Granta Books, 272pp, £14.99
Peter Stamm’s title is pointedly precise. In this novel’s opening scene, Antje, an artist, tells the 40-year-old narrator, Alex, that she was crazy about someone “a hundred years ago”. But it matters a great deal that it was seven years (and not eight or 12 or 100) that Alex went without seeing his Polish mistress, Ivona – the first seven years, give or take, of his marriage to Sonia. To Ivona, the time period brings to mind Jacob and Rachel in the Old Testament but the reader is more likely to think in terms of infidelity than devotion – itching rather than yearning – and the novel’s considerable interest lies in trying to gain a picture of the affair that is free of associations, whether sacred or sordid.
Alex tells the story to Antje, who isn’t very impressed. A reader expects full disclosure from a narrator, or at least a legible pattern of concealment, but Antje thought she was merely catching up with a man she knew 20 years before and never very well. Alex’s tale needs to be shocking and it certainly is. That he tells it to a middle-aged friend of his parents-in-law is not, as it first appears, a narrative contrivance but a piece of characterisation, intended to suggest that Alex either doesn’t realise how badly he comes across, or doesn’t care.
It all started in the summer of 1989, between the massacre in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Alex was finishing his architecture degree in Munich and living in the old Olympic Village, by that point transformed into student accommodation. Just as his friendship with another architecture student, the beautiful, talented Sonia, was mutating into something stronger, he met Ivona, a plain, dull illegal immigrant.
The time he spends with Ivona is no more appealing to Alex than the time he spends with Sonia but it might be said that it’s less unappealing. When he listens to Sonia telling “the same stories half a dozen times”, he might wonder why he bothers. Ivona tells “boring stories” as well but at least she takes him “without expectations and claims”. It seems a better deal, especially given that Alex is much less worried about what he gets from people than about what he might have to give them.
Peter Stamm is a brilliant writer, a latter-day applicant to the tradition of Camus, whose voice, as translated by Michael Hofmann, has its own distinctive coldness. Though his prose is never oppressively spare, he gets a lot done quickly. His speciality is the apparently innocent descriptive sentence that comes saturated in mental atmosphere: “Sometimes, when Sonia was in bed already, I would go for a walk down to the Academy, and sit by the shore and think about my life, and how it could have been different.”
In his own account of things, Alex emerges as part narcissist, part stick-in-the-mud – a man so joyless he can find nothing to like in either Rain Man or The Lives of Others. There can be no question of him truly loving either Sonia or Ivona since both relationships, though founded on a kind of trade, lack all trace of mutuality. His role is that of punisher in the lives of women who are looking for pain. (Sonia only started showing interest in him after hearing from his ex-girlfriend “what a son of a bitch I was”). In some ways, it’s an ideal set-up and one that Stamm renders with almost geometric precision. Alex can luxuriate in regret at the road not taken: the girl who wanted to be hurt, or at least knew she stood a chance of being hurt, ends up in a loveless marriage; and the girl lacking pride and self-respect is used, abandoned and then, seven years later, used again.
A story that looks back to the early years of German reunification might be expected to offer some kind of historical portrait but Stamm limits the book’s perspective to what Alex rather forgivingly calls his “introspection”. He is essentially caught between bourgeois and bohemian lifestyles, between monogamy and bachelorhood, adulthood and adolescence, though he describes his struggle in more elemental terms, with encumbrance on the one hand, freedom on the other.
In this vision of things, Ivona represents a kind of negative freedom, a life that comes without the trappings that Alex can only experience as traps. His marriage to Sonia is based around their shared interest in architecture – they run a firm together – so the “pokiness” of Ivona’s lodgings, “the absence of any aesthetic value”, only intensifies his desire for her. During the “sluggish hours” he spends with Ivona, he doesn’t cherish anything particularly but at least he forgets about ambition, work problems, and “the pressure of time”. The western reader has been pretty much conditioned from birth to recoil from Alex’s apathy and callousness but it’s difficult to suppress a twinge of sympathy, a shiver of recognition, as the book draws to its comfortless close.