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.

Comments are disabled for this article.


By Peter Stamm
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Reviewed by Dorian Stuber
176 pages, hardcover
ISBN: 9781590518113
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

Read More >

I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

Read More >

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >