Peter Stamm, Master of Emptiness

By GD DessSeptember 14, 2018

Peter Stamm, Master of Emptiness
IN THE CHORUS of Ray LaMontagne’s contemplative and haunting love song “Empty,” he sings: “Will I always feel this way / So empty / So estranged?” These same, simple questions weigh heavily in the novels of Peter Stamm. That his characters never seem to overcome the feelings echoing behind these questions is what makes reading Stamm a simultaneously melancholy and cathartic experience.

In the English-speaking world, the Swiss author is best known for his novels, all six of which have been translated from Stamm’s German by Michael Hofmann, including Agnes (1998), Unformed Landscape (2001), On a Day Like This (2006), Seven Years (2009), All Days Are Night (2013), and To the Back of Beyond (2016). Stamm also writes plays and radio dramas in addition to his prose, and has won numerous literary awards, as well as a nomination for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. “It has always been my goal to make literature out of ordinary people’s lives,” Stamm once explained in an interview with The New Yorker. “I don’t like the extremes; I don’t think that they teach us much about ourselves.”

“I like reduction, concentration, clarity,” Stamm asserts, and he produces this effect by writing in a neutral style with no embellishments, cleansed of symbolism and self-conscious literary stylistics or pyrotechnics. Stamm offers no witty dialogue, nor does he provide psychological insights into his characters. Rather, they reveal themselves through their actions.

While most of his works are family romances in one fashion or another, passion plays virtually no role in Stamm’s fictional universe. Wives and girlfriends leave their husbands and lovers; husbands abandon their wives and girlfriends — or reveal they have children by other women. Yet, throughout, everyone remains as calm and cultivated as the Swiss countryside itself. Stamm moves his characters across the arc of his narratives with the finesse of a master watchmaker, one known for his precision and his ability to create jewel-like beauty.

In addition to the absence of passion in his narratives, Stamm’s fictional settings appear mostly devoid of locality, as do his characters, whom he cloaks in a cosmopolitan air. While most of the people about whom he writes are educated professionals or artists of some sort, even the least intellectual of them — such as Ivona, the alternative love interest in Seven Years, or Kathrine, a barely educated customs inspector in Unformed Landscape — feel a similar sense of alienation and isolation from their families, communities, and friends. That is, if they happen to have them — and most of Stamm’s characters don’t.

Tension in Stamm’s writing often arises from the distance the author keeps from his characters, as well as the distance they keep from each other. We never quite know how Stamm feels about his characters, and, for the most part, his characters don’t know how they feel about each other. In his first novel, Agnes, a writer has an affair with a student named Agnes who he meets in the library. The work reads as a rather precious postmodern contrivance: the construction of the novel soon compels us to question whether the author really met the girl about whom he writes or whether the girl only exists in the novel he writes about her. But, at one point in the story, Agnes expressly asks her author/lover to be included in the fiction, because she feels he is too distant for her to get a clear read on his emotions. “Write a story about me,” Agnes says, “so I can tell what you think of me.”

Most of Stamm’s protagonists wear a carapace of indifference, like characters in a film noir who hide their fear that their past crimes will be discovered as they try to forge a new path to redemption. Alienated from their pasts, they have an uneasy, tenuous relationship with the present. They vacillate between feeling trapped in a life to which they aren’t committed and suspecting that their “real life” hasn’t yet begun. This tension keeps them — and us — on edge, lending Stamm’s narratives a taut and expectant feel.

In On a Day Like This, we meet Andreas, an expatriate Swiss teacher who has been living in Paris for 18 years. According to one of his girlfriends, Andreas is a nihilist because he believes “in nothing but chance.” His life in Paris has been “an endless sequence of lessons, of cigarettes, meals, cinema visits, meetings with women or friends who basically didn’t mean anything to him, incoherent lists of little events.” For him, “[e]mptiness was the normal state of things…”

Stamm’s characters often use others as vehicles for pleasure, for the surcease of pain, or to distract themselves from the feeling of emptiness. While Andreas cycles through several more-or-less interchangeable lovers, his true preoccupation is with his first love, Fabienne, who 20 years ago rejected him and married someone else. Since then she has remained a fixed object in his mind, though the narrator observes, “[p]resumably it wasn’t even Fabienne herself that he longed for, so much as the love of those years, the unconditionality of the feeling that still floored him now, twenty years later.” If it is not exactly Fabienne for whom Andreas longs, then it is for the feeling of being “in love” — that elusive sensation we feel in our pleasure center — to fill the emptiness.

