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’étranger – The 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.