In my first German Literature Month post for the year, I outlined some rather ambitious plans for November, but, as I explained, you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks before you see the (slightly rotten) fruit of my labours. Luckily, though, I’ve been busy preparing so as not to have weeks of blank space on the blog, with a few reviews to tide us over until my latest work is ready to be unveiled. Today sees the first of those, with a look at another book by a familiar face. Let’s take a walk, then, in some very strange gardens, and hear a few stories while we’re at it 🙂
While my preference is usually for complex writing with sentences you could get lost in for days, I make an exception for Swiss writer Peter Stamm, whose prose is the epitome of stripped-back simplicity. In fremden Gärten (In Strange Gardens) is a 2003 collection consisting of eleven typical Stamm pieces, with stories set both at home in small Swiss villages and away, taking us to New York, London, Dublin and Lisbon. The writer’s creations tend to be young people passing through, workers overseas for a short time or travellers spending a few days in a strange town, and most of the stories see them distracted for a moment after crossing paths with someone, or something, that momentarily draws them out of their isolated bubble (even if that moment rarely lasts too long).
One of Stamm’s favourite themes is people working abroad, with many stories showing the experiences of those outside their comfort zone. For example, in ‘Die ganze Nacht’ (‘Through the Night’), a man in a New York apartment watches a snowstorm build outside as he waits for a female visitor to arrive:
Er stand am Fenster und schaute hinaus. Selbst wenn der Flug pünktlich war, würde sie frühestens in einer halben Stunde hier sein. Aber er war jetzt schon unruhig. Er verwarf Sätze, die er sich in den vergangenen Wochen zurechtgelegt und sich immer wieder vorgesagt hatte. Er wusste, dass sie eine Erklärung verlangen würde, und wusste, dass er keine hatte. Er hatte nie Erklärungen gehabt, aber er war sich immer sicher gewesen.
‘Die ganze Nacht’, pp.45/6 (Fischer Verlag, 2014)
He stood at the window and looked out. Even if the flight was on time, she would be here in half an hour at the earliest. But he already felt uneasy. He cast aside the sentences he had put together over the previous weeks and rehearsed repeatedly. He knew that she would demand an explanation, and knew that he didn’t have one. He had never had any explanations, but he had always been sure of himself.
*** (my translation)
As the weather chaos causes a delay, then a detour, we stay with this typical, cold Stamm man as he braces himself for a meeting he asked for but doesn’t seem to want. We’re never told what’s going on, and the story (frustratingly) ends when it should be starting.
Another of this type is ‘Alles, was fehlt’ (‘All that’s Missing’), which has a businessman newly arrived in London regretting his decision. In a bizarre, almost impenetrable piece, the man’s thoughts turn to a Japanese woman he sees from his balcony and a child he hears about on TV, a boy found dead, and mutilated, in the Thames. Meanwhile, ‘Wie ein Kind, wie ein Engel’ (‘Like a Child, Like an Angel’) takes the reader on a business trip to eastern Europe, where the protagonist and an acquaintance he meets up with tiptoe around a request the visitor is unlikely to agree to.
These overseas ventures can be more carefree, though, with several having young folk, glowing and invincible, shown another side of life. ‘Der Aufenthalt’ (‘The Stop’) is a short piece in which three attractive young travellers waiting at a train station on a burning-hot day see death cross their paths in the form of a trainful of sick pilgrims, while ‘Fado’ has a man waiting to leave Europe spending an interesting evening with a couple of Canadian women in Lisbon. ‘Das Experiment’ (‘The Experiment’) is perhaps the lightest of the stories, with a New York couple’s attempt to keep their love chaste and pure leading to a friend seeking to get physically involved with the woman.
In truth, not all of these work terribly well, and the last couple feature Stamm’s usual focus on men over women, with more than a hint of wishful thinking in how his male characters interact with their female counterparts. The same is true for ‘Die brennende Wand’ (‘The Wall of Fire’), in which a part-time stuntman gets lucky, and then very unlucky. There’s little new or interesting here, and it’s the kind of story that Stamm critics would point to as an example of his faults.
In fremden Gärten is at its best when it goes in a different direction. This can be seen in the title story (the name comes from a Goethe quote about observing other people going about their business), a measured piece in which a neighbour calmly waters her neighbour’s plants as the reader wonders where the owner of the house is. By contrast, ‘Deep Furrows’ throws off the everyday feel, with a young man visiting an old house in Dublin, where a doctor lives with his wife and three equally beautiful daughters, each with their own individual skill and charm:
Dr. Kennedy fragte, ob mir seine Töchter gefielen. Ich wusste nicht, was ich sagen sollte. Die Schwestern waren sehr schön, aber in der Wiederholung hatte ihre Schönheit etwas absurdes.
‘Deep Furrows’, p.105
Dr. Kennedy asked me what I thought of his daughters. I didn’t know how to reply. The sisters were certainly beautiful, but in its repetition, there was something absurd about this beauty. ***
This one is imbued with an intriguing fairytale air, until Stamm, naturally, interrupts it with his usual blast of cynical reality.
Despite the tendency to focus on youth, my favourite stories are those that place older characters at the centre of the action. This is true for the opening piece, ‘Der Besuch’ (‘The Visit’), which relates the memories of an old woman living alone in a large house. She remembers with regret the years spent as a family in the now empty dwelling, but the visit of her grand-daughter, and a man she brings with her, is a spark that reignites the life that’s been missing for so long.
The collection then culminates in ‘Der Kuss’ (‘The Kiss’), a story bringing several of Stamm’s themes together. Here we have a Danish woman working in Switzerland receiving a visit from her widowed father, and in a story told from two perspectives, we see the pair desperately trying to connect, but not knowing how. In a clever metaphor, the woman lives in a village at the mouth of a train tunnel leading to Italy, where she’s been intending to go for some time, without ever quite finding the right moment to leave. The path forward for father and daughter is clear – it’s all about finding the courage to take it…
While I wouldn’t say In fremden Gärten is Stamm’s best work, with a few weaker pieces detracting from the whole, it’s still enjoyable and well worth a look, especially if (like me) you’ve already finished all of his longer works. Having said that, I’ve just noticed that he has a new book out, a novella by the looks of it, called Marcia aus Vermont (Marcia from Vermont), and it does look appealing. It seems like my credit card might be getting another work out – look out for another Stamm review in the not-too-distant future 😉
There’s an English-language edition out from Other Press, translated by Michael Hofmann, entitled In Strange Gardens and Other Stories. However, the collection actually bundles this book together with another collection, Blitzeis (Black Ice), so you get two books for the price of one!