Having read all of Peter Stamm’s previous novels (although I still have some of his short story collections to get to), I was looking forward to getting my hands on the latest one, which appeared in German a couple of years back. Of course, there are limits to my enthusiasm (and finances), and I decided to wait until the paperback edition was released at the end of 2014 – which meant that I was able to see several reviews of the book, not all of which were that positive. Pause for thought? Perhaps… But having enjoyed his first four novels, surely this one would be a success too?
Nacht ist der Tag (All Days are Night) begins with Gillian, a beautiful, successful TV presenter, waking up in hospital. As her memories slowly return, the reader finds out about the car crash that put her there, an accident which has left her husband dead – and seriously damaged Gillian’s face. After the first of many operations, she returns home to brood over her misfortune, and to think about the cause of the accident, an argument with her husband which led to his driving under the influence.
The reason for the argument was Gillian’s secret meetings with Hubert, an artist and photographer she met on her show – and the photos he took of her. However, she isn’t the only one whose life is altered by the impromptu session as the artist also sees his life take a different direction afterwards. It’s a chance encounter that has changed both their lives – it’s only when they meet again that they realise how much.
I hate to say it, but those negative critics had it right – All Days are Night is most definitely not Stamm’s finest hour. The energy and spark that characterises his other novels is missing here, and I found myself really struggling through some parts of the book. Were I a book abandoner, this one would have been set aside before the end of the first half – which is about as bad as it gets…
What Stamm was trying to do in this book was paint a portrait of two people whose early success fades away. Once life takes a turn for the worse, Gillian and Hubert are forced to reconsider the life lived thus far:
“Ihr Leben vor dem Unfall war eine einzige Inszenierung gewesen. Ihr Job, das Ferhsehstudio, die schönen Kleider, die Städtereisen, die Essen in guten Restaurants, die Besuche bei ihren Eltern und bei der Mutter von Matthias. Es musste falsch gewesen sein, wenn es so leicht zu zerstören war, durch eine Unachtsamkeit, eine falsche Bewegung.”
p.44 (Fischer Verlag, 2014)
“Her life before the accident had just been one big sham. Her job, the TV studio, the beautiful clothes, the city breaks, eating out at good restaurants, the visits to her parents and Matthias’ mother. It must all have been wrong, if it could be destroyed so easily, through carelessness, one false step.” *** (my translation)
Both Gillian and Hubert struggle to come to terms with the change in their circumstances. Having been successful, they are unable to deal with a life slightly more ordinary.
Gillian is a seemingly attractive, successful woman, but there’s something a little flat about her. This comes through in Hubert’s (slightly creepy) attempts to draw and photograph her – try as he might to draw out the life within, there’s nothing really there. Of course, that might also be due to Hubert’s own issues with emptiness:
“Manchmal fragte sich Hubert, wann seine Schaffenskrise angefangen hatte. Es war nicht plötzlich geschehen, irgendwann hatte er bemerkt, dass ihm das Malen keinen Spaß mehr machte und dass er seit Monaten nichts Neues angefangen hatte.” (p.145)
“Sometimes Hubert wondered when his creative crisis had begun. It hadn’t happened overnight, at some point he had noticed that painting was no longer enjoyable and that he hadn’t started anything new for months.” ***
Just as Gillian has lost motivation, Hubert too seems to have had the life sucked out of him by their encounter.
The raw material is there for an interesting story, but somehow it doesn’t quite come together. While Stamm’s usual work (Seven Years, Agnes) often has a spiteful, disturbing undertone which lends the story a unique air, this one is, at times, simply dull. This is particularly true for the first half of the book, focusing on Gillian coming to terms with the accident and the flashbacks to her meeting with Hubert. It sets the scene for the rest of the novel, but it’s rather boring and far too slow.
The book is also structured a little strangely. The first half is written from Gillian’s viewpoint, and the second section is seen through Hubert’s eyes, with a third section, a sort of coda, rounding things off. The overall effect is a little disjointed, the whole story failing to hang together somehow – in writing of a couple whose lives are off kilter, Stamm seems to have felt the same issues himself.
It’s certainly not all bad , and the second section, when the two meet again years later, does have some of the old Stamm magic, with Gillian, in particular, seeming a little more three-dimensional. However, for me, All Days are Night is a rather disappointing book, not a patch on his earlier work. Still, if you want to find out for yourself, Other Press published an English-language version last year in Michael Hofmann’s translation – perhaps you’ll enjoy it more than I did 😉 I’ll still be looking forward to Stamm’s next novel – I just hope it’s better than this one…