their employer,” who “had planned for every contingency, except his workers’ desire for freedom.” We could read the narrator’s criticism of the patriarchal industrialist as an unintentional self-critique of his attitude to Agnes. Or we could understand it as a way to describe the author’s relationship to his characters and his work. But in what way does this carefully controlled novel allow for anything like its characters’ freedom?

The effect of these allegories for our reading—at once so overt and so enigmatic—is destabilizing, as if Stamm were proposing, through the very superfluity of these possible keys to understanding the text, the very failure of interpretation. Just as we are desperate for the control over life’s contingencies promised by narrative, so too, Stamm teasingly suggests, we are similarly insistent, as readers of those narratives, on making sense of them. At its most interesting, Agnes hints that its readers might be as domineering as its narrator. But Stamm never explains what it would mean to let Agnes, or Agnes, be free. How can we read without interpreting? And why must the possibility that a text could exceed interpretation be offered through the clichéd and misogynistic idea of woman as enigma?

Ultimately, Stamm’s metafictional sleights of hand are more tiresome than vertiginous. Agnes has neither the balance between possibility and aimlessness of Stamm’s early short stories about young people adrift, published in English as In Strange Gardens and Other Stories, nor the emotional impact of the two more recent collections combined in We’re Flying. Its concerns are as airless as the narrator’s climate-controlled apartment that Agnes, and ultimately readers, longs to escape. Agnes offers a writer whose cleverness hadn’t yet been enriched by compassion.

9 May 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Peter Stamm’s new collection of stories, We’re Flying, which came out from Other Press in Michael Hofmann’s translation earlier this year.

Peter Stamm has a number of books available in English translation, including Seven Years, which was on last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist.

Quantum Sarah was a spectacular summer intern who is not back in school, but will likely be reviewing for us again in the not-too-distant future. Here’s the opening of her review:

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives:

Lara could see the pictures, big family get-togethers in a garden in the north of Italy, pictures full of people she didn’t know, even her mother didn’t know some of the names. Thereafter the family had fallen apart . . . When Lara had visited Italy with her parents, there hadn’t been any more big reunions, only visits in darkened homes with old people who smelled funny and served dry cookies and big plastic bottles of lukewarm Fanta.

Rather than directly stating Lara’s isolation in her new romance, Stamm instead gives us vivid objects to evoke the feeling: a faded photograph. Dry cookies and lukewarm Fanta. Old people whose homes are lonely and “funny”-smelling. Later on, we get “a barely used coffee machine that Laura found on eBay, a chest for their shoes, a whole stack of yellow bath towels that were on offer”—objects that carry a false connotation of stability, but which are really as destructible and transient as her new relationship.

There’s an uncanny equanimity and composure in Stamm’s voice as he makes us privy to frequent scenes of psychological pain. When Angelika brings home a forgotten child from her daycare job, her boyfriend Benno is both warm and insensitive: he plays with the child, making droning noises like an airplane—“We’re flying!” he yells—but later begins to unbutton her blouse in front of the boy. “I’m not going to let that runt spoil my fun,” he snarls, engrossed in a cop show. After the boy’s parents come to pick him up, Angelika is confronted with the reality of Benno’s revealed selfishness and lack of care. “She freed herself and said she would have a quick shower too. She locked the bathroom but didn’t undress. When Benno knocked on the door, she was still sitting on the toilet, with her face in her hands.”

Heavy, shocking endings like these cap off many of Stamm’s stories, but not all of them are as tragic. In “Seven Sleepers,” a lonely vegetable farmer finds his first love; in “The Suitcase,” an elderly man surreptitiously slips a suitcase beneath his dying wife’s hospital bed with her necessary items—and a bar of chocolate.

We’re Flying is eerily readable—perhaps due to how much of ourselves we recognize in his characters. In a varied and colorful array of stories, Stamm manages to portray human life as the emotional mishmash that it really is, full of misery and beauty, full of falling and flying.

24 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Other Press

Why this book should win: Dismantled relationships FTW!

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

Let’s get this bit out of the way first: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years is not a terribly pleasant novel. The characters—particularly the narrator, Alexander—are deeply flawed people who probably would have done better in their fictional lives had they never encountered one or another or, after meeting, run in opposite directions. But it is also an engrossing read with direct, clear prose that engages and eggs the reader on.

Alexander is a German architecture student who, at the end of his final year of school, becomes involved with a Polish woman, Ivona, whom he does not much like. She does not engage him intellectually, he finds her unattractive, and he feels her to be beneath him socially. Yet he finds himself unable to stop seeing her. While this is going on, he begins a relationship with a fellow student, Sonia, who possesses an ambition and drive completely absent from Alex. Sonia and Alex marry and open a firm but after several years (the seven year itch that the title can, perhaps, be understood to reference) of marriage Ivona reappears in his life and he takes up with her once again. The effect of this affair eventually lays bare the weakness of his and Sonia’s relationship, which, despite its solid presentation at the beginning of the novel, is doomed to crumble around them.

Architecture and its various metaphors prove an apt vehicle for exploring Sonia, Alex, and Ivona’s movement through life. Sonia wishes to build socially conscious structures that work toward the creation and fulfillment of an ideal human. She has very firm ideas on the type of life she and Alex ought to lead: their work, home, and family life are all clearly laid out. Alex, for his part, finds himself happiest designing buildings he can never build, nor wants to construct; he would rather explore space on the page than express it in the world what with all the compromises that accompany such efforts. He allows others to determine the shape and course of his life, effectively drifting from one event to the next. And Ivona is simply a dweller, moving from one small, unpleasant residence to the next with little regard for how much smaller the physical space she inhabits becomes along the way. Instead, she carves out a world within that houses her love—her mania, really—for Alex and Alex alone.

Much of the drama in the novel feels, well, anti-climatic. A sense of the inevitable pervades the novel. Alex is by no means a passionate character, nor is he anyone—in fiction or life—for whom one should feel much pity. The events of the novel plays out as they do because of his own inertia, his willingness to meander in whatever direction circumstances take him. He builds a life with Sonia because it’s what she wants and it seems he should want her. He returns to Ivona time and again not because he wants to, but because she is always reaching out to him, no matter how he treats her. Inertia is his natural state and by novel’s end his inability to act has yielded the life he sees laid out before him.

Really, I could go on at much greater length about Seven Years. There’s just something about the characters and Stamm’s understanding of human nature that causes the myriad issues the novel raises to jut out in my mind. Truly excellent novels—which in my estimation Seven Years is—worm their way into the reader’s mind, giving them something to gnaw on. The excellent novel also possesses a life of its own and, to turn the phrase somewhat, gnaws on the reader, too. Or creates an itch that the reader can’t help but scratch.

....
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