Sept Ans (Seven Years), Peter Stamm

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Generally, I’m biased towards reading writers whose books are reviewed in the New York Review of Books. I like the way they analyze books, I like their selection of writers they target and, more often than not, they would review several works by the same writer. This was the case for Stamm, reviewed in 2011. Seven Years was included in this selection along with  On A Day Like This and Unformed Landscape. What I retained from that review is the style of Stamm, distant, minimalist, no frills. I can read that.

August 2014, the New Yorker follows suit and publish a fiction podcast read by Tim Parks of a short Stamm story, Sweet Dreams. I’m hooked: it’s a very modern story of a couple living in a city, each exhibiting, in my opinion, strong individual traits, and the change that happens in their relation towards each other.

Seven Years opens on Sonia standing in the middle of an art gallery, dreamy, elsewhere, looking outside. She is attending the exhibition of her older friend, Antje, who left her home in Marseille to exhibit in Munich. Narrating the story is Alex. I wondered about his relation to Sonia, and I needed quite some pages to have it confirmed that he is her husband, and that, Sophie, present at the exhibition looking at her mother, is their daughter.

As it seems to me common with Stamm, flashbacks intertwine with the present. Alex seizes the opportunity of Antje’s stay at their place to tell her the story of their relationship. Curiously, he starts with the memory of Iwona, a Polish student working illegally in Germany, with whom he hooked up.

Twenty years ago, they were a bunch of architecture students, Alex, Sonia, Ferdi, and Rudiger, each with his own idea of how to design buildings, how to arrange empty spaces, how to make use of light, form follows function or vice versa. Carelessly drifting through their pre-graduation days, the bunch, dares Alex to flirt with an insipid girl, Iwona. Not really accepting the challenge but feeling himself dragged into it, the night ends with Alex cuddling Iwona, but corrected when it comes to the actual act of sex.

Writing this review, I realize that Alex was presented -early on- as such: someone who is dragged into events, activities and decisions, without making them himself. He does try to benefit the most out of them, but until the very end of the book, he keeps on trying to exonerate himself from tangle that life throws at him.

Je m’étais accomodé de la situation (I had accustomed myself to the situation

Following their graduation, and looking for an internship at an architecture studio in Marseille, the ambitious and beautiful Sonia drags Alex with her where she is successful in landing an internship and in making Alex fall for her. Her internship is extended in Marseille and with Alex back to Munich, they decide to maintain their relationship. In Munich, out of boredom, Alex finds himself dragged into the bed of Iwona, who rarely, if ever, speaks, who has no apparent intellect, who cannot maintain conversations with Alex, yet who becomes frequently his resting center when life becomes tough on Alex.

I didn’t like Alex one bit. After he completes the first of his series of flashback to Antje, she looks at him horrified at his behavior with Iwona, and that was before he cheated on Sonia with her, and he tells her, the story isn’t over yet. I suppose I feel the same as Antje felt towards him. Cheating on Sonia is bad by itself, but Alex frequently expresses ideas and morals that are in extreme juxtaposition to his actions: he unreasonably suspects Sonia of cheating on him in Marseille, while he was with Iwona, he accuses Iwona of bigotry while his morals fail everytime he finds himself without Sonia around him, he tells his daughter not to think of men as destructive machines while, hours before, he was trying to deflower a devout Catholic because he felt he didn’t dominate her yet. At a particularly low moment of the book, Alex stops in front of a mirror at a bar where he was getting himself drunk and considers that he is still good-looking; aged, but still the looker. This particular scene forever alienated him from me.

Alex never uses tender words to describe his relationship with Sonia, even after their marriage, even after her forgiveness to his cheating; in fact, the vocabulary he mostly employs towards Sonia is of a sexual nature, whereas he reserves tender words to Iwona; Iwona, who was never able to understand his theories and grand ideas, who kept herself mute, silently waiting for his return, yet it was her who uttered: I love you, when he least expected it.

What I didn’t like about the book was how much it is anchored in the present. The location is Munich, the time is clearly established in relation to world events such as the fall of the Berlin wall or the economic crisis, and the characters are affected by those events. Adding to such clearly defined timeframe the love triangle and the book could have sunk into those cheap sentimental stories. But the book offers more to the reader: complex characters in minimalist writing.

The complexity of Alex is disorienting: even when he fails he genuinely regrets his failure and curses himself when he falls again. His failures are not due to some grand decision requested of him, but simply to commit to one person, to one action, to one idea, and in this he incredibly mirrors the average man, and it makes one pause to take a break from the reading. His desire to dominate Iwona is dependency masked. His oscillation towards the safe and warm, yet stagnant Iwona draws him away from the achiever, mature and adult Sonia; in a way, Iwona offers the security of childhood, which is evidently what Alex is seeking.

I would have liked to include quotes from the book to illustrate the simplicity of Stamm’s writing, but I fear my translation will not be representative of it.

4 thoughts on “Sept Ans (Seven Years), Peter Stamm

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