ross benjamin


Place Odyssey

Peter Stamm’s fiction charts elusive geographies




Swiss author Peter Stamm is keenly aware of the weather and how it alters the texture of daily life. Take, for example, his short story “Passion,” in which the blazing heat of an Italian summer spurs the separation of lovers. The weather serves not so much as a counterpart to human affairs as a catalyst and suggestive backdrop. Stamm’s meteorological sensibility permeates his short story collection, In Strange Gardens and Other Stories, and his novel Unformed Landscape, both admirably translated by Michael Hofmann. The stories are filled with precise descriptions of the briskness of wind, the heaviness of rain, and the thickness of snow. In the novel, sections routinely start with a weather report: “This morning was silvery and clear. A strong wind blew off the Barents Sea”; “The bad weather moved east. In the middle of the day, the thermometer now climbed above zero”; “The night wasn’t cold, but there was a stiff wind.” Strikingly, Stamm’s tone does not shift as he goes on to portray the inner ruminations of the novel’s protagonist, a woman questioning her life. His method is the inverse of the pathetic fallacy, or the projection of anthropomorphic qualities onto nature; instead, he charts the fluctuations of human experience as if recording meteorological phenomena.

A freelance writer and journalist in his early forties, Stamm published his first novel, Agnes, in 1999; it was lauded by critics and became a bestseller in German-speaking countries. In his fiction Stamm frugally deploys neutral language to describe the impressions of his characters. Even when he narrates shocking incidents, like the calamitous turn of events during a nocturnal swimming excursion in “The Ice Lake,” the equanimity of his prose remains unruffled. His writing is distinguished by lapidary expression, telegraphic terseness, and finely tuned sensitivity. A stylistic ascetic, he renders his evocative sketches with quick, exact strokes. A description of a Manhattan night transfigured by snowfall in “Through the Night” exhibits his laconic flair for atmosphere:

There was someone cross-country skiing in Times Square. The ads were flashing away as normal. Their garish alternation had something ghostly in so much silence. He walked on, up Broadway. Just before he got to Columbus Circle, he saw the lit-up window of a coffee shop. It was a place he had been to before; the managers and the waiters were Greek, and the food was good.

There were only a few customers there. Most of them were sitting at one of the tables in the window that reached down to the ground, drinking beer or coffee, and looking out. The atmosphere was solemn, no one was talking, it was as though they were all witnesses to a miracle.

Rarely does Stamm offer much information beyond his characters’ splintered perceptions and semi-articulate emotions. Adrift in foreign lands, subdued and taciturn, inclined to ephemeral encounters and tenuous connections, they are at once singular and emblematic of the dislocations of contemporary existence. Often they are introduced as if arbitrarily deposited on the map: “Lotta was Finnish, and she lived in the West Village in Manhattan”; “It was only by chance that I had wound up in Sweden at all”; “We had gone to Italy as a group, Stefan and Anita, Maria and me.” The protagonist of “Like a Child, Like an Angel” works for a multi-national food conglomerate, visiting its various subsidiaries across Europe and North America. Initially seduced by the idea of constantly encountering new places and people, he ends up oppressed by the monotony of incessant movement. In “All That’s Missing” a Swiss corporate employee who has been transferred to London because “a certain geographical flexibility was expected with the job” succumbs to intense emotional unrest in his anchorless existence. His disquiet becomes agonizing when he reads a newspaper story about the mutilated corpse of a six-year-old boy found in the Thames. To be uprooted, Stamm implies, is to be left unprotected from the randomness of suffering, exposed to cruelty, pain, and loneliness. He poignantly depicts this state in “The Wall of Fire”: In the fate of a stuntman for a traveling car show, he finds a link between the experience of impermanence and the inevitability of death.

An unnerving haziness often surrounds Stamm’s transients, who seem to be sleepwalking, half-asleep, or, like Kathrine in Unformed Landscape, “just half-alive, and dreaming.” This condition lies at the heart of the novel. Though Hofmann’s nearly homonymous translation of the German title, Ungefähre Landschaft, is ingenious, the original—literally, Approximate Landscape—more effectively signals the leitmotif of the indeterminacy of experience. Characteristically, Stamm introduces the theme in a manifestation of the weather: “There was a sort of misty haze, and the sky lost its blueness, and got paler and paler . . . [T]he light was so diffuse that everything blurred.” The setting is a port village in northeastern Norway. For most of the book, it is winter, and the region lies covered in snow and darkness, a blank, icy expanse that resembles “a drawing made of a few scribbled lines.”

The protagonist, Kathrine, a customs inspector who is half-Norwegian and half-indigenous Sami, has never ventured below the Arctic Circle. Already married, divorced, and left with a child who is more or less a stranger to her, she allows herself to be seduced by a wealthy, purposeful man named Thomas. His determination to seize hold of the reins in life seems like an antidote to her directionless existence: “His life represented a bold stroke through the unformed landscape of her life.” They marry, and for a while she submits to his efforts to remold her to fit his conventional ideals. But the marriage is cold and sexless, and when he is out of town one night, she sleeps with a childhood friend. The ease with which she deceives Thomas prompts her to confront the fraudulence at the root of their marriage. She flees to the local “fishermen’s refuge,” where Russians stay when their ships are in port. There she experiences a remarkable estrangement from her former self, recalling how she used to pass this spot on her way to work: “She had the feeling that that woman who walked past this window every morning was not herself, the feeling that she had turned into someone else, a stranger, a chance visitor from an unfamiliar village.”

Perplexed about what she wants in life and slandered by Thomas’s family in the village, she sets off for France. On the ship she tells the captain that she helped guard the border of her country but has rarely been on the other side, apart from a couple visits to nearby Sweden and Finland. His retort—“Things don’t look any different on the other side”— sums up the journey she is about to undertake. Though the captain bids her “Welcome to the world” and she refers to the voyage as her “honeymoon,” what she is going to learn is a persistent refrain in Stamm’s fiction: The romantic notion of finding oneself—or, for that matter, shedding oneself—in distant locales is a myth. Stamm’s travelers are all too often beset by the very ennui they seek to escape. Before long, Kathrine apprehends that “she had hardly seen anything that she hadn’t seen at home,” and concludes, “There’s not a lot of room in a person.” Stamm brings the point home when he describes Kathrine’s experience of a garden café in Paris: “She had never been in a garden café before, but she knew right away what it was, and perhaps for that reason mistrusted it. It looks, she thought, the way a Norwegian who has never seen a garden café might imagine one to look.”

Since her expedition does not magically unlock her soul, Kathrine is left to survey her murky inner terrain, “a dark, blurry picture where you couldn’t make out much.” Her thoughts turn back toward home, her son, her childhood friend, and even the husband she abandoned. In one memorable scene she views her village’s Internet home page, and a flickering, low-resolution webcam image of the town square reveals the once familiar place as nearly impenetrable; perhaps, she begins to realize, confronting this ambiguity marks her true entrance to the world. 

In an essay published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Stamm revealed that he does much of his writing on trains. In numerous respects his fiction reflects the circumstances of its own genesis. Stamm’s cool, observational style often lends the impression that he is passing through his stories, witnessing the unfolding of events from the window as he goes by. Something of the peculiar dynamic among passengers—safeguarding their anonymity in the proximity of strangers, impinging imperceptibