‘Literature should be naked,’ Peter Stamm writes. Words should never obscure the story, ‘its warmth, its form, its vitality’. It’s form that critics in Germany and his native Switzerland are talking about when they compare Stamm to Raymond Carver. Take ‘The True Pure Land’, one of his more ‘naked’ stories. The narrator, a Swiss man working in New York for six months, lives in Spanish Harlem. He sits at his window, smoking, watching a woman opposite. His roommate, a man from Alabama, listens to country music, smokes pot and complains about his girlfriend, a leftist. The narrator goes to the beach to celebrate the Swiss national holiday. Later, a go-between arranges a date with the woman opposite, but it turns out to be the wrong woman. Nothing happens. The roommate’s girlfriend jokes about Switzerland, calling it the only ‘pure land’. The night before the narrator returns to Switzerland his roommate is stranded in another part of the city because of a snow storm and has to phone to say goodbye.
That’s pretty much the plot of ‘The True Pure Land’. The story is all resonances – it’s ‘naked’ of action, but in Stamm’s sense ‘warm’. In another story, ‘Fado’, a man has a night to kill in Lisbon. He goes to a restaurant and listens to music. Two Canadian girls invite him over to their table; one of the waiters will be taking them dancing later, and they need a fourth. The waiter takes them to a lousy disco. The narrator dances for a long time with the more obnoxious of the Canadians. Afterwards, the two men escort the Canadians to their pension. The narrator is allowed to come in, but not the waiter, who’s annoyed and threatens to tell the police about the girls’ drugs. Upstairs, the girls offer him a beer and tease him about a threesome. ‘Too little had happened, and then again too much for an easy leave-taking.’ The next morning he briefly visits a church.
These stories work like the last ten pages of The Sun Also Rises: Jake Barnes stopping in Bayonne, eating, crossing back into Spain, going swimming and making friends with the bicycle team spending the night in his hotel; waking the next morning to find the team gone; swimming. The hero’s peregrinations go largely unexplained, but their power is obvious. It’s like watching a dog and trying to understand what it’s feeling. Stamm’s stories are just as blunt, just as intuitive.
He pegs his plots on leave-takings and break-ups, moments that encourage us to look back at the inexplicable and aimless, what made sense at the time. Stamm’s second novel, Unformed Landscape (translated like Stamm’s other books by Michael Hofmann), told the story of a 28-year-old Norwegian woman called Kathrine who leaves her second husband and son and, dipping below the Arctic circle for the first time in her life, travels first to Jutland, then to Paris and eventually to Boulogne in pursuit of a Danish technician who once installed a machine at the fish factory in her village. Kathrine half-heartedly thinks about falling in love with the Dane (the two of them have been tentatively emailing for years), spends a few days with a ship’s captain in Bergen, tries hash for the first time in Stockholm and convinces a naive young technocrat from Brussels that she is a famous dancer. In Paris she is disoriented and splurges on the Dior perfume called Poison – she assumes it is like ‘poisson’. But none of what she sees along the way impresses her much: ‘That people had different faces, she had already known. She had known that there are some houses that are bigger and more beautiful than others. A thousand times a thousand makes a million, and it wasn’t necessary to go to Paris to find that out.’ So what does she find out? When Kathrine finally heads for home we have no idea what the upshot of her journey will have been. Yet we follow it with a pressing interest.
Stamm’s writing has an effect similar to that of detective fiction. The hero criss-crosses the map, gathering clues, but never lets on what he’s thinking. Stamm’s plots are hardly thriller-like, but he musters a subtle sustained suspense – which is perhaps why, though he seems a natural short story writer, he’s also able to write novels. His third, On a Day like This, follows Andreas, a Swiss man teaching German in Paris. He has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer but tells no one, and therefore thinks of himself as a ‘secret agent’. But it’s his actions rather than his illness that make the reader wonder what mystery he is trying to solve. He invites a casual girlfriend, Delphine, on a road trip back to Switzerland, without telling her that he is dying, that he plans never to leave, or that his real mission in Switzerland involves another woman, whom he loved when he was young. Stamm’s American publishers, Other Press, specialised in books about psychoanalysis before they published his work – which reads like an inverted version of the talking cure. We watch Andreas work through his problems, but without putting them into words. In the end, Andreas realises he’s serious about Delphine. The novel has been not about his death or the road trip home, but about the girl. (He never tells her about the cancer.)
Endings are one of Stamm’s strengths; he always arrives at the finish well-rested, with work still to do. Instead of the truncated feeling of a Hemingway story, a Stamm story fishtails, closing with a new emphasis that usually realigns what has come before. The Lisbon story, ‘Fado’, seems always about to turn as soulful as the music it’s named after, but then we see that it was all a study in futility. A restless story, ‘Through the Night’, about a man waiting up all night for a woman in a blizzard, ends on a note of mysterious reconciliation, as if the waiting had smoothed away all his anxieties. The European as the innocent abroad, trying to make friends in foreign languages, left by lovers and leaving, travelling under grey skies, the quiet tourist. Stamm’s stories end when the hero comes home or finds love.