Afraid the results of a recent biopsy may show he has cancer, Andreas upends his existence in Paris, ridding himself of his belongings and selling his apartment to head back to the village where he was born. In doing this, he knows that his potential diagnosis of cancer may only be metaphorical. He is really “running away from the disease that was his life, his work, his apartment, the people he called friend or lovers.” Despite his stated intentions of visiting his brother and his parents’ grave, the real purpose of the trip is to see if he can rekindle something with Fabienne, who still lives in the village.

However, the Fabienne he finds is happily married, living in “her little castle” behind a picket fence in a quiet neighborhood. She is standoffish when he arrives, more surprised than happy to see him. Nevertheless, Andreas confesses that he loves her, that he has always loved her, and that he has never loved anyone as much as he loves her. She does not reciprocate his feelings, yet Andreas succeeds in seducing her. Their lovemaking is bleak: she remains motionless with her eyes shut, and “Andreas was put in mind of police photographs of crime scenes, pale, lifeless bodies by the side of the road, in forests or rushes.”

His seduction of Fabienne — a woman he renders corpse-like, a victim of his nostalgic fixation — proves to be, at the least, an emotional crime. In thinking about their union afterward, “[h]e felt nothing but a kind of jaunty indifference. It was as though he had got rid of a weight, something that had been oppressing him for eighteen years.” Even Camus’s detached antihero, Meursault, occasionally exhibits more sentiment than Andreas does after committing his deed.

Too alienated from himself to forge an emotional attachment to anyone else, Andreas hopes to recapture the “intensity” of “being in love” from his memory. Sex fails to be the bite into the Proustian madeleine for which he hoped, and his conquest of Fabienne fails to resurrect the feelings he was seeking. In fact, Andreas’s entire enterprise ends up a total failure. Realizing the futility of attempting to have a life with Fabienne, he ultimately sets off to reconnect with one of his old girlfriends.

While Stamm’s male protagonists in particular have a habit of using women as a means to these ends, his female protagonists exhibit similarly practical, unsentimental, and selfish behavior. In Unformed Landscape, Kathrine leaves her home and husband to seek out an old acquaintance named Christian whom she thinks likes her, in much the same way Andreas sets out to reconnect with Fabienne. When Kathrine finds Christian, it is clear he doesn’t really care for her and, in fact, has a girlfriend, but even though “he resisted,” she seduces him. When he expresses regret they had sex because it “wasn’t right,” Kathrine is unsympathetic. When he tells her their coupling has complicated his relationship, Kathrine responds by saying, “Welcome to the world” — a comment on par in its callousness with Andreas’s “jaunty indifference.”

In Seven Years, husband-and-wife architects Alexander and Sonia have a conventional, business-like marriage in which neither one of them appears to be particularly in love with the other. In many ways, theirs is a marriage of convenience. While architectural metaphors and snippets about the guiding philosophies of different architects — chiefly Aldo Rossi and Le Corbusier — infuse the narrative, these references serve as little more than a facade for the drama at the center of the novel, a sadomasochistic love affair between Alexander and Ivona, which Alexander recounts to a family friend.

For her part, Sonia plays “the perfect wife.” She is polite and pretty, though humorless and passionless; however, she is ambitious. While Alexander purports to be as interested in his career as Sonia is in her own, his head is never quite in the game. Instead, he spends a lot of time analyzing his wife’s motivations. While they work at building a business and a house together, everything appears to him as one more project to be finished before moving on to the next. Alienated from his work and indifferent toward his passionless wife, Alexander turns to a lover in hopes of relief.

