I’ve read a fair amount from Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s back catalogue over the past few years, so it will come as no surprise that when his latest book appeared (in German…) back in February, I got myself a copy straight away. In fact, I read it pretty much as soon as it arrived, but that was the week the Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced, and the review never got written. Luckily, though, I recently found a few hours to try it again, and I enjoyed it just as much second time around. It features the usual Stamm tropes, albeit with an eerie twist, and it’s all about life, and whether the choices we make are really choices at all…
Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt (The Gentle Indifference of the World) is a short novel that takes place, for the most part, in Stockholm. Lena, a young Swiss woman, finds a note inviting her to a meeting, and when she arrives at the meeting point, she finds an older man waiting for her. Christoph is also Swiss, but the reason for his invitation is related to something more important than their nationality – he has a tale to tell her.
The focus of his story, apart from himself, is a young man, Chris, who just happens to be Lena’s boyfriend, and the more Christoph talks about himself and the younger man, the greater the effect the story has on Lena. You see, Chris seems to be a younger version of Christoph, living the life the older man experienced sixteen years earlier, to the extent that Christoph knows things about Lena that nobody but Chris should ever know. However, once this shock wears off, Lena starts to ponder the real reason for this extended conversation – what exactly does the stranger want to tell her?
Stamm delights in stories of existential numbness and Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt is no exception to this trend. A story on three levels, the novel begins with the walk through Stockholm, before moving on to the periods of Christoph’s life that he describes to Lena. He discusses his struggles to become a writer, the encounter with Magdalena, the love of his life, and how their break-up finally pushed him into his writing career.
However, it’s the final strand that gives the story its edge. Early on in the piece, after a bookstore reading in his home town, Christoph returns late to his hotel and has to ring for the night porter:
Endlich hörte ich eine Tür knallen und sah kurz darauf Bewegung im Flur, die innere Glastür ging auf, und ein junger Mann kam auf mich zu. Während er am Schloss herumhantierte, sah ich seinen Gesicht neben der Spiegelung meines eigenen, aber erst als er mir die Tür aufhielt, erkannte ich, dass er ich selbst war.
pp.22/3 (Fischer Verlag, 2018)
Eventually I heard a door slam and shortly afterwards saw movement inside the reception area, the internal glass door opened, and a young man walked over to me. While he was fiddling about with the lock, I saw his face beside the reflection of my own, but it wasn’t until he was holding the door open for me, that I recognised that he was me.
*** (my translation)
This is just the first meeting, and while he finds it hard to believe at first, Christoph gradually comes to the conclusion that Chris is his younger doppelgänger. The two lives diverge at times, yet over the years there’s an uncanny similarity in where they go, what they do and who they get together with, to the extent that even Chris eventually gets curious about Christoph.
Initially Lena is a passive listener, happy to humour the older man, amused by his attempts to connect their lives. Gradually, though, she becomes ever more disturbed by his stories – they hit too close to home and are far too near the mark to be mere coincidence. From an unconcerned onlooker, she becomes a protagonist in Christoph’s story, wanting to rubbish what he reveals but unable to deny its truth. Towards the end of the novel, as the evening draws to a close, the walk that seemed to be meandering randomly turns out to have a clear destination. It’s here that we learn of the reasons for Lena’s trip to Stockholm. Again, there are parallels with Christoph’s experiences, but this time the roles are reversed…
It’s a fascinating story, with several nods to Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, and the central theme appears to be the impossibility of living a unique life. No matter how individual we feel we are, our lives run in the same tracks as those of the people who came before us, and it can be shattering when that realisation hits home. Chris does his best to change his future while Lena’s response is an attempt to block out the truth of Christoph’s knowledge. Of course, there’s a fair amount of poetic licence here, but with his novelistic exaggeration, Stamm suggests that the stories of our lives have already been written, struggle as we might to change them.
Not everyone’s a Stamm fan, and while I enjoyed the book immensely, there’s some fuel for their arguments here. His usual tropes are present in force with plenty of mansplaining to beautiful young women. The whole set-up for the story is a tad unrealistic as you suspect that in real life (if there is such a thing…) Lena wouldn’t have given Christoph thirty seconds of her time, let alone half a day. Added to this is a twist towards the end of the novel, one that makes you doubt what came before but also forces you to momentarily wonder whether Stamm is in complete control of the story.
Yet it’s all beautifully done, the comfortable walk through the city working as a nice metaphor for the reading experience, with the content just unsettling enough at times to prevent the book from becoming too dull. Stamm’s usual simple, stripped-back prose allows the reader to focus on the ideas he’s considering, and if you pay close attention, there are clever variations on the theme, with hints of other shadows in the background:
Während ich Lena gefolgt war, hatte ich mich gefragt, ob wohl auch meiner Magdalena vor sechzehn Jahren jemand nachgegangen war, ob ich nicht nur einen Doppelgänger hatte, sondern selbst einer war, Teil einer endlosen Kette immer gleicher Leben, die sich durch die Geschichte zog. (p.77)
While I was following Lena, I asked myself whether someone had also pursued my Magdalena sixteen years ago, whether I not only had a doppelgänger but was one myself, a link in an endless chain of converging lives that extended throughout history. ***
It’s a sobering thought for a man who believes himself to be in control of the story unfolding.
Stamm has his critics, but he usually delivers a compelling read, and Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt is no exception. I’ve read this twice (I can see myself giving it another go at some point), and I suspect most readers will enjoy its deceptively simple style and plot. Of course, unfortunately, that’s not really an option for most of you until Michael Hofmann does his thing and brings it into English. Until then…