I can’t say I’m as fascinated by the lives of writers as some of you out there, but my completist tendencies mean that when I’ve read a number of books by a certain author, I’m often tempted to track down some of their lesser known works. That’s the case again today as I look at a book bringing together various non-fiction pieces by Swiss writer Peter Stamm, and while it wasn’t always what I expected, I’m definitely glad I gave it a try. You see, it says a lot about Stamm, particularly in his formative years, and even more about his work – especially in terms of the inspiration for much of his fiction…
Die Vertreibung aus dem Paradies: Bamberger Vorlesungen und verstreute Texte (Expulsion from Paradise: Bamberg Lectures and Various Texts) does pretty much what you’d expect from reading the cover. The first part of the book consists of four lectures, delivered at Bamberg University in 2014 as part of a literary prize (which is a lot of work for a prize, even a fairly prestigious one). These run to around 130 pages, and the remaining 200 pages feature non-fiction texts from throughout Stamm’s career, divided into ‘Journalistische Texte‘ (‘Journalistic Texts’), ‘Lesen und Schreiben’ (‘Reading and Writing’), ‘Kunst und Künstler’ (‘Art and Artists’) and ‘Gedanken und Reisen’ (‘Thoughts and Travel’). Some of you may remember my post on Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kein Roman, and Die Vertreibung aus dem Paradies is a very similar sort of book; in fact, Erpenbeck’s Bamberg lectures took place the year before Stamm was there.
Stamm’s approch to the lectures is rather different to Erpenbeck’s, though. Where the German writer focused on certain aspects of her work over the four lectures, very much as you might expect, her Swiss counterpart’s series of talks are slightly looser and follow his personal development just as much as that of his books. We get insights into his family background and his youth (including the surprising revelation that he was known as a bit of a clown as a child), and there’s also a lot here about the work he did before focusing on writing full time. Stamm spent formative periods of his life in Paris, New York and even Moscow, with jobs as varied as working for the Swiss tourist board, unloading planes at the local airport, grape picking and helping out at the Moscow trade fair. It certainly beats my stints as a paper boy…
The most relevant of his experiences, though, was undoubtedly his journalistic training, with the writer grateful for what he learned about research methods, time management and working to deadlines. After a couple of years with the satirical magazine Nebelspalter, in which he found himself contributing a large proportion of the columns, he continued as a freelancer. As well as helping him get by financially, each of these assignments provided more material for possible future fiction.
The final lectures, then, gradually edge towards his writing career, with more insights into his approach – which usually starts with a question:
»Wer erzählt, hat eine Frage«, sagte Judith Kuckart vor einigen Jahren in ihrer Essener Poetikvorlesung. Am Anfang meiner Texte steht oft eine Frage. Jene, die am Anfang von »Sieben Jahre«, meinem vierten Roman, stand, war: »Hat jemand Macht über mich, der mich liebt, auch wenn ich ihn nicht liebe?« Eine der Fragen hinter meinem letzten Roman, »Nacht ist der Tag«, lautete: »Welche Beziehung besteht zwischen meiner Persönlichkeit und meinem Äußeren?« Ich habe mir diese Frage immer wieder gestellt.
‘Die Vertreibung aus dem Paradies’, pp.11/12 (S. Fischer, 2014)
“Anyone who tells a story has a question to answer,” Judith Kuckart said several years ago in her Essen poetics lecture. There is usually a question at the start of my texts. The one at the start of Seven Years, my fourth novel, was: “Does someone who loves me have power over me even when I don’t love them back?” One of the questions underpinning my most recent novel, All Days Are Night, was: “What is the relationship between my personality and my appearance?”. I asked myself this question repeatedly.