A docile and pious Polish immigrant girl who Alexander met by chance in college, Ivona works in a Christian gift shop and is Sonia’s antithesis. Perhaps because of this, Alexander becomes obsessed with the unattractive woman who, like Flaubert’s Félicité, has no education and no aim in life except serving others. He can’t get her out his mind, which enrages him. Even the thought that she wields some power over him is “a thought that simultaneously fascinate[s] and infuriate[s]” Alexander.

To fight off his desire, he tells himself how disagreeable he finds Ivona, who gives him the impression of being a “natural born victim.” He wants to hurt her. Yet on their first drunken night together, Ivona utters the fateful words, “I love you,” and they take root in his heart. He cannot extirpate them. In fact, as much as he is “irritated by her docile and long-suffering manner,” he admits to himself that “the thought of her love had something ennobling about it.” But ennoblement quickly becomes enthrallment.

Alexander binds himself to Ivona; he comes to feel that he owns her. He leaves her money for spending time with him, and he soon begins paying her to perform certain sexual acts. Though he finds the idea of paying a prostitute for sex abhorrent, he thinks, “giving money to Ivona was something different. It wasn’t payment for services received. Ivona belonged to me, and my looking after her in that way was the justification of my claims of ownership.”

Alexander’s fascination with Ivona is not like Humbert Humbert’s passionate obsession for Lolita, nor is Ivona’s love for Alexander lustful like Anna Karenina’s ardor for Vronsky. The dynamic of their relationship bears closer resemblance to what Dostoyevsky describes in Notes from Underground, when the Underground Man defines love as consisting “precisely in the right, voluntarily granted by the beloved object, to be tyrannized over.” Alexander rules over Ivona just as the Underground Man rules over the prostitute Liza. The Underground Man finds Liza repellant but at the same time is drawn to her: “One feeling intensified the other.” Like Alexander, the Underground Man’s feelings begin with dislike but result in his subjugation of Liza, though his conquest is fraught because “afterwards [he] couldn’t even picture […] what to do with the subjugated object.”

Alexander faces the same problem with Ivona. She “belongs” to him. His “ownership” of her entitles him to luxuriate in post-coital bliss, which produces in him a feeling of “freedom and protectedness.” He can’t give her up, yet he won’t leave his wife for her. He feels “[i]t was as though time stood still when I was with her, which was precisely what gave those moments their weight.” Neither his wife nor his job can induce this transcendent feeling in him. His relationship with Ivona provides the only control he can exercise over his life, the only action he can take to assuage his feelings of helplessness and emptiness. The violence he inflicts upon Ivona in her small, dark room appears in proportion to his internalized rage, which he cannot act out in his everyday life or inflict upon his “perfect wife.”

When Alexander impregnates Ivona, an event that could offer him the opportunity to exit the life he leads and start a family with Ivona, he instead confesses his infidelity to Sonia. He suggests that they take Ivona’s baby and raise it as their own, a suggestion to which Sonia agrees. They essentially coerce the hapless Ivona into signing papers to forfeit her child, the only thing of value she has ever produced.

Throughout the recounting of his story, Alexander presents himself as a sympathetic character, an eminently reasonable and sensitive man, yet he cheats on his wife from the beginning of their marriage and steals his mistress’s child to make amends with his wife. He drinks to excess and bears most of the responsibility for bankrupting their architectural business. He even thinks of his daughter as a “project,” like one of the buildings on which he works. When Sonia finally announces the end of their marriage and leaves Alexander to go work in France, he nonetheless reflects: “It seemed to me that everything had just happened to me, and I was as little to blame for it as Sonia or Ivona. I wasn’t a monster, I was no better and no worse than anyone else.”

While Alexander may be “no better and no worse than anyone else,” it is preposterous to claim that “everything had just happened” to him. At the end of Stamm’s earlier novel, On a Day Like This, Andreas proposes that life in general, and his life in particular, is nothing more than an “endless row of coincidences.” Stamm seems to suggest that while Andreas has reunited with one of his former girlfriends, with whom he may have a shot at happiness, this is due to nothing but chance, just like all the other events in his life. However, neither for Andreas nor for Alexander does this actually appear to be the case.

