Peter Stamm: In Strange Gardens and Other Stories – Blitzeis und In fremden Gärten (1999/2003)

In Strange Gardens: And Other Stories by Peter Stamm

In these stories, Stamm’s clean style expresses despair without flash, through softness and small gestures, with disarming retorts full of derision and infinite tenderness. There, where life hesitates, ready to tip over—with nothing yet played out—is where these people and their stories exist. For us, they all become exceptional.  “Sensitive and unnerving. . . . An uncommonly intimate work, one that will remind the reader of his or her own lived experience with a greater intensity than many of the books that are published right here at home.”

I had a hard time picking a Swiss author for German Literature Month as there are so many good ones to pick from. I chose Peter Stamm because the reviews in Swiss and German newspapers tend to be full of praise but I have never read anything by him. Most of what Stamm has written is translated into English, his novels as well as his short stories. I got Agnes (Agnes German), his first novel but from the English and German reviews I know, it’s his only controversial book, one that you either love or hate. I was much more in the mood to read something that critics called one of “the most beautiful and important books” or “one of the most remarkable achievements of contemporary literature written in German”. And so I chose to read his short story collection Blitzeis. You can find it in the English collection In Strange Gardens and Other Stories that combines two German collections, Blitzeis and In fremden Gärten.

Since I have finished the book I tiptoe around this review. The stories are saturated with a fleeting beauty that is hard to capture. What exactly was it that made me love those stories so much? So much that for the first time, I regretted reading short stories and not a novel. I would have loved to go on reading each and every single one of those stories. Nothing much happens in these pages. People dream and float and meet others. They live some moments of intensity, of joy, of disappointment, of regret. The stories take place in different countries, one is set in Switzerland, some in New York, one in Sweden, another one in Italy, one in the Netherlands. The characters are often from Switzerland, they meet people abroad, are fascinated by the cities and the landscapes they don’t know, some are happy to return to Switzerland, some will stay abroad. They enjoy moments in which nothing much happens.

These stories are, as I said, not so much about plot or even atmosphere but about mood. They achieve to convey a wide range of moods. Sadness, melancholy, joy, apathy… each and every story captures either one or more of these emotional states. At times I was reminded of some Japanese stories and their celebration of fleetingness, at times they reminded me of Anna Gavalda’s first short story collection Je voudrais que quelq’un m’attende quelque partI Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere.

To give you a better impression I will pick two stories.

In the Outer Suburbs (In den Aussenbezirken) is the story of a chance encounter. A young Swiss man is walking the streets of New York on an early Christmas morning. He is hung over from the night before in which he had a party with friends. Too much alcohol and too many cigarettes were involved. He walks aimlessly through the streets and feels as if he sees them for the first time. He finally enters a bar and is drawn into a conversation with a drunk whom everyone seems to avoid. Without prejudice or preconceived ideas he listens to the man and they drink together. The drunk is full of wisdom, talks about poetry, and the difference of love poems written by men or women. After a long while they leave the bar together. The afternoon is still bright, although they expected that the night had already fallen. When they part, the drunk thanks him for a beautiful afternoon.

Passion (Passion) is the story of a love in its final hours. The beauty of the Italian summer, the happiness of the narrator who lies awake in the hot night listening to his friends talk below the open window of his sleeping room, contrast with the feeling of an imminent ending. He wants to break up with his girlfriend but when she finally leaves him, he is disappointed.

Peter Stamm’s stories may very well be the greatest discovery of German Literature Month for me. I loved each and every one of them and wanted to go on reading. I can’t wait to read one of his novels. I already got An einem Tag wie diesem – On a Day Like This and it’s likely that I will review it during the last week of German Literature Month.

The review is part of German Literature Month – Week 3 Switzerland and Austria

32 thoughts on “Peter Stamm: In Strange Gardens and Other Stories – Blitzeis und In fremden Gärten (1999/2003)

  1. Wonderful review, Caroline! Your description of the book and the two stories make me want to get the book now. ‘In the Outer Suburbs’ looks like a really beautiful story – I love stories which have only conversations. I loved your description – “Nothing much happens in these pages. People dream and float and meet others. They live some moments of intensity, of joy, of disappointment, of regret.” It describes wonderfully what a beautiful short story is all about. It looks like Peter Stamm is a master of it.

    • Thanks, Vishy, it’s a wonderful book and I’m glad I seem to have been able to capture it. I would be interested to see what you think of it. The second collectionof the English isn’t available in German anymore but I started a novel and am very curious to see if i will like it as much.
      He captures those fleeting moments of chance encounters and those enchanted moments that never last very well.

      • I can’t believe that the second collection is not available in German, while the English translation is available!

        Hope you are enjoying Stamm’s novel. Are you reading ‘Agnes’ or ‘On a Day Like This’? I love the title of ‘On a Day Like This’. It says a lot of things and really pulls the reader into the book.

        • It’s odd, I thought so too but maybe they will publish the paperback next. It’ was only available in hardback so far.
          I’ve started “On a Day Like This”. I’ve read that Agnes is somewhat bleak. I will read it eventually but at present I’m more in the mood for the other one. His titles are all very evocative I think.
          And I like the English cover a lot.

