An idea I’ve had several times over the years, but never got around to putting into practice, is to create a special page for writers whom I’ve covered at least ten times on my site. As well as celebrating authors like Anthony Trollope and Haruki Murakami, there would be room for several German Literature Month regulars (I suspect Thomas Bernhard and Jenny Erpenbeck would make the cut), and as it happens, the man behind today’s choice would easily meet the criterion. You see, I’m back for another look at the work of Swiss writer Peter Stamm, and it turns out that today’s choice is my thirteenth Stamm review. Unlucky for some? Well, not for the reader – this is another excellent book from one of my favourite producers of G-Lit.
Wenn es dunkel wird is Stamm’s most recent collection of stories, and it’s available in English from Other Press under the title It’s Getting Dark (in Michael Hofmann’s translation). In fact, this translated edition is even better than the original as it’s bundled together with the excellent Christmassy novella Marcia aus Vermont (Marcia from Vermont), which I reviewed a while back. Sadly, I had to buy the two separately, but even without the addition, the short-story collection is still an enjoyable read.
One thread running throughout the collection is the idea of a life-changing moment, whether it be significant or trivial. For example, ‘Nahtigal’ sees a youth on a mission, continuing along a path he randomly decided upon:
Er wußte nicht mehr genau, wann er gemerkt hatte, dass es zu einer Entscheidung kommen musste, es war, als habe er erst germerkt, als es schon zu spät gewesen war. Und alles, was geschehen war und was geschah und noch geschehen würde, führte hin auf diesen einen Moment. Er würde vor der Bank stehen, zwei Atemzüge lang, und dann die Eichhörnchenmaske überziehen und hineingehen und tun, was zu tun war.
‘Nahtigal’, p.18 (Fischer Verlag, 2022)
He could no longer recall exactly when he had noticed that a decision needed to be made, it was as if he had only noticed it when it was already too late. And everything that had happened, and was happening, and would happen in the future, led towards this moment. He would stand in front of the bank, take two deep breaths, and then slip on the squirrel mask and do what was to be done. ***
As you might have picked up, there’s a mocking, self-deprecating tone to the story, best illustrated in the wannabe bank robber’s grandiose dreams of a life of luxury, but while we may think we know how it will all end, the last paragraph casts doubt upon our predictions.
In fact, several of the inclusions here contain secrets that perhaps only reveal themselves on a reread. In ‘Dietrichs Knie’ (‘Dietrich’s Knee’), a man suspicious of his wife lays a trap to catch her out, but on a second run-through, I found myself wondering just how aware she is at all times of what’s going on. There’s also an ambiguous nature to the close of ‘Sabrina, 2019’, an excellent story of a woman whose life is disturbed after posing as a model for a sculpture. You see, the final sentences can be read differently, depending on who you think is there…
Stamm’s stories are always enjoyable, but what distinguishes Wenn es dunkel wird from earlier collections is the tendency for longer stories. With most clocking in at around twenty pages, there’s plenty of time for situations to unfold, and the writer paces his tales nicely, never really leaving us wanting more (or outstaying his welcome). A nice example of this is ‘Die Frau im grünen Mantel’ (‘The Woman in the Green Coat), which has a retired doctor returning as a patient to the hospital he used to work at. This soon becomes a two-strand tale as he follows a woman through the hospital, all the while reflecting on his encounters with her decades ago.
Another interesting point is that the majority of the stories are told in the first-person, and that they feature a mix of registers and voices, with several told by women. This is true for ‘Das schönste Kleid’ (‘The Best Dress’), where a woman takes a rather daring approach to attract the attention of a man she knows from work, as well as for the charming ‘Mein Blut für dich’ (‘My Blood for You’). In this one, the narrator is herself told a story by a colleague of a touching relationship she develops with an older man, one whose full extent we’re never really privy to.
As you’d expect, there are several stories here with familiar twists for regular Stamm readers. In ‘Der erste Schnee’ (‘First Snow’), an argument with his wife during their journey to a holiday resort leads the protagonist to wander off on a cross-country journey, seemingly at random:
Im Gitterzaun, der das Gelände eingrenzte, fand ich ein kleines Tor, von dem aus ein Fußweg in einen Wald führte. Ich folgte ihm ein Stück weit der Autobahn entlang und dann unter ihr hindurch. In der Unterführung blieb ich kurz stehen. Der Boden war mit Abfällen übersät. Ich las die Graffiti, Obzönitäten, ein paar Namen, ein schiefes Hakenkreuz. Jemand hatte mit roter Farbe einen Pfeil auf die Betonwand gesprüht. Ich ging in die Richtung, die der Pfeil wies.
‘Der erste Schnee’, p.114
In the wire fence that surrounded the area, I found a small gate, from which a path led into a wood. I followed it for a while along the motorway, and then under it. In the underpass, I stopped for a moment. The ground was covered with rubbish. I read the graffiti, obscenities, a few names, a crooked swastika. Someone had sprayed an arrow with red paint on the concrete wall. I followed the direction shown by the arrow. ***
What follows is a bizarre encounter with a teacher in a school deserted for the holidays, with snowballs, decorations and a hint of Christmas magic sprinkled in!
The story that really stopped me in my tracks, though, was the title piece, ‘Wenn es dunkel wird’ (‘When it Gets Dark’). Here, a young policewoman working at a quiet station in the mountains sets off on a trek to investigate rumours of a family living in an old hut. However, it’s a small event during her hike, when she reaches a small cairn marking a summit, that really caught my attention:
In einer Nische der Steinpyramide steckte eine schwarze Blechdose und darin ein Gipfelbuch, ein einfaches Ringheft, und ein Kugelschreiber. Manche Berggänger hatten nur das Datum und ihre Namen eingetragen, andere die Route, die sie gegangen waren, und einige hatten eine Bermerkung hinzugefügt, wie schön die Landschaft sei, wie schlecht das Wetter, ein Liebespaar hatte seine Namen eingetragen und ein Herz dazu gezeichnet. Die letzte Eintragung war undatiert, nur ein Name, Thomas.
‘Wenn es Dunkel Wird’, p.157
In a niche in the pyramid of stones, there was a black tin with a summit guestbook inside, a simple notebook, and a pen. Several climbers had merely entered their name and the date, and a few had added a comment, how beautiful the landscape was, how bad the weather, one couple had entered their names and drawn a heart. The last entry was undated, just a name, Thomas. ***
Ring any bells? Well, just as was the case with Marcia aus Vermont, the story contains an Easter Egg for Stamm readers. You see, if you think hard enough, you might remember just who this Thomas is…
Passing quickly over the supernatural aspects of ‘Supermond’ (‘Supermoon’), where a man about to retire finds people avoiding him, and ‘Cold Reading’, a story of a woman’s encounter with a charming fortune teller, we finish with the shortest piece in the book, ‘Schiffbruch’ (‘Shipwreck’), in which a man at a luxury hotel learns he’s lost everything and more. How does he react? Well, no man is an island, but if you have a copy of Robinson Crusoe at hand, perhaps life goes on after all.
Stamm’s a writer equally at home with novels or shorter fiction, and Wenn es dunkel wird is my favourite of the four collections I’ve read so far, a bundle of stories that focus on a turning point and gradually show how things turn out thereafter, whether happily, chillingly or merely mundanely. I’ve already got my next Stamm book lined up (he has a new novel – In einer dunkelblauen Stunde (In a Dark-Blue Hour) – coming out in January), so it’s time to get working on that new page, as soon as I think of a name, that is (The Decathlon Club, perhaps?). At any rate, whatever I finally decide to call it, you can be sure that the Swiss writer will be among the first inductees.