A coincidence, in the form of an accident, is what happens in All Days Are Night, when a car crash kills Jill’s husband and leaves her horribly disfigured, causing her to give up her glamorous job on television and retreat to the mountains “to find herself.” While Jill is clearly a victim, both Andreas and Alexander make purpose-driven, rational decisions about how to lead their lives. Still, at the conclusion of their stories, both men seem dazed and confused about the past and the present. The indeterminacy that surrounds their conditions may be of Stamm’s design but, by removing their agency through the idea of fate or “coincidence,” he leaves the reader with the burden of determining whether his protagonists are “natural born victim[s]” (how Alexander describes Ivona) or whether they’ve been elevated to the level of “the tragic” for suffering successfully through what fate has dealt them.

At one point toward the end of Seven Years, Alexander stares out of a window in his house, thinking: “I had the feeling that everything was possible for me just then, I could walk out of the house and never come back. It was a feeling at once liberating and frightening.” Thomas, the protagonist of Stamm’s latest novel, To the Back of Beyond, does just that. In To the Back of Beyond, Stamm works out the inevitable outcome for a man who absolves himself of responsibility for anything that happens to him or those around him.

In the novel, Thomas and his wife, Astrid, relax on their front porch after returning home to Switzerland from a family vacation. When Astrid goes inside to check on the children, Thomas puts down his wine glass and walks off into the night. He never returns.

While Astrid continually wonders what happened to him, Thomas spends virtually no time wondering what happens to Astrid and the children he abandoned. He wanders through the mountains to Spain and throughout Europe, taking menial odd jobs when necessary, but he never returns to his home and family in Switzerland. He lives a life of pure action — of daily struggle and survival — on his own.

Neither Thomas, nor Astrid — nor even the author — ever proffer a reason for Thomas’s disappearance. Astrid sometimes hypothesizes: “He just had to go, leave. Maybe that was the explanation. […] it was an urge she had felt herself.” She recounts the “urge” that she’d had when she was sleep-deprived and their daughter was young and colicky, when she had gone to the train station with the intention of running away but didn’t. The experience left her with the realization that there is “nothing natural or inevitable about [their life], and that sometime one or other of them might get lost for a while or even forever.”

For the most part, Astrid takes a philosophical view of Thomas’s departure. Stalwart in her loyalty to her departed husband, like Penelope she does not remarry: “No one seemed to understand that her relationship with Thomas wasn’t over just because he wasn’t around anymore.” As the children grow up and move away, Astrid never offers a critique of her husband’s behavior. The closest thing to criticism of his actions arises when Astrid, left to raise the family on her own, can’t afford to send Ella, their daughter, to the school she wants to attend. Delivering the first and only judgment of Thomas’s behavior, Ella calls her father an “asshole” for “dumping” them.

Again, Stamm offers no explanations for these characters’ actions. He has said, “I do not like to psychologize, I use the perceptions of my characters to show how they feel.” He shows Thomas living in nature, presented through his experience of the flora, fauna, and landscapes that surround him, with little or no rumination about why he wanders around like a nomad instead of remaining at home like a normal, bourgeois family man.

Unlike the journeys undertaken by characters in Stamm’s other books, Thomas’s journey has no destination outside of its ongoing, ceaseless, Brownian motion. “Not everything you did had a reason,” Thomas declares. He lives a life in the eternal present. In the mountains, “[h]e felt suddenly present as never before; it was as though he had no past and no future. There was only this day and this path on which he was slowly making his way up the mountain.” In All Days Are Night, Stamm includes an epigram by Ernst Bloch that presents a similar thought: “The final will is that to be truly present. So that the lived moment belongs to us and we to it…”

In a rare moment of reflection on his past, Thomas recalls what he felt about his family just after their last time together on vacation: “[T]he feeling that had kept sneaking up on him then that he could never get close enough to them, that they were inevitably distancing themselves from him, as though following a law of nature.” By leaving suddenly, he executes an action that he felt was ultimately inevitable, ending with a single gesture a process that would have taken years of pain to unfold. Thomas’s sentiment aligns with the outlook on relationships Stamm expresses in the New Yorker interview: “All relationships end badly. Even if you stay together for the rest of your life, at some point one of you will die, and then the other.”

