FEBRUARY 17, 2020
WRITERS LOVE doppelgängers. There’s Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen, The Likeness by Tana French, and, most recently and perhaps most memorably, Jordan Peele’s blockbuster horror film Us. Add to the list the Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s newest novel, The Sweet Indifference of the World, in which an over-the-hill writer, Christoph, becomes convinced that his life is being lived out a second time — with a 20-year lag — by a younger writer named Chris. Encountering a writer-narrator like Christoph, one is tempted to look for autobiographical parallels: Christoph and Stamm are both from Swiss villages; Stamm’s first novel Agnes, like Christoph’s, tells the story of a relationship. But while Stamm is now on his seventh novel, Christoph has never made it past that first book. Are author and narrator themselves doppelgängers? Are The Sweet Indifference of the World and Agnes doppelgängers? Honestly, I have no idea; the head begins to spin. For what it’s worth, here’s Stamm on autofiction, in a recent interview in this publication: “[I]t doesn’t really interest me, nor do I read this type of fiction.”
A better way to read the novel, perhaps, is through the lens of the uncanny. In Freud’s 1919 essay on the subject, he identified the doppelgänger as a fictional motif that unsettles us. But its origins, according to Freud, are positive: the soul, he contends, was the first double of the body; the double “an assurance of immortality.” For Freud, it’s this benign origin that makes the doppelgänger an “object of terror.” The doppelgänger reminds us of something we’ve lost. It reminds us of death.
This seems particularly true in a movie like Us, in which the doppelgängers, fresh out of their underground city, are out to maim and kill the main characters; in The Sweet Indifference of the World, the doppelgängers are more mild-mannered. They’re vacationing in Stockholm, and they mostly want to stroll and talk and drink coffee. Christoph’s successful first novel chronicled his real-life romance with an actress named Magdalena — a relationship that failed to survive the aftermath of the book’s publication. In the years since, Christoph’s life has been lonely, and his writing projects have failed. In the midst of this exile, he encounters Chris, who not only shares Christoph’s looks and personality, but appears to be retracing the older writer’s steps through the world: taking the same college classes, living in the same apartments, writing the same fiction. When The Sweet Indifference of the World begins, Christoph is on the trail of Chris — or, more precisely, on the trail of Lena, Chris’s girlfriend, who Christoph believes is identical to Magdalena, his lost love. He leaves a note for Lena at her hotel in Stockholm: “Please come to Skogskyrkogården tomorrow at two. I have a story I want to tell you.”
Unbelievably and unsurprisingly, Lena meets him. And of course, the story that Christoph tells is in fact two stories — the story of his romance with Magdalena, and the story of his obsession with Chris and Lena. In these early pages — as Christoph begins to unload his story on Lena — the novel risks contrivance. Much as, watching Us, you might shout at the screen, urging Gabe to please not leave the house, to please not engage the red-suited doubles standing out in the driveway, some readers might find themselves wishing they could reason with Lena: leave this creep in the dust, go back to your boyfriend, enjoy your vacation in Stockholm! Reading these opening chapters, I briefly had the sense that I’d fallen into some doppelgänger version of Rachel Cusk’s Outline — a novel in which a largely silent female narrator, a writer abroad, is the victim of talkers, many of them men who can’t seem to shut up.
But as the novel progresses, its structure becomes more complex, and Lena gets more and more of a voice. The novel stays in first-person, from Christoph’s point of view, but as Lena starts to talk, the stories she and Christoph are telling begin to blur and combine. The blurring happens gradually. It’s not disorienting, but pleasantly complicating. This effect is largely the result of a lack of quotation marks:
I never asked him if he would still love me when I lost my looks, said Lena, I put the question in a general way. But that was how he took it, I said. And when we said goodbye, he tried to kiss me on the lips, but I turned my head away. A bit late, I said. So what happens when I lose my looks? Asked Lena. Does he still love me? You’re just as beautiful as you were then, I said. I’m not talking about you, I’m asking about Chris and me, said Lena.
The lack of quotation marks has two major effects: one, Lena’s dialogue is firmly incorporated into the main narrative, making it seem at times like we’ve slipped into her first-person perspective; second, the lack of quotation marks reminds us that everything — even what Lena is saying — is being filtered through Christoph’s point of view and therefore being distorted. There’s also the fact that the lack of quotation marks sometimes blurs who says what.
If passages like the one above seem to float, then the paragraph that follows it brings us back to the ground:
For some time now, we’d been walking along a road with heavy traffic, lined with industrial premises, warehouses and workshops, and in one place an auto repair shop with a closed gas station. Next to it was a big yard full of used cars. I need to pee, said Lena. There’s a light up ahead, I said, and sure enough after a couple of hundred yards, we got to a brightly lit furniture megastore that was still open.
The neighborhoods that Christoph and Lena move through are thoroughly described, precisely noticed. At regular intervals, the outside world intrudes — the “closed gas station,” Lena’s need to pee — and the talking takes a backseat. Similarly, the novel’s short chapters — many of which are only a couple of pages — serve as much-needed guideposts, orienting the reader in a narrative that might otherwise feel too fogged in. Christoph’s and Lena’s overlapping stories shift frequently between past and present. They move, geographically, from Stockholm to the Alps to Barcelona to a small Swiss village. Stamm smartly uses his chapter breaks to remind us where we are, in both time and space.
Also helpful, even necessary, is Stamm’s spare and plainspoken style. There’s a satisfying tension between the complexity of the novel’s conceit and the simplicity of the writing. Michael Hofmann’s translation is lively and well paced, fully capturing the rhythm of two people walking and speaking. Hofmann — a prolific translator of German literature into English — sometimes takes flak for his flexibility, his love of odd words and British idioms. (In a recent Paris Review interview, Hofmann defends his decision to translate “piss” as “micturate” in a Brecht poem.) Reading The Sweet Indifference of the World, I was on the lookout for 10-cent words or linguistic distractions. Thankfully, I found none.
By the end of Stamm’s novel, I no longer felt like I was reading the doppelgänger of Cusk’s Outline. The Sweet Indifference of the World had instead come to seem like Outline seen in a funhouse mirror — it’s a novel about a writer and about people talking, which, in its distortions, takes on larger questions of storytelling and memory. The novel’s structure feels melancholic, and the overall effect is not so much uncanny as it is bittersweet. Ultimately, it might be the fact that Christoph’s double is 20 years behind him that makes the situation emotionally loaded; like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Christoph is forced to look back on his life, to reconsider the choices he’s made. Unlike Scrooge, Christoph is left doubting that the choices were ever really choices at all. In the final pages of this short novel, he thinks back on the major events of his life: “I often don’t remember them, it’s as though they had taken place without any help from me, in my absence.”
Ben Sandman is a PhD student in creative writing at University of Cincinnati. He has written for The Rumpus and Full Stop, and his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, Stirring, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere.