Peter Stamm: On a Day Like This – An einem Tag wie diesem (2006)

Swiss author Peter Stamm was one of the discoveries of German Literature Month last November. I read and reviewed one of his short story collections In Strange Gardens and was very much looking forward to read one of his novels. I have finally managed to read On a Day Like This – An einem Tag wie diesem.

On a Day Like This tells the story of Andreas, a Swiss teacher who has been living in Paris for twenty years. He goes through the city and his own life like a visitor, never really belonging there nor to anyone. He changes his lovers, sometimes sees more than one woman at the same time. Whenever one of them wants more, he leaves them. He is like a spectator of his own life, someone who doesn’t fully participate. But “on a day like this” things change. He feels even more detached than he used to. His work as a teacher doesn’t make sense anymore. He doesn’t feel at home in Paris, doesn’t like his friends and he is filled by an incredible yearning for his home country and a woman he was once in love with, when he was barely twenty.

The fragile construction that his life has become finally falls apart completely when he goes to see a doctor because of a persistent cough. The doctor sees a shadow on his lung that could be anything, a scar or cancer. Too scared to wait for the result of some tests, Andreas, resigns from his job, sells his apartment and returns to Switzerland to find the woman he once loved.

I thought I knew how this was going to end but luckily I was wrong. It’s not a predictable story and the laconic tone doesn’t leave a lot of room for sentimentality. Like in his short stories, Stamm captures minute details of every day life. The struggle of someone who avoids relationships at any price but is filled with a deep longing to belong somewhere, to find meaning, resonates with us.

You can read this novel without being aware of the intertextuality, without knowing how much references and allusions to other works it contains but it’s still interesting to know them. The title is a reference to Georges Perec’s Un Home qui dort – A Man Asleep. The story of a young man, a bit like Bartleby who withdraws from life and only slowly finds his way back. One could say that Andreas has lived a life like that but has now woken up. Another reference is François Ozon’s movie Le temps qui reste.

But Andreas’ detachment is also reminiscent of Camus’ L’étrangerThe Outsider. Just like Meursault, Andreas doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone, he is even an outsider in his own life, has never been capable of taking root but unlike Meursault, he wakes up and his life takes a turn.

Reading this novel had something uncanny. Andreas’ coldness is painful and it’s not easy to like him at first, but slowly, Stamm peels off layer after layer and we get a better feeling for his protagonist and why he became the way he was. There is pain and hurt and deep-rooted suspicion of anything “normal”, like families, love, career. Deep down, without knowing it, he was protesting and looking for something out of the ordinary, something more.

Stamm is a great observer, it’s the way he captures brief moments, tiny details, minutiae that make his books so special. There is the beauty of the fleeting moment, right next to the banality of everyday routine. I don’t think that this is his best novel and I preferred his short stories but there were so many wonderful scenes in this book that I still want to read his other novels too.

39 thoughts on “Peter Stamm: On a Day Like This – An einem Tag wie diesem (2006)

  1. I’m going to look for this book. I love stories like this. It sounds like a great character story and I love how you said he peels layer after layer.

    • I hope you will like it. His observations are amazing, how he captures tiny things, especially how imperfect human beings are. I’m looking forward to Unformed Landscape and Seven Years. The way he captured a certain region in Switzerland was uncanny. Spot on. (I live in another region that isn’t that typical). I can also recommend his short stories, I absolutely loved them. I’m not sure you like short stories?

  2. I read his agnes when it came out about ten years ago as I enjoyed hoffman as a translator ,I really must get to him again ,I loved his descriptive sense and also this was a lover describing his partner he caught love in a way I liked ,all the best stu

    • I think Agnes is quite different but it got a lot of praise. He is well worth reading in any case. The way he potrays love is always unusual. I hope you get to read him again.

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline! I somehow thought that you had reviewed this book already 🙂 Glad to know that you liked the ending of the book which was different from what you expected. I liked the way the author has peeled layer after layer of the protagonist’s character and brought him closer to the reader. I will add this to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I hope you will like it. Yes, it wasn’t what I expected. I mentioned this book a few times, maybe that’s why you thought I had reviewed it already. I’m looking forward to the next one already. 🙂

  4. Lovely review–I want to read this one even more than the short stories (and they were added to my list when you wrote about them last year). I’m glad it doesn’t matter about the references, as I suspect I wouldn’t get them. I do like the sound of this story–I can relate to that feeling of being a spectator–I’ve been in a fug lately, too… And always good when the end turns out to be unexpected.

    • Thanks, Danielle. I hope you will like it. It’s quite similar to the short stories. I could relate to a lot of the elements, not as bad, luckily but I think that’s why Stamm is liked so much. He captures a lot of those small moments, not always nice ones but we all know them. His characters are very honest to themselves and that’s why there is hope. I like that. No use pretending the world is perfect when it’s not.

  5. Great review, Caroline. You’ve reminded me that I need to reread L’Etranger. I was much too young when I read it before.

    Side note: you can watch all of Downton Abbey, Season Two at pbs.org.

    • Thanks, Carole and for the tip. I’ll try the link.
      L’étranger is an amazing book. All of Camus actually. I always liked him much better than Sartre. Re-reading it wouldn’t be a bad idea. It’s been a while in my case as well.

        • Yes, I read that and La chute but of the three I liked La Peste best as well. I might even re-read that. I think we read l’étranger in school but I still liked it. Admittedly we had great French teachers, they didn’t spoil books. And that he looked like the young Alain Delon did help as well. 🙂

  6. I’m never fond of books that invoke cancer – it’s such a brutal device to my mind. Although I like that plotline, of the sleeping individual brought back to consciousness and to life. I remember this author from your review of the short stories and he’s certainly someone I’d look out for – those stories in particular.

    • Litlove, I know exactly what you mean and that is precisely one of the elements he handled differently from what I had expected/feared. We never know whether he has cancer and all he writes about is Andreas’ reaction and that he remembers how he himself avoided someone who was diagnosed. I thought that the fear that we all have and that might even make us react very unkindly when confronted with someone’s illness was captured so well…In less than one page. Remembering his own reaction is part of the process of awakening.

  7. I’ve never heard of Stamm, but….laconic and detatched…affinities with Perec and Camus….translated by Michael Hofmann….sold!

    • I hope you will like him. He caused quite a stirr in the German speaking world. I think you could also pick another of his novels, they seem to be equally good. The short stories are definitely outstanding.

    • Tony, I think his short stories would be great to find out whether you would like one of the later novels and I have a feeling you would like Agnes, the one Stu mentions. It’s by far the least readable but I know you like a challenge. I think judging from what critics wrote, Ungefähre Landschaft must be his best. I’ll read that next. The funny thing is that waht I like so much in hiw writing, reminds me much more of Japanese than of German writers in general.

    • Or as I said to others, any other of his books is a good choice, maybe not Seven Years to start with, as I’ve read a few mixed reviews. I have to keep Michael Hoffman in mind, it seems. Although I read it in German, I’m interested to know who are the great translators.

    • Yes, I would. The cover a lot of his temes and his style is peculiar. I doesn’t work for everyine. I guess it is Un jour comme celui-ci. Or the other one for you… The one you looked up Paysages aléatoires.

  8. Hmm, I like outsiders! This sounds like the sort of thing I would enjoy. Since you recommend the short stories so highly, though, I might start there first.

    By the way I loved your recent post on indirect translation. I would personally much prefer an Albanian to translate Ismail Kadare’s work (which I’ve read a lot of, and was shocked to hear it might not have been translated directly) rather than go through a third language. As you say, a native English speaker could then edit it and clean up anything that didn’t sound natural. There is so much nuance to the language an author chooses to use, and inevitably some of that has to get lost in translation, so in two translations it could well end up losing the sense entirely. It’s like making a copy of a cassette – the sound gets so much worse when it’s a copy of a copy.

    • I think you would like the short stories. You can always try a novel if they worked for you.
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it does feel like a copy of a copy. I was very surprised that Bellos did it but from the point of view of a translator who is interested in the philosophy of language as well, it does make sense. It’s something you’d want to try. And Kadaré’s French seems very good. So there was help. I think the Hebrew via English traslation of a South Korean novel sounds more risky.
      I bought a book by Kadaré after you mentioned him. The German has been translated directly from the Albanian. I was lucky but I should really read translated books (unless they are from a Nordic language) in French.
      There is a huge prejudice reagrding L2 translations as some of the others have commented as well.

  9. Another impressive review Caroline.
    I feel sorry with the main character, his life seems so empty. I understand why you don’t like him at first.
    Did you find it a bit like the author’s life? like in Norwegian Wood, people said that that was Murakami’s life eventhough he keeps saying it was not his life.

    • Thanks, Novia. I did feel sorry for him, yes. Although he didn’t suffer at first he was on the verge to despair. I’m pretty sure there are some elements of Stamm’s own life in the book. I have only read one interview in which he was asked why he chose to write books about Swiss people abroad and no typically Swiss books.

  10. Thank you Caroline, a beautiful review!
    I appreciate your intertextual references, it made me want to have a closer look at Georges Perec’s “A Man Asleep”, which I until now know nothing about.

  11. It souds very good, but he does sound like a natural short story writer so I may start with those.

    He came to my attention because I noticed Hoffmann had done the translations. Nice to see a review.

    • Yes, I would say he is a fanatstic short story writer. I need to read another novel to be completely sure but from what I have seen so far, I’d say he excels in the short form.

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