In To the Back of Beyond, there is no closure to Thomas’s tale. Due to Stamm’s masterful storytelling technique, we can believe that Thomas died shortly after leaving home by falling into a mountain crevasse; or that, when aged, he may have fallen off some scaffolding while working with a construction crew; or that he may still be wandering the mountains, ready to one day walk back into his house and surprise Astrid.

Stamm’s writing takes for granted that we live in a “post-existential” world, one in which the ruling ideology is the metaphysics of meaninglessness, and absurdity has become the status quo. In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus writes, “that [the absurd] arises because the world fails to meet our demands for meaning.” As an appropriate response to absurdity, he suggests that one adapt an attitude of scorn toward the world.

Unlike Camus, Stamm’s characters don’t see their predicaments as arising from a world that has failed them. They don’t bemoan their situation, and they don’t see scorn or defiance against the world as answers to their condition. This might be because, in thinking about absurdity, Stamm appears to be more aligned with the philosopher Thomas Nagel than he is with Camus. In his essay “The Absurd,” Nagel dismisses Camus’s articulation and suggests instead that a situation is absurd when there is “a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality […] Consequently the absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.”

This “collision within ourselves,” and the feeling of freedom it induces, generates the turmoil with which Stamm’s protagonists generally struggle. It is a collision that propels the narrative dynamic of his novels. Either life events — like a wife’s discovery that her husband has lied about who he is, an identity crisis instigated by a car accident, or a portentous diagnosis — or a spontaneous urge to flee cause the inner collision and, when it occurs, Stamm’s characters resort to flight. In every novel except Agnes, Stamm’s protagonist embarks on a journey to sort out the damage caused by this collision, which typically involves the search for love, or the possibility of transcendence through love.

Yet love, the potential solvent or existential balm, presents a perpetual problem in the Stammian universe because being in love entails an attachment to or “ownership of” another person, a bind that diminishes each person’s freedom. As far back as Agnes, the narrator of the story, speaking about the eponymous heroine, notes that he loved Agnes and had been happy with her, but “it was only when she wasn’t there that I felt I was free. And my freedom had always mattered more to me than my happiness.”

We are never really sure what Stamm’s characters are searching for, though it is certainly nothing so crass as wealth or fame. It might be love and sometimes appears to be happiness or transcendence that they’re after, but then the question of freedom always lingers to complicate their relationships. His characters do so much to undermine the circumstances in which they might be happy or find love that readers can only reasonably assume at the end of the story that they are “not unhappy,” the nuance of the double negative hinting at happiness without positively acknowledging it. We come to care for Stamm’s characters — though far from lovable, hardly ingratiating, and rarely sympathetic — because the situations in which we encounter them are, or could be, much like our own. We can relate to them because they strive to ameliorate their conditions despite rarely managing to do so.

Somehow, throughout all his novels and after all their adventures, Stamm’s characters remain estranged and empty. Part of the pleasure in accompanying them on their journey is that, while most of their objectives fail, each and every one of them continues on with their life. We can almost hear them mumble under their breath, like the narrator in Beckett’s The Unnamable, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” We don’t get the sense that they are content, that they have found love, or that they’ve achieved anything like transcendence, but it doesn’t matter. As Stamm knows, that’s what life amounts to for most of us.

At the conclusion of Unformed Landscape, after leaving her second husband and embarking on an unsuccessful search for love, Kathrine returns to an old flame named Morten. She is 28 and preparing once again to leave the village in which she was born and raised, this time with Morten by her side. She counts: “April, May, June […] Helge, Thomas, Christian, Morten. Three thousand kronor in her bank account, a few books, a few clothes, a few bits of kitchen equipment. A laptop. A kid.” That’s her life. She and Morten move away from the village and get jobs. Her son grows up, and she and Morten have a child together. The story ends: “It was fall, then winter. It was summer. It got dark, and then it got light again.”


GD Dess is the author of the novels His Vision of Her and Harold Hardscrabble.

LARB Contributor

GD Dess is an author (His Vision of Her and Harold Hardscrabble), essayist, and critic whose work appears in LARB and elsewhere. He has just finished a new novel, Here for Love. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @gdess.


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