The new novel is ambitiously different. Called Seven Years, the story actually covers 18, whereas Unformed Landscape and On a Day like This had a span of a few months at most. And whereas the earlier novels tracked a brief, plummeting moment of escape, Seven Years grinds down the story of a ghastly and unsatisfying love triangle. Alex, an architecture student, is sitting through the pretentious jocularity of his friends’ end-of-term banter when one of them, as a prank, invites a young Polish woman to join their table. In Alex’s description, she is not attractive:
Her face was puffy, and she wore her midlength hair loose … She had on a brown corduroy skirt, a patterned blouse in wishy-washy pastel colours, and a scarf around her neck. Her nose was reddened, and a few crumpled-up tissues were on the table in front of her. While I was still taking her in, she looked up and our glances met. Her face twisted into an anxious smile, and in a sort of reflex I smiled back. She lowered her eyes, but even her shyness seemed inappropriate and disagreeably flirtatious.
This is Ivona, and she will be the love of Alex’s life. Once she’s joined their table she sits, answering questions in monosyllables, awkward but oddly unselfconscious, impossible to get rid of. Eventually, in the chilly beer garden evening, he moves up close to her for warmth. Her passivity turns him on. ‘I had the feeling Ivona was giving herself to me, and I had absolute power over her, and could do whatever I liked with her. I felt utterly indifferent to her.’ He walks her home. He rubs in vain against her tightly belted skirt. It will be years before she lets him sleep with her. He goes long stretches without her, but always comes back. And in all that time he never revises his estimate of her: she is always pathetic. ‘I could only stand her company when I was aroused.’
This has a sharper strangeness than most Stamm plots, and was inspired by Witold Gombrowicz, who wrote a play called Ivona, Princess of Burgundia in 1935. Less homage than retelling, Seven Years leaves out the mad Alfred Jarry energy of Gombrowicz’s original, but takes seriously the play’s main suggestion: not just that an ugly girl might prove sexually addictive, but that such an inexplicable passion would not only scandalise but actually derange established society, the farcical royal court of Gombrowicz’s play or the upper middle class of Stamm’s Munich.
Shortly after he meets Ivona, Alex marries Sonia, a classmate from architecture school. Stamm tells us about Sonia’s beauty, but doesn’t make us feel it: more important are her wealthy parents and her brittle ambitions. Sonia is a type, the student who takes easily to mentors, who brightly quotes past masters while never fathoming the embarrassment inherent to real ambition. She and Alex set up a modest family firm. They are childlessly, tepidly married. Sonia cries when she first learns about Ivona.
Ivona is an illegal immigrant – working first at a Catholic bookshop (she is devout), and later as a cleaner and babysitter. She needs money for an operation, and, after seven years’ hiatus, gets in touch with Alex. Her face has grown fatter, her hair thinner, she is wearing white socks under plastic sandals when he goes to see her. ‘She might be only two years older than me, but she was an old woman,’ Alex says. But his passion is quick. As Ivona reaches for the teabags Alex comes up from behind.
Stamm’s affectless, clean-cut prose makes Alex sound almost monstrously matter-of-fact, and the unavoidable clarity of outline in such a structured story, a love triangle, threatens to make the novel seem schematic and moralising. The symmetry between the women, beautiful barren Sonia and ugly bountiful Ivona, labours to teach a broad lesson: that you can’t plan a relationship the way you draw a blueprint. ‘She’ – Sonia – ‘had once likened our relationship to a house we were building together, something that wasn’t an expression of either one of us, but that came about through our joint wills. There were many rooms in this house, she said, a dining room and a bedroom, a children’s room and a pantry for our common memories.’ These rooms never get filled, and Alex has reason to regret the wooden structure of his marriage. Ivona is simply an outsider. He explains to her: ‘You wouldn’t get along with my friends. What would you talk to them about?’ Early on, in consideration of Sonia’s good prospects and overall suitability, Alex relegated Ivona to the irrational side of his life, something almost unspeakable: ‘Sonia would never say to a man that she loved him, the way that Ivona had said it to me, as if there was no other possibility. Ivona’s declaration had been embarrassing, just like the idea of being seen in public with her, but even so the thought of her love had something ennobling about it.’ And Ivona proves to be the more viable partner. The irony seems fated: Ivona conceives Alex’s child, but he and Sonia adopt it. The argument for doing so – to give it a good bourgeois home – is much the same as Alex’s reason for entering his loveless marriage in the first place.
By the end, everything has fallen apart. Alex is standing at a window in Munich airport, looking out at the runway as dusk falls and the running lights come on, and feels a tingle of liberty. Another Stamm novel might begin here: with escape. A commonplace model of artistic development would explain why this longer, more ambitious novel goes against his earlier work, exchanging the organic form of the open-ended journey for the rigid triangle. Stamm confines his characteristic warmth, vitality and vulnerability to Ivona’s body: I sometimes wished she was the narrator.
Just after Alex falls for Ivona – but before he commits to Sonia – he experiences a moment of illumination and true ambition. His description could be of Stamm’s own working method. Alex has torn up a project, a museum design, and is revising it:
This time I tried to work from the inside, from the exhibition space, not the front elevation. I pictured myself as a visitor to the museum, and developed the structure of the building in an imaginary tour of the rooms. I was proceeding not from construction so much as from intuition, trying on the different rooms like clothes. Often I would stand in my study with eyes shut, pushing the walls this way and that, checking the angle and the quantity of the light, groping my way forward. If someone had seen me, they would surely have thought I was crazy.