  2. Peter Stamm has been published here–I came very close this summer to reading his novel Seven Years this past summer, but in the end I didn’t get to it. I think I would prefer these stories–I do love well done short stories. These sound like little snapshots of a moment in life–I quite like the idea.

    • Exacatly that’s what they are, little snapshots. I liked them a lot but I’m convinced some of his novels are equally good. At least the one I just started seems very similar in tone and mood. Agnes usually gets mixed reviews. Seven Years is one of his latest I guess.
      If you like the short stories you can always read something longer later.

  3. Well here’s a name I’d like to remember for later in the year when I’m not so committed to so many books. He sounds wonderful, Caroline, and I’d love to try his short stories.

    • I had this book for quite a while but for some reason I thought it would be very different. It was so much better than I thought it would be. I hope you will like it should you read it.

  4. I’ve never heard of him. I suppose the French translations are Verglas and D’étranges jardins. Do you know Paysages aléatoires, I love this title, it’s tempting.

    I’ll look for them, it really sounds like something I’ll like.

    • No, I don’t know it, it’s Ungefähre Landschaft in German and does sound like another one I need to put on my list.
      I think he chooses his titles well and for once the translators did respect this.
      I’d like to know what you think of him. I find him very Swiss but in a good way. Maybe this will sound surprising but Swiss authors are much more cosmopolitan than German writers. The novel I’m reading now is set in Paris.

      • For me it’s not surprising at all that Swiss writers are more cosmopolitan than German writers. In my head, Switzerland is a bigger Luxembourg and Luxembourg is very cosmopolitan.

        I really miss living near borders.

        • Yes, it’s a great thing, 5 minutes and I’m either in Germany or France.
          I was a bit hasty when I said Switzerland is cosmopolitan, the cities are, and some regions but when you go somewhere in the center it’s almost the Stone Age. Narrow minded. Switzerland was the last country in Europe to grant women the right to vote. In 1971. And not all cantons. In canton Appenzell they were not allowed to vote until 1990! Can you imagine…

  5. It seems that the stories are of daily life. A simple theme but still can be really deep. It made me remember The square persimmon. I wonder can you compare this with that?

    • Thanks, Carole. I didn’t want them to end but that’s also a good sign, they were really excellent. I started a novel and must say, it seems equally good. I’ll review it very soon.

    • I’m sorry to hear this. I liked theses stories very much but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t find them prosaic as well. I’ll know more once I get to Seven Years. I could imagine he is repetitive. I started On a Day Like This and it reads like a longer version of the stories in this book. But I do like it.

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  7. I’m generally not a great fan of short stories – with plenty of notable exceptions – but I very much liked your descriptions here of both the stories and of your experience in reading them – so, yet another recommendation to add to an exponentially-growing list, but one that’s likely to enter the queue in a high position…

    • Don’t remind me of my pile… I hope you will like them. I thought he was a great discovery. I’m reading one of his novels now and like it a lot as well. Very similar. I hope to review it next week.

  8. Stamm has been on my radar a while, purely because he’s translated into English by the ever excellent Michael Hofmann. That was enough for me to pay attention, but I had no idea really what Stamm was actually like.

    Your comparison to floating world Japanese stories is a fascinating one. I can see how this might seem prosaic. Capturing such small, such fleeting as you say, moments does of course risk being inconsequential. But then life is in the inconsequential. As ever it’s the execution that’s the thing isn’t it?

    Vishy in the first post quoted the part of your review I was going to:

    “Nothing much happens in these pages. People dream and float and meet others. They live some moments of intensity, of joy, of disappointment, of regret.”

    Sounds marvellous.

    • I believe when saying it could be prosaic you were referring to Anthony’s comment. I was thinking when I read the comment that the stories could be seen as prosaic but they are not. From what I see now, the novel I’m reading is similar. It describes the same fleetingness that is hard to capture in a review and even while reading you have to be attentive.
      I was so surprised to find a similar description of transcience like in some Japanese stories I read this year.
      I would love to know what you think of them, should you read them.
      In the novel I’m reading now is the quote of a critic saying “What is fascinating about Stamm’s stories is that everyone could have experienced what he is writing about, or one could even say, everyone has experienced it. You read him and it makes you sad and you think of a time long gone.”

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  10. I was Prosaic is a question of perspective. From afar news that Bob has left Jane is mere gossip. For Bob, and perhaps for Jane, it could be devastating. On the other end of the emotional spectrum many of our happiest moments are I think often products of time, place and chemistry that would be difficult to describe without them sounding ordinary.

    Actually, this is part of what I love about Jean Rhys. She describes a woman sitting alone in a bar, being treated rather sniffily by the patronne, and the importance to the character comes through even though if one were in the bar one likely wouldn’t even notice.

    I will be reading some Stamm. It’s a question of time though. Still, I am delighted as I said to have actually seen a well written review for some of his work now which previously I hadn’t.

    • Thanks, Max, that’s nice of you to say.
      Yes, I agree some of our most memorable experiences, at least, if you are of a more contemplative and introspective nature, could seem very mundane or prosaic to others. Jean Rhys is, i would say like Katherine Mansfield very good at conveying sch subtle emotions that are hard to describe.
      I haven’t finished the novel I started but for time reasons only. I didn’t want to speed read it. I hope you will get to it sooner or later.

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