Let’s leave Thomas Bernhard with his memories and slip quietly across the border, with our latest German Literature Month bus trip taking us to Switzerland. Today’s choice comes from another of my favourite writers, a collection of nine stories in a fairly slim volume. However, over the course of the book, we are taken to Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and (several times) New York, before arriving back where we started. It’s a good job I got those brakes tested…
Having read all of Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s novels, I’m now working my way through his short stories, and Blitzeis (‘Black Ice’) is his first collection of shorter pieces. It only runs to around 130 pages, but there’s a mix of brief scenes and extended pieces, ranging in length from two (!) to twenty pages. Despite the smaller canvas, the stories will be very familiar to anyone who has read Stamm’s novels, with the usual stripped-back prose and his rather ambivalent approach to the way men and women interact.
Stamm spent time in the US a while back, (his debut novel Agnes was set in Chicago), and several of the stories mine his experiences there, examining the lonely foreigner overseas. In ‘Treibgut’ (‘Flotsam’), we have a Swiss ex-pat rooming with Lotta, a Finnish woman hiding from her former lover. Along with two of the narrator’s friends, they take a short break to an island near the city, a weekend which has unforeseen consequences for all of the group.
‘In den Außenbezirken’ (‘In the Outer Suburbs’) then has us wandering out of the city centre to a New York pub, where we meet Dylan the poet and indulge in some day-time drinking. Despite the stark sunlight, however, a sense of darkness hovers over the short piece. This is also true for ‘Das Reine Land’ (‘The True Pure Land’), in which another Swiss man (the Stamm alter-ego…), spend much of his free time sitting smoking on his window-sill. Gradually, he becomes intrigued by the silhouette of a woman in the window opposite, and he decides to try to track her down. However, as it turns out, he’s not the only one gazing out of the window…
The focus on New York is secondary, though, as place is rarely as important in Stamm’s work as the focus on relationships – which usually have little to do with love and affection. In ‘Am Eisweiher’ (‘Ice Lake’), some fun night-swimming in summer goes from harmless flirting to tragedy in the matter of pages. ‘Was wir Können’ (‘What We Can Do’) then sees the narrator reluctantly getting involved with an awkward woman he has no real interest in, doing his best to play along until he’s ‘forced’ to make his disinterest clear.
Stamm’s themes are perhaps best presented in ‘Jeder Manns Recht’ (‘Everyone’s Right’), the story of a canoeing expedition in Sweden. The story focuses on two couples, each representing one of Stamm’s pet topics, and he gets to play with the tension both among and between the couples. The two honeymooners are annoying from the start, the man cowed by his energetic, passive-aggressive wife, but the main interest is in the narrator and his partner, an old childhood friend. Having known each other for decades, you would expect them to get along amicably, but Stamm can’t help but insert some unresolved sexual tension, making for a rather interesting few weeks in the boat.
Having read a fair amount of Stamm’s work, it’s hard to defend him completely from criticism of the way he portrays women in his work. Misogynistic is a word I’ve heard used to describe him on more than one occasion, and you can certainly find negative examples of female characters without looking too hard. In this collection, we have the ‘loose’ Stefanie from ‘Am Eisweiher’ (the narrator almost immediately informs us that rumour has it ‘she does it with anyone’), the teasing Monika from ‘Jeder Manns Recht’ (stringing her ‘old friend’ along) and the flighty user Lotta from ‘Treibgut’ (who appears to be playing the three men off against each other) – and that’s far from a complete list.
Much of this comes from the typical Stamm narrator, a cynical man with pessimistic views of women and relationships, perhaps best shown here in ‘Passion’, where on a holiday in Italy, we catch a first glimpse of his partner:
Ihr Gesicht glühte von der hitze der Küche, und sie strahlte vor Stolz über ihr Werk. In diesem kurzen Augenblick tat sie mir unglaublich leid und mit ihr die ganze Welt und ich mir selbst, und zugleich liebte ich sie mehr als jemals zuvor.
Her face was flushed from the heat of the kitchen, and she glowed with pride over her accomplishments. In this brief instant I felt incredibly sorry for her, and for the whole world, and for myself too, and at the same time I loved her more than ever before. *** (my translation)
This is just one of many examples of the narrator destroying a pleasant moment with sharp, bitter comments, perhaps a self-defence mechanism against future disappointments.
So is Stamm the misogynist here, or is he using his narrators (and is there a difference)? I’m not sure, but it works, for me at least. Where I was bored with my last short-story collection (Judith Hermann’s Lettipark), Blitzeis was a collection which held my attention throughout, and I couldn’t really say that any of the stories lost me along the way. Just as is the case with his novels, I was caught up in the awkward interaction of Stamm’s characters, knowing that a (metaphorical) train wreck is always just around the corner. These aren’t Happily-Ever-After stories, but brief slices of life presented in the cold light of reality.
If you’re still not convinced, the final story, ‘Blitzeis’ (‘Black Ice’), might make your mind up. In this piece, a psychologist, away from home writing a report on a terminally-ill TB patient, develops a bond with his subject (and a nurse he meets, of course), yet at their final meeting, things go very… well, Stamm:
Ich stand auf und verabschiedete mich von ihr. Sie fragte ob ich zu ihrer Beerdigung kommen werde, und ich sagte, “nein, wahrscheinlich nicht”.
I stood up and said my goodbyes. She asked if I would be at her funeral, and I said, “No, probably not”. ***
No, his characters aren’t always (are rarely) nice people, but his stories make for good reading. Is that enough?
The English translation bundles Blitzeis in with Stamm’s second collection of stories, together entitled In Strange Gardens and Other Stories (translated by Michael Hofmann, published by Other Press).