Sept Ans (Seven Years), Peter Stamm



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.


Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie



Thank God for the Kindle, without it, I wouldn’t have been able to read this book. At the very least, it would have taken me 4 weeks to get it. She is more known for her New Yorker short stories, but Chilly Scenes of Winter is a novel. Her first, published in 1976.

It is the story of Charles whose girlfriend has left him. She left him to go back to her husband leaving Charles completely down. I can’t use any other word than down, because Beattie herself refrains, as much as possible, from employing adjectives or describing the state of her characters. I found that she employs descriptions when referring to the weather. And I loved her writing. After the first two pages (or the first dozen locations since I read it on the Kindle), I noticed how much sentences end with he says, she says, Sam says, Charles says.


“Hi,” Sam says to Elise, walking back into the living room.

“Hi,” Elise says. She does not move over on the sofa.

“Move over,” Sam says, sitting down next to her. “How’s school?” He says to Susan.

“I’m sick of it”

“Beats walking the streerts,” Sam says.

Sam, Charles’ only friend, and Elise, the friend of Charles’ sister, Susan, end up spending the night together. But this does not matter. Virtually, nothing outside of Charles’ brooding over Laura leaving him matters in this story, but I found, that because the writing is so stripped-down, and the others characters’ actions so insignificant, that I started to pay attention to their little details, like walking, or sitting down, or turning on the car. It feels like a long-camera shot in a movie, where the viewer cannot avert his/her eyes, and gradually realizes that this is what the movie is about.

Charles and Susan’s mother is suicidal, or so she seems, according to Charles. She tries to kill herself three times throughout this short book, and at every attempt, Charles reacts as calmly as possible, as if news of her attempted suicide have become so commonplace to him, they don’t induce any reaction from him.

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

“What’s the matter, Mom?”

“If you weren’t there I was going to kill myself, I’ve been in the bathtub, trying to get the pain to go away. The pain won’t go away.”

“What are you talking about? Where’s Pete?”

“Is the appendix on the left or the right side, Charles? I think that must be what it is.”

“Susan,” Charles says. He gives her the phone, walks away, still trying to undo the lid.

The little plot knots are laid out pretty early. When Charles drives his sister to check on their mother, he tells the latter “I despair of your ever acting normal again, but I do want you to be all right.” This sums pretty much how he feels about the people that cross his life, and maybe even about himself. Charles, despite his growing obsession with getting back Laura, acts as a stable rock to people around him

Sam, his friend who could have had a better future, and is instead selling ties and shirts at some store, finds himself suddenly unemployed and unable to afford rent. Charles offers him to stay at his place. His ex-girlfriend who ran away to California following her lover, thinking she is a lesbian, calls him to ask for a place to stay, and he offers her his place for a while. Without any resentment, without demanding anything in return, he is helpful towards others.

That said, Charles spends most of his time wallowing in sorrow over Laura leaving him. I was worried the growing references towards things Laura made or said or even baked might make Charles seem pathetic and the book a bit cheap with sentimentality, but on the contrary I felt that Beattie perfectly captured what it must feel for a guy to be heart-broken, painting pictures of everyday changes in a typically masculine fashion.

She was Laura’s friend. He wants to think that she knows all about the two of them, but Laura said that she never told anybody. He wishes she had; then he wouldn’t doubt, as he sometimes does, that it happened at all.

He rests his head against the foggy side window. He closes his eyes and imagines scenes that never took place: he and Laura went to the beach, and he she got sunburned and he rubbed Solarcaine on her back; Laura cooked a ten-course Chinese dinner for him, have him a surprise birthday party

Laura buys plants that are dying in the supermarkets – ones that have four or five leaves, marked down to nineteen cents, because she feels sorry for them. Couldn’t she feel sorry for him?


I don’t remember saving so many quotes that reflect the inner state of a heartbroken man, as I did with this book. In a Paris Review interview, Beattie seems offended when the interviewer repeats to her that she was once known as the voice of a generation, and she finds this belittling to a writer. I’m glad she replied this way, because I for one am not an east coast guy who grew up in the late 70s, (Beattie’s generation apparently) and I was drawn to that book and couldn’t put it down. Apparently, she is capable of understanding what Lebanese men who lived through a civil war go through. Of course, this all sounds ridiculous and, in my opinion, applies to second-rate writers who rely on current events and newspaper clippings to produce their innumerable works.

While I was searching for this book, I stumbled on some review that described this book as extremely funny. I’m not sure if this a correct description it. I can understand the bizarrely humorous touches in the conversations between Pete, the husband of Charles’ mother and Charles. But that’s all what they are, to me, touches:

“If you ever want a good car wax, let me recommend Turtle Wax,” Pete says. “That’s really the stuff.”

“I’ll remember that,” Charles says.

“No you won’t” Pete says.

“Turtle Wax,” Charles repeats, not wanting to have to hear again that he doesn’t like Pete.

Yes, this might sound funny, but this is a conversation that was going in the parking of the hospital where Charles’ mother, Clara, is being kept under psychological and medical care following her suicide attempt. The relationship between Pete and Charles reflects the inversion of the roles where Charles seems the steady one, and Pete the drunkard who flies off to Chicago on business trips when his wife’s state is the most fragile, who calls at inappropriate times to tell Charles he bought a car, who refers to Charles’ mother as Mommy and who has no clue about taking care of her, and has to get the support of Charles (even if only a moral support) whenever something strikes Clara.

In conclusion, I loved the book. I will give it a 5-star rating on my Goodreads profile. It feels quite modern, in that the it rests on this question-to-be-answered: What will Charles do now that Laura has left him? It is such a trivial question in comparison to the psychological state of his mother who runs the risk of killing, or badly hurting herself, at any moment. What reassures us that nothing will happen to the mother is, weirdly, a 60-year old inefficient teenager, whose ridiculous presence acts as a safeguard against her destructive nature. The lack of any ornamental language makes the characters stand out for how they truly ought to be, even though we see them through the eyes of Charles.