Desirous of Indifference: On Peter Stamm’s “The Archive of Feelings”

Michael Knapp reviews Peter Stamm’s “The Archive of Feelings.”

By Michael KnappFebruary 15, 2024

Desirous of Indifference: On Peter Stamm’s “The Archive of Feelings”

The Archive of Feelings by Peter Stamm. Other Press. 192 pages.

IN A 2017 INTERVIEW with The White Review, Peter Stamm remembered a “special cookie” he loved as a child. As the Swiss novelist explained: “I had the feeling that wanting these cookies so much weakened me. So I bought a whole packet and ate all of it at once, hoping I wouldn’t like them anymore afterwards. I wanted to be indifferent to them.”


Stamm’s plan failed. As he told the Review, these days he’s “a bit less strict” when it comes to “earthly pleasures.” But something about the experience clearly stuck with the writer, as a similar desire for indifference pervades the 13 books he has published over the course of his three-decade career. Often, Stamm’s hyperisolated protagonists operate under thick veneers of apathy as they desperately—almost pathologically—try to avoid feelings of any kind. They live life as passive observers rather than active participants; “it’s as though I hadn’t ever really been alive, just watched others in their lives, and waited for something to happen,” relates the unnamed narrator in Stamm’s latest novel, The Archive of Feelings (2023).


Translated into English by Michael Hofmann, the book centers on a middle-aged hermit who spends his days diligently working a job for which he is no longer paid. A longtime archivist at a press agency, he once became so immersed in his work that he convinced his company to move their mountain of paper files to the basement of his late mother’s home. The novel opens five years after the narrator has lost his job to computerization, yet he continues to update the archive daily with fresh news clippings, reflecting, “I don’t know what else I would do with my time.”


Following his firing, the narrator distanced himself from his small cadre of acquaintances (they could hardly be called friends). By now, his love life has all but disappeared, and he has sacrificed any semblance of a social, even corporeal existence in favor of sustaining an entirely imagined relationship with Franziska, an old flame–turned-pop sensation he hasn’t spoken to in 30 years. Back then, the narrator’s affections went unreciprocated, and, when he is given a long-awaited opportunity to reconnect with the popstar, it becomes evident that he never recovered from the blow.


Franziska thereby functions as an “unattainable love object” for the narrator, and the largely plotless book centers on the narrator’s “yearning.” At the same time, he worries about the dampening effect her actual presence would have on his fantasy life: “What would I have had to dream about?” he asks, wondering if he’s not, in fact, better off alone.


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The idea that truth can’t compare to fiction—that reality might not live up to fantasy—isn’t exactly a novel one. Stamm knows this. The writer is nothing if not self-aware about the unoriginal nature of much of his philosophizing; he simply thinks that originality is overrated. In a 2012 interview with The New Yorker, he posited that “very often extreme or willfully original stories are just trying to make up for a lack of empathy on the part of the author,” adding that “[w]riters can learn from painters. No great painter would ever choose an original subject for his paintings.”


In Stamm’s work, high-concept originality is replaced with piercing psychological observations. There’s an incredible emotional acuity to his writing—a magic in the looping, spiraling quality of the narrator’s hyperanalytical mind. Such a mind makes fresh discoveries from stale thoughts through unwavering repetition. What emerges isn’t necessarily pretty, but it at least contains some hard-won kernel of truth.


That said, it’s hard to be sure of what, on a broader narrative level, the truth is in The Archive of Feelings. The only thing reliable about the narrator is his self-professed unreliability: “When I read it now,” he says of old correspondence with a girlfriend, “I start to wonder a little about my memories; I’m not quite sure now whether it wasn’t her leaving me, not me leaving her.” Distinctions between truth and fallacy, reality and invention are further complicated by the narrator’s sly revelation that he’s writing a book, indicating a possible metanarrative at work. The confusion is only magnified as the story develops and the real-life Franziska encroaches on the narrator’s imagined version of her.


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Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is an exasperating quality to Archive. The book’s relentless interiority can feel punishing, verging at times on suffocating. A self-avowed Hemingway disciple, Stamm writes in a clean, spare prose. Such a style works in harmony with the book’s straightforward subject matter: Stamm rids his work of any artifice, cutting straight to an unvarnished emotional core.


To be clear, forgoing embellishment or ornamentation does not mean sacrificing complexity. The narrator regularly describes his feelings in contradictions—“I have a sense of happiness that feels not much different from unhappiness”; “I was alone a lot, but I only suffered from loneliness when I was in the company of others”—and he doesn’t consider sorting through this confusion to be a worthwhile endeavor. “My task is collecting and ordering information,” he insists. “Other people can interpret the world, if that’s what they want to do.”


Here, then, the seductive appeal of the narrator’s work begins to clarify itself: “[U]nlike the world, [the archive] has an order, where everything has its appointed place, and can with a little practice be quickly found. That is the true point of the archive. To be there and make order.” Put another way, the archive represents the narrator’s attempt to impose logic on an illogical universe. It is a Sisyphean task, as any progress made in terms of classifying items is quickly dwarfed by a fresh pile of news clippings or by an entirely new category the narrator feels compelled to develop. But the endlessness of the project seems to be the point. The narrator isn’t seeking fulfillment or a sense of accomplishment—he is trying to codify his existence as much as possible.


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The narrator’s overwhelming desire for order and regularity has the additional effect of transforming him into an almost-perfect capitalist subject. “I was capable of spending long periods over meaningless tasks,” he says. “I was happy to always have the same work, to read, select, make order.” This overlap between states of isolation, unwellness, and capitalist competence is striking; alienated and obsessive, the narrator acts as an industrious cog in a remarkably efficient capitalist machine. The only thing he’s missing is a desire for advancement. “[I]t never occurred to me to apply for a post in management,” he remembers. “That was the only criticism leveled at me by my boss in our annual meetings: my lack of ambition.”


While Archive reads principally as a psychological novel (rather than a capitalist critique), the book is permeated by Mark Fisher’s idea of capitalist realism—the notion that we’re so overwhelmingly engulfed by our capitalist reality that we can no longer imagine alternative ways of living. This is certainly the case for the narrator, who is so immersed in his archival work that he continues half a decade after his dismissal. Any questions about his task have been quelled by the capitalist status quo; productivism reigns supreme.


The political dimensions of Archive are taken a step further by the novel’s repeated engagements with technology. The narrator loses his job to computerization—now archiving is “all done electronically. […] Archivists are on the way out”—and the threat of AI continues to loom in the background. Still, in a world largely structured around and operated by technology, the Archive narrator is in some ways well suited for survival precisely because he seems to want to be a machine. Of course, his transformation into a robotic capitalist subject is an unintentional by-product of his real aim, which is to feel as little as possible—to shield himself from hurt, pain, joy, pleasure of any kind. In this way, the narrator is like a child version of Stamm, trying to vanquish his craving for cookies: desirous of indifference.


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It is hard to pin down the exact course of events that shaped the narrator’s impassive disposition, and Archive occasionally takes on a mystery quality as readers attempt to piece together the reasons underlying his isolation. This detective work isn’t always easy—we are provided with little information about the narrator’s family life beyond mention of his mother’s passing, and one subtle but telling revelation about his father: “I get up at half past six, shower, read the data on my little weather station, and copy them down in the notebook where my father before me every day wrote down temperature, air pressure, and humidity.”


Since the narrator seems to have thereby inherited his father’s obsessiveness, holding Franziska solely culpable for his emotional state appears an oversimplification. In other words, his cyclical thinking needs something to grasp onto, and Franziska likely serves as the most convenient focus for his compulsive ruminating. That said, his love for her clearly held some greater significance, as his penchant for categorization ran up against a subject that proved completely uncategorizable. “Perhaps that’s why I was so overcome by my feelings for Franziska,” he muses, “because they seemed to come from my body, not my brain. Because I didn’t understand them and couldn’t even properly name and classify them. That may be why I did all I could not to fall victim to them.”


It is a fascinating contradiction in a novel chock-full of them: the narrator has shut himself off to feelings because he’s frightened by the capacity he recognizes in himself to feel too intensely. Franziska tells him as much. “I was always afraid of your love,” she says upon their reunification. “I just had the feeling with you, it was all or nothing.” For the narrator, “all” meant Franziska; in the wake of her rejection, he opted for nothing.


The narrator never succeeds in achieving this nothingness. “[B]eing detached does not mean my narrators are without feelings,” Stamm told The White Review, and although Archive’s narrator pursues apathy as a form of ostensible self-preservation, the novel ultimately suggests that such a state runs contrary to human nature. In many respects, the book might be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of clinging to unlived lives. Yet there’s something undeniably heartening about the narrator’s resolute capacity for deep feeling. As was the case for young Peter Stamm, it is possible that the narrator’s quest for indifference doesn’t stem from a lack of emotion; perhaps he was simply coping with the effects of having a little too much.

LARB Contributor

Michael Knapp’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal, the Chicago Review of Books, the Cleveland Review of Books, and elsewhere. He’s an MFA candidate at the Writer’s Foundry.

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