Seven Years in Munich

When I first started my blog, most of the little German-language literature I read was confined to classics, owing both to a lack of opportunity (pre-Book-Depository days…) and a lack of knowledge about contemporary German-language writing.  Over the past couple of years though, I have gradually built up a small library of books, and a surprising number are fairly contemporary, recommended either by small presses (e.g. Peirene Press) or fellow bloggers (e.g. Caroline and Lizzy, organisers of last November’s German Literature Month).

One name which has continued to crop up is Peter Stamm, and when several reviews of his book Seven Years (Sieben Jahre in the original) appeared recently, I thought it was time to give this one a go.  It’s an interesting book, fairly easy to read (I raced through my copy in two days), but deceptively simple with a lingering aftertaste.  In fact, it’s a story which certainly stays in your head for a while after you finish it…

We begin the book with an image of Sonja, a beautiful middle-aged woman standing inside an art gallery in Munich.  The reader is with her husband Alex, the narrator of the book, outside looking in, alongside his daughter Sophie.  From this seemingly perfect beginning, the writer, through a story Alex tells to a family friend, shatters our illusions, telling us what life is really like for the couple.

To understand this, we have to go back to 1989 when Alex is about to complete his degree in architecture.  At the time, he is good friends with Sonja, but nothing more, and on a summer’s day he is enjoying a beer with a couple of friends and flirting with some girls at a nearby table.  On a whim, one of his friends invites another girl to come and join them; a shy, quiet, dowdy-looking creature.  This is Iwona, a Polish student, and this seemingly innocuous meeting is to have a lasting, and devastating, effect on the lives of many of the characters.

The key to Sieben Jahre is the incomprehensible, unavoidable compulsion Alex has to be with Iwona, despite not really liking her at all.  After finally getting together with Sonja, he manages to extract himself from the quasi-hypnotic spell the Polish woman has cast upon him, but after the titular seven years (an apt time span for the religious Iwona), when she contacts him for financial assistance, he falls under her spell again, with catastrophic results.

Stamm makes it clear from the start that there is nothing about Iwona which should attract someone like Alex.  She is taciturn, socially awkward and incapable of talking on any subject except the movie she last watched on television, and despite certain physical attributes which are foregrounded in the text, she doesn’t appear to actually impress Alex with her appearance either.  However, in her presence, Alex feels the one thing he perhaps misses from his seemingly perfect partner – a devotion and a desire to please that is literally an obsession…

If Alex doesn’t sound like a very nice man at all, you’re probably right.  He’s a selfish, brooding, self-centred husband, jealous of his wife’s talents and unconvinced of the merits of fidelity.  However, at times Sonja seems no better.  The more the reader learns about her, the less convinced we are that she actually loves Alex at all.  I had a strong impression that she merely needed a good-looking, relatively intelligent partner to share her concerns and give her a child – who that person was, and what they thought about it all seemed relatively unimportant…

When you then widen the focus to examine the other characters in Sieben Jahre, it quickly becomes clear that this is not a phenomenon confined to the unhappy couple.  The beauty, if that is the correct word, of the novel is that none of the characters are that sympathetic.  Rather than tutting disapprovingly and sending our good wishes in the direction of one character or other, we are forced to look more closely at the relationships and decide whether they are actually worth all the trouble.  Everyone is to blame for what happens (some, admittedly, more than others), but nobody comes out of it with an unblemished character.

So what is Stamm actually saying with all this angst and misbehaviour?  One conclusion you could draw is that happy marriages are merely myths, stories that shatter into fragments when scrutinised in the harsh light of day.  Another is that happiness has little to do with monetary and social success – the reader is left with a sneaking suspicion that the happiest of the characters is Iwona, despite the misfortunes she has to put up with.

What he really means is anyone’s guess though, even though the language he uses to lay out his ideas is sparse, simple and easily comprehensible for a non-native reader like me.  There’s a lot more to the story than  you would think – a case of the sum of the parts exceeding the total of the individual elements.  For me, at least, there’s definitely enough there to justify another look at Peter Stamm’s work at some point…

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17 thoughts on “Seven Years in Munich

  1. Half a mo….
    Just caught a few lines of the previous review. 7 years…. long-suffering Polish woman, and these two are repeated in the Stamm novel. Well perhaps not the long-suffering part….

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  2. I'm glad you liked it. I started to worry because it's been a long while back I saw you mentioning you were reading it.
    I haven't read this yet but it will be my next follwowed by Ungefähren Landschaft which is said to be his best.
    The writing is very accessible, to say the least but that is, in my opinion, also due to the fact that he is Swiss. You will never find a Swiss writer capable of a complex style. At least I wouldn't know of any.

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  3. Caroline – That's the problem when you review everything you read (and have a spate of review copies to get through) – some reviews get pushed to the bottom of the pile…

    Funnily enough, I actually have a copy of 'Ungefähre Landschaft', so that will be my next Stamm book, when I get some time.

    As for the simple/complex question, I suppose the complex part is left to Austrian writers 😉

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  4. I started reading this a few weeks ago, but abandoned it. I'm afraid it was too slow for me and didn't engage me enough to justify continuing. Glad you enjoyed it more than I did.

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  5. Jackie – That surprises me. It was a very easy read, and I was eager to find out where it was going. It's definitely more character- than plot driven though.

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  6. Jackie – I think that's where the nastiness of the characters comes in. If Iwona had been attractive and warm, and Sonja had been more approachable, it would have been a bit tedious. For me, making them all a bit unlikeable gave it a little bite…

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