The Never-Ending Search for Transcendence: A Conversation with Peter Stamm




INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED Swiss author Peter Stamm’s writing is characterized by his vivid but restrained style and his precise psychological and emotional insights. He uses his masterful storytelling technique to expose the emptiness of a person’s life, its directionless shape. His characters — restless seekers of intensities whom we encounter in situations that are, or could be, much like our own seem off balance, and their search for equilibrium provides the narrative dynamic of his novels. 

Their voyages of self-discovery do not always end at the destination upon which they had set their sights; love, happiness, and freedom sometimes remain chimeras on a distant horizon. But throughout it all, his characters continue to seek, or maintain, meaningful human relationships, which is a testament to Stamm’s ultimately optimistic belief in the possibility of transcendence.

Stamm has published seven novels, all of which have been translated from the German by Michael Hofmann: Agnes (1998), Unformed Landscape (2001), On a Day Like This (2006), Seven Years (2009), All Days Are Night (2013), To the Back of Beyond (2016), and The Sweet Indifference of the World, which will be published in the United States in the fall of 2019. Also a writer of plays, short stories, and radio dramas, he has won numerous literary awards and been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. Stamm spoke with me from his home in Switzerland.

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GD DESS: What was your career path to becoming a writer?

PETER STAMM: I was an accountant before I became a writer. I was in school but I was fed up with it and wanted to leave, even though I was a good student. At that time in my village, people who left school went to work for a bank or an insurance company, or an accounting firm, which is what I did. But I knew I wouldn’t end up having a career in accounting.

I think it was around age 20 I decided to become a writer. About that time, I went to Paris. Going there was a big shock for me, coming from my village of about 9,000 people to a city of more than five million. I learned a lot about life while I was in Paris. In a way, I was born for a second time when I was there. Had I not left my village and gone there, my life would have probably been like Thomas’s staid little life as an accountant in my novel To the Back of Beyond. I’d be doing my job like him and everybody else in the village, and quite happy to be part of working society.

What’s it like for you to write? Karl Ove Knausgaard has said that writing for him is just like reading. In fact, it was the discovery of the “freedom” he found in that space that unblocked him and allowed him to write.

I would agree. Writing is not that different from reading. It is just that you are making up what you’re reading while you’re reading it. There is a connection. I love writing. Writing is a great life. Some of the happiest moments of my life have been writing. A friend of mine said it’s like playing God. You are in a way a God in the world you are creating. Maybe I’m a control freak since I do want to control things. Because in the real world people are doing things I don’t like. But any kind of creative activity is good. I like cooking. Building things. Painting. I like to create things.

You’ve said, “Literature is like research, not just telling stories.” This seems to imply that on one hand you see literature as an investigation into a state of mind or event, and on the other hand you think of literature as stories, which largely strive to entertain.

Yes, I do talk about the difference. I have a feeling that even serious authors today feel they have to entertain readers, and are often happy with just entertaining them. Many authors write a form of historical novel with the same end in mind. I don’t understand it. I want to defend the old goals of literature. Do you think, for example, Hemingway would have liked the work of Jonathan Franzen? I don’t think so.

What is the process of writing like for you? For example, do you complete a chapter or section of a novel and then go back and edit? Or do you complete the entire piece and then edit?

I write usually in the morning, and if I’m working on a book I try to do it every day. But there are always periods where I don’t write for weeks or even months. I write a first draft from beginning to end. I never make plans, and I usually do research while I’m writing, as I only know what I need to know once I’m writing. I write slowly, a lesson I learned from Hemingway, not more than two pages a day. When I finish a text, I start revising it, rereading it 15, 20 times, making small changes. The text doesn’t get much shorter in this process, but it gets more precise.

Do you think literature has a function, a goal or mission?

For me, literature is like science, a means to understand the world. It’s a way to know and learn things about people. I studied psychology for a while, and what I realized was that the things it found out about people were banal. Because the methodologies science uses are not the right ones. Human beings are so complicated that scientific methods are not a good fit to study them. Literature teaches us things about people and relationships and the world, as well as, for example, how time functions.

I’m a guest professor at Bern right now, and I find that the more we talk about time and writing, the more we learn how extremely complicated the concept of time is in literature. A physicist at the university brought my attention to the early Christian writer St. Augustine. Augustine intuited and expressed thoughts about time that took physicists hundreds of years to prove. Literature may be a better way to understand man than science.

There are no obvious happy endings in your novels. They are not tragedies, but an aura of melancholy suffuses them. Would you agree?

I think in all my books the characters are better off in the end than they were in the beginning. Even if a couple splits up, as in Seven Years: Alexander loses his wife in the end, but he comes to understand something about the relationship. So, in a way, he’s better off. A happy ending would be cheating readers because whatever ending we have, we’re all going to die. Perhaps that’s the melancholy in my books.

And then, maybe the happiness in a novel should not come at the end, but perhaps in the middle. For example, when you are 90 your life situation is probably not as good as it was when you were 40 or 60. At 50, you might still say you are happy, and that life is good. And that may be when happiness occurs, not at the end of your life. I see my books as being like a statue: a whole form that can be viewed from all angles and yield in its totality a beautiful object.

Horace Engdahl, a literary critic and member of the Nobel Committee, has said,

There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world … not the United States. The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature … That ignorance is restraining.

Is Europe still the center of the literary world?

Well, I am European … but I don’t really know. When I was in America the authors I met were extremely well read. They had read more than many Swiss authors I know. However, the problem of cultural isolation can arise when the translation level is low. I think that only three percent of books published in the United States are translated from other languages. So, there is a danger that you’ll miss what is happening in other countries. Today, the classics are all translated, and the modern classics as well are translated and published, but it’s hard to tell what that means.

On the other hand, I do think you can be a great writer without having read the whole canon of literature. You can even read too much. When I started writing I remember talking to a critic who used to be a writer as a young man, and he said he had read too much and he couldn’t write fiction anymore. His opinion was that if you read too much you could get caught up thinking, How can I add something to that richness that’s already there? I understand his point.

The literary novel has, until recently, been considered one of the preeminent forms of knowledge transfer about culture, in its broadest sense. In a recent essay in Harper’s called “The Printed Word in Peril,” Will Self argues that “literary culture is sliding into oblivion” because of the omnipresence of screen media, the internet, electronic devices, et cetera, as well as university creative writing programs. How do you think this affects us?

A good film can do pretty much the same thing for us as a good book. Many series on TV can be quite efficient at transferring cultural knowledge and not be just entertainment. I don’t hold anything against other art forms. While sales of books are down — in Germany, anyway — there are still more people reading than ever before. Certainly far more than in, say, the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries. I think one has to remain optimistic.

The French writer Michel Houellebecq has said that what he likes most about writing is the compliments he gets from readers. And the two he really appreciates are: “It made me weep,” and “I read it in one night. I couldn’t stop.” Which one would you choose?

I don’t want to make my readers weep. What I like is when people say my work touched them, when it means something to them or does something for them. Some people have told me that my work changed their life. I met a woman who said she split up with her husband after reading Seven Years. Which was a positive thing for her, as her marriage hadn’t been working. A couple told me that reading one of my books was the impetus for them becoming a couple. When my books touch people, I am happiest.

Some critics have argued that autofiction is the logical endpoint of realism’s championing of individual experience, that since artifice and experimentation in narrative form have been exhausted there is nothing left but to capture and report one’s own reality. What are your thoughts on this approach to writing?

It depends on the book, I suppose. But it doesn’t really interest me, nor do I read this type of fiction. I did read some of Knausgaard. I thought it was very well written. But I couldn’t read thousands of pages of it.

I don’t think autofiction is the only answer or solution to narration or the depiction of the world. What interests me in literature is form. And in my work, for example, I’m often interested in the non-realistic. In the Romantic period in German literature, there were tales that were not really ghost stories but stories that were not really real. This type of writing interests me. In my novel To the Back of Beyond, Thomas dies, yet he and the story continue on. In the new book that came out this spring, this kind of idea is even stronger. The protagonist meets his double, the person he was 16 years ago.

I think autofiction is no more than one possibility of many. My feeling is a lot of people who don’t write novels say things like “the end of the novel.” Have you ever heard an artist or author say the novel is dead or painting is dead? When Yves Klein started painting his blue [monochromes] you could have said painting had come to an end, but it didn’t. Things go on.

You’ve stated that you’d like to try to create a novel without characters. Any ideas you could share about how that would work? Perhaps something similar to Beckett’s The Unnamable?

I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. I’ll start and find out how to do it by doing it. In some of my short stories, I’ve tried this. There are sentences that are from the point of view of a house. I present things happening from the house’s perspective, for example — the sun passing through a room from morning to evening and touching different things in it as time passes. For a few sentences I think it works quite well. But the question is whether it would become boring for a reader in an extended form.

In To the Back of Beyond, you say of Thomas, who walks away from his home and family and is never seen again, “He does not want to leave the world, to die, but he does want to live in the world as a non-existing person, a mere observer who doesn’t take part.” Many of your characters share this sentiment, a feeling of existential exhaustion. What is it about this worldview that attracts you?

In a way, maybe disappearing, as Thomas does, is a way of escaping death. In many of my books there is this idea of stopping time. Perhaps leaving the life you were leading behind makes you forget you’re going to die. It makes you stop thinking. It’s like having no relationships, which saves you from losing people. When I go hiking in the mountains, for example, I forget myself. Which is beautiful. Because I don’t have to think about all the problems I have. You just see and feel, and it’s a beautiful moment when you somehow forget everything.

When I was at university, I longed for emptiness. For not being important. To have nobody waiting for me, nobody wanting something from me. Those days at school were completely empty in a way. There is a beauty in that. You can’t live in that moment forever, you have to stop after a while. But it’s a great moment.

Many of your characters vacillate between feeling trapped in a life to which they aren’t committed and suspecting that their “real life” hasn’t yet begun. What are they searching for?

I think they’re searching for freedom, and transcendence, a theme that runs through all my work. In a certain sense, I’m always writing the same thing.

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


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