*** (my translation)
In fact, this very series of lectures begins in this fashion. Early on Stamm muses: Gestalte ich mein Leben oder ist es mir nur zugestoßen? (Am I in control of my life, or did it simply happen to me?). I’m not convinced that he’s managed to answer the question by the end of the last lecture, but he certainly has a good crack at it 🙂
Where the Bamberg lectures are a planned series of texts, the rest of the book is a bit of a lucky dip, with the texts fairly randomly assigned, but there’s a lot to like, particularly for those with experience of Stamm’s fiction. The texts in ‘Lesen und Schreiben’ discuss various aspects of the topic. ‘Mein Stil’ (‘My Style’) explores his distrust of what critics call ‘style’, finding it more of a gimmick than an asset, preferring instead a ‘personality’ in his writing. Meanwhile, ‘Von Schweinen und Menschen’ (‘Of Pigs and Men’) covers a few days at the Frankfurt Book Fair, with an emphasis on talks, dinners and tired feet. Perhaps most intriguingly, ‘Sandras Verhalten ist mir schleierhaft’ (‘I Don’t Get Sandra’s Behaviour’) has Stamm discussing his translators, including a memorable scene to start off the essay:
»Kathrin lachte und ließ sich nach hinten auf das Bett fallen. Sie streifte die Schuhe ab, zog die Füße hoch und legte die Hände auf die Oberschenkel.«
Ich streifte die Schuhe ab, zog die Füße hoch und legte die Hände auf meine Oberschenkel. Ach so, sagte Nicole, meine französische Übersetzerin, der ich die Szene vorführte.
‘Sandras Verhalten ist mir schleierhaft’, p.237
“Kathrin laughed and fell back onto the bed. She slipped off her shoes, pulled her feet up and put her hands on her thighs.”
I slipped off my shoes, pulled my feet up and put my hands on my thighs. Oh, right, said Nicole, my French translator, to whom I was acting out the scene. ***
It’s good to see that Stamm goes above and beyond the call of duty in an attempt to help his translators! Interestingly enough, although it might just be me, he seemed slightly cooler here towards both his English-language translator, Michael Hoffman, and how his books are received in our tongue.
Many of the other texts are interesting short essays, with topics as wide-ranging as a nostalgic look back at a car the Stamm family used for decades, writing trips to schools in Jekaterinburg and Abu Dhabu and memories of his time in the Swiss army. There are even a few short fictional texts, including ‘Man nehme…’, which imagines a publisher’s requests to famous authors past for contributions to a Christmas cookbook. Replies include Thomas Mann’s extremely lengthy essay, Dostoyevski’s plea for cash in advance and an unknown Czech writer’s suggestion of a text about what he calls a ‘hunger artist’, instead…
In my recent review of Stamm’s latest book, Marcia aus Vermont, I wrote briefly about a connection I spotted with an earlier story, and apparently this cannibalisation of early work was by no means a one-off, with frequent connections here between the lectures, Stamm’s journalism and his fiction. In one lecture, he talks about the small dwelling of Båtsfjord in the north of Norway and describes watching a film that distorted the image of the real village. Later, he goes there on a magazine assignment, with the end result included here, but these experiences were to eventually form the basis of his second novel, Ungefähre Landschaft (Unformed Landscape), which uses Båtsfjord as the home Stamm’s protagonist seeks to escape.
This is far from the only example of essays inspiring his fiction: a visit to a clinic in Hannover specialising in lung conditions eventually morphs into the short story ‘Blitzeis’ (‘Black Ice’); a piece following a worker at a travelling stunt show becomes ‘Die brennende Wand’ (‘The Wall of Fire’); a minor anecdote from a piece on a soldiers’ graveyard turns into the brief story ‘Das schönste Mädchen’ (‘The Most Beautiful Girl’). For someone like me who has read virtually all of Stamm’s published fiction, each essay and article has echoes of various stories – and linking the dots is part of the fun 🙂
Die Vertreibung aus dem Paradies is a fascinating collection of odds and ends, and while there is the occasional dull piece, these are far outnumbered by fascinating gems. At one point, Stamm muses:
Es ist mit Ländern wie mit Menschen: dort, wo sie sich nicht beobachtet glauben, sind sie am ehrlichsten, am interessantesten und meistens wohl am schönsten.
‘Pilger und Kreuzfahrer’ (‘Pilgrims and Crusaders’), p.333
It’s the same with countries as with people: where they think they are unobserved is where they are at their most honest, their most interesting, and often at their most beautiful. ***
The same could be said for this collection. Yes, the lectures are the main attraction, but some of the most interesting moments are in essays you might have been tempted to skip. Sadly, though, with a translation unlikely in the near future, you’re just going to have to trust me on this…