Translated from German by Michael Hofman
(New York: Other Press, 2020)
The minimal-inducing fiction of Swiss author Peter Stamm, winner of the Hölderlin Prize and short-listed for the Man Booker, has been garnering attention from English readers since his first translated novel Unformed Landscape arrived from Other Press in 2005, along with various short stories appearing in major journals since then. The growing acclaim as of late has been well earned, too, much of which could be owed to the steady hand of equally accomplished German poet Michael Hofmann over the last fifteen years, as conveyed most recently in Stamm’s second story collection We’re Flying (2012) and sixth novel To the Back of Beyond (2017). For those new to Stamm, they will find in his stylistic approach an immediate and uncanny resemblance to Hemingway: a calm, clean prose bereft of any adornment whatsoever, something Hofmann has faithfully tended to with each passing translation. Yet an essential difference between these two careful storytellers is a strange premonition of various disturbances to follow in Stamm’s narratives of contemporary middle-class Europeans, many of which are frighteningly easy to slide into while reading without being aware of it. A psychological literature of ordinary lives gone awry, presenting itself as anything but at first glance.
Stamm’s latest novel The Sweet Indifference of the World, however, may mark a slight departure for him — with emphasis on slight. Proving steadfast in tone and depiction of his characters, as well as in the constant limitations he places around them, Stamm refuses to employ, for instance, the earth-shattering plot development or profound epiphany for his protagonists, instead relying on the shaky foundations of human relationships to play themselves out, often to deceptively unremarkable ends. Surface and disruption, then, are everything to Stamm. His character narrators tend to be distant in any and all respects, almost billowy outlines of their self-assured composure around other characters, until their own desires begin to bring them into focus for the reader, and not without a faint touch of the grotesque despite their cosmopolitan air. Indifference holds true to this established pattern, albeit going a step further to re-examine from his debut novel Agnes (1998) what Stamm sees as the faulty role of authors attempting to use their writing to shape and direct other people, if not themselves as well in the process. He has offered up here a renewed willingness to embrace his previous self-reflexive tendencies to present a novel more emotive than its cool demeanor suggests. Not surprisingly, a hidden anxiety settles on everything in Indifference like a huge morning fog drivers can’t help but speed headlong into while on the interstate and are left to wonder midway through if they will ever see the other side of it.
So it goes for our published novelist in late-life crisis, Christophe. We witness a haunting dreamscape in the opening chapter of his looking back in wizened regret upon the eternally spry Magdalena, the once-beloved who had slipped through his fingers, as he tries chasing her down to no avail. But this overture then gives way to something irreal, unsettling: in waking life, Christophe erroneously (or not) believes he has found Magdalena again in the guise of Lena, an actor with the same physical appearance and personality as hers, whom he has stalked around Stockholm to great lengths. She inexplicably takes up his impromptu offer to meet in public at a graveyard despite his mistaken identity and her unfamiliarity with him. Why does she agree to this? What are his intentions? Undaunted, Lena is willing to play along despite the awkward situation. From this rendezvous proceeds an extended conversational walk between the two through the city with periodic interruptions and sidesteps between them as he attempts mixing equal parts confession with a preview of coming attractions, if not a warning for her, all of which is matched by what Lena tells him about herself in a near-perfect copy of events.
While Christophe isn’t necessarily angling for a second chance with this younger version of Magdalena, the possibilities presented of themselves together again do keep him sufficiently pining and jealous throughout the novel. The obstacle? One elusive doppelganger deserves another, so Christophe discovers his abbreviated namesake in Lena’s current lover Chris, of course an up-and-coming author himself. Failing to catch Chris’ attention, Christophe develops a special contempt for him while remaining unseen by him at the same time. Not before long does Christophe find the threads of his existence (and his published books) vanishing as Chris considers selling out his own writing for fame and fortune. Trying to ascertain possible “deviations” and “variations” of Lena’s future with Chris, including that of a marriage to Magdalena which never materialized, Christophe must wrestle with a creeping notion of his life being wasted, how his writing failed to reconcile his past with Magdalena, and how it may yet fail the future of Lena and Chris together that he feels responsible for.
All this déjà vu may come across as another one of Stamm’s subtle tales of obsession, but not quite. The novel signals no likelihood of giving Christophe a hopeful reunion with this Magdalena / Lena. Instead, Indifference is the tale of a previous affair becoming unconsummated in the aftermath by its own telling, and left to corruption in memory when the idea of the other person turns out to be stronger than revisiting their actuality. Even as he tries to unravel the puzzle of Lena’s life with Chris, Christophe’s wanting to tell his own story outside of his writing may be more important than whatever he wants for Lena. But endings offer no earthly consolation, as Stamm suggests with his penchant, and they preclude any agreeable denouement here. As much as Christophe may want to redeem his past with Magdalena by possibly revising Lena’s present, the cyclical nature of narrative has committed his story to no satisfaction gained, presenting no resolution but a grim inevitability he spies for himself.
In a December 2017 interview with The White Review while finishing Indifference, Stamm expresses some concern about the novel possibly being confusing, and there will perhaps be some hesitation for readers along the way, even for those familiar with his fiction. Further complications with the doubles are presented in Indifference to daring result, the fragile depiction of its reality through a consistently unreliable narrator among the most notable of these. The glacial-smooth prose in tandem with buried quoteless dialogue also creates deliberately slippery moments in telling Christophe’s slow-motion break-up with Magdalena, how those then blend and blur into Lena and Chris’ story. And it may not be difficult to lose track of whether Christophe is imagining scenarios, projecting thoughts onto others, letting Lena speak or someone else in absentia, or disassociating himself from what’s happening around him. The growing instability of Christophe’s narration is impossible to ignore as he loses himself in his continuous following people around to confirm that he ever existed beyond the thinning premises of his now-evaporated writing. These are no faulty hindrances, however. The fascinating overall effect of Indifference makes it a worthy inclusion among Stamm’s other compelling novels, and a captivating suggestion of what may yet come should this work represent a slim veering for him.
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Forrest Roth is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia. His recent novel is Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through (What Books Press, 2017), with his shorter fictions having appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Juked, Timber, and other journals. Links can be found at www.forrestroth.blogspot.com.