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.

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