It’s the evening of Christmas Day down here in Australia, and I hope everyone is having a wonderful, restful day, whether you celebrate the event or not. I’m certainly planning to relax (with far too much food and a glass of red in hand, no doubt), but before I do, I’d just like to offer my seasonal gift to everyone out there. You see, I came across a book a few months back, one with a festive theme, and I thought it would make the ideal Christmas review post. Having said that, given the writer, you might suspect that this won’t be the happiest of affairs (and you’d be right!). A merry Christmas to all, anyway, and please enjoy a snowy December in the US – Swiss style 😉
Marcia aus Vermont (Marcia from Vermont) is the latest work by Swiss writer Peter Stamm, and while it only runs to about seventy pages, it’s a book that packs in a lot, all in Stamm’s familiar, gloomy style. The story begins with our narrator leaving a certain ‘foundation’, a collection of buildings in an American backwater where a rich benefactor has set up an artists’ retreat. As he drives away through a snowy landscape, the artist’s thoughts drift back a few decades to another period he spent in the US, a time that actually led to his present visit.
The story then takes us back to when Peter, a young Swiss artist, was living in New York, and to a fateful encounter on the streets of the city on Christmas Day:
Sie schaute mir in die Augen und lächelte. Heute sei ihr Geburtstag, sagte sie, wenn ich zwanzig Dollar hätte, könnten wir ein paar Sachen kaufen und eine kleine Feier machen.
p.11 (S. Fischer, 2019)
She looked me in the eye and smiled. Today was her birthday, she said, if I had twenty dollars, we could buy a few things and have a little party.
*** (my translation)
Despite some (justified) misgivings, Peter decides to take the stranger up on her offer, and this is just the start of the adventure, one week of hedonistic, youthful exuberance in which the young man spends time in the beds and lives of Marcia and her friends, only to leave suddenly, never to hear from them again. That is, until decades later, when he discovers that the location for the retreat he’s been invited to go on is owned by none other than Marcia’s father.
Marcia from Vermont is a nice easy read, seventy pages alternating between Peter’s thoughts as he drives back to New York and his memories, both of that heady week back in the eighties and of the months he spends at the retreat. It’s a story about memory, regrets and possibilities, all told in the manner of a movie you might watch during the holidays while stuffed with turkey. The main character is now a successful artist back home, but the question posed by the book is what might have been had his life gone in a different direction. In effect, the artist is about to set off in pursuit of the path not taken.
At the story’s core is the time Peter spent with Marcia and her friends, David and Michelle, in New York. After the artist’s first night with Marcia, the Americans’ bohemian ménage à trois temporarily becomes an incestuous four-sided relationship, with the Swiss newcomer shaking up their lives in the short time he spends with them. Interestingly, Peter’s memories of a joyous, harmonious time are put in doubt when he discovers a mysterious manuscript in his room at the retreat, telling a rather different story:
Joseph, der auch manchmal nur the swiss guy genannt wurde, war der Bösewicht der Geschichte, der in eine paradiesische Dreiecksgeschichte eindrang und alles durcheinanderbrachte. Nur Dreiecken seien stabil, hieß es irgendwo im Text. (p.33)
Joseph, who was also just called the Swiss guy at times, was the villain of the piece, who had wormed his way into a wonderful triangular relationship and messed everything up. Only triangles were solid, it said somewhere in the text. ***
Peter soon realises that this is a rewriting of his own story, and for the first time, he sees another view of the relationship and finds out what happened after his departure. The story, which paints him in a rather poor light, certainly puts a different spin on his warm memories…
In fact, this conflict between memories and truth is the key to all that happens in the book. With everything having happened so long ago, Peter comes to realise that his version of past experiences is a reconstruction. Everything that happened in his youth has been slightly altered and faded with time:
Das alles war, wie gesagt, sehr lange her, mehr als dreißig Jahre mussten es sein. Ich hatte vieles vergessen, und woran ich mich erinnerte, hatte mit dem, was tatsächlich geschehen war, wohl nicht viel zu tun. (p.19)
That all happened, as I said, a long time ago, it must be more than thirty years back now. I had forgotten a lot, and what I did remember probably had little to do with what had really occurred. ***
These doubts are a constant feature of the text, and the writer scatters expressions such as “…nur vage Erinnerungen…”, “…aber ich kann mich täuschen…”, “…wenn ich mich recht erinnere…” (“…just vague recollections…”, “…but I could be wrong…”, “…if I recall rightly…”) throughout the text. Our friend Peter is an unreliable narrator if ever there was one.
During the retreat itself, a couple of months spent in the countryside, our friend keeps to himself, only emerging from his room to go on walks or visit the local bookshop. The whole point of his visit is to find out more about what happened to Marcia, yet he’s simply too lethargic, or reticent, to actually do anything about it. The odd conversation with the bookshop owner and a few questions directed to the recptionist are pretty much all he manages. As the snows approach and the other residents start to flee the oncoming winter, we wonder whether there was any point in his coming at all.
Of course, most readers will be interested in the Marcia of the title, but she’s an elusive woman, keeping very much in the background. We do get glimpses when other people mention her in passing, and mid-way through the story, the discovery of a book of photos, with several featuring Peter himself, lead us to suspect that she might be closer than he thinks. Here Stamm teases and tantalises the reader. Towards the end of the book, we constantly appear to be on the brink of revelations that never quite happen, even if his protagonist/alter-ego does eventually gain something from his trip.
The subtitle of Marcia aus Vermont is Eine Weihnachtsgeschichte, which can be translated as ‘A Christmas Story/Tale’. However, it’s also the German-language title of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and there are several connections between the two works, especially in the sense of having visions and meeting ghosts of the past. Of course, this is Stamm, not Dickens, so if you’re expecting a happy ending, you’re in the wrong place. The book culminates in a wonderful scene involving a Christmas dinner with tables full of wonderful food and presents piled up beneath a magnificent tree. I’ll leave you to imagine how Stamm manages to pour cold water on such a heart-warming image 😉
Marcia aus Vermont is an excellent little Christmas present for a Stamm fan like me, and there’s one more secret I’d like to share, which, in film parlance, is more an Easter egg than a Christmas gift. You see, the moment Marcia approached Peter in the streets of New York and asked him for twenty dollars, I had an immediate sense of déjà vu (or perhaps déjà lu), and it took me a while to work out why.
Eventually, though, the penny dropped, and I scurried over to my bookshelves to drag out my copy of Stamm’s short-story collection Blitzeis (Black Ice, included in the English-language edition of another collection, In Strange Gardens). I turned to the story ‘In den Außenbezirken’ (‘In the Outer Suburbs’), and there it was, just as I’d remembered it – well, almost:
Sie ging die Straße hinunter, und ich wußte, dass sie nicht zurückkommen würde. Ich wusste, dass heute nicht ihr Geburtstag war, aber ich wäre trotzdem mit ihr gegangen, wenn ich genug Geld dabeigehabt hätte. Ich rauchte die Zigarette zu Ende und zündete mir eine zweite an. Dann machte ich mich auf den Weg zurück.
‘In den Außenbezirken’, pp.37/8 (Fischer, 2015)
She walked off down the street, and I knew that she wasn’t coming back, I knew that today wasn’t her birthday, but I would have gone with her anyway if I’d had enough money on me. I finished my cigarette and lit a second one. Then I set off home again. ***
And there we have the genesis of Marcia aus Vermont, the path not taken. In essence, his latest book simply revisits a passing scene in a short story published twenty years ago and muses: “What would have happened if he had taken the woman up on her offer?”. And now we know…
…well, I do. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for Michael Hofmann to translate it. On that note, it’s a merry Christmas to all – and to all a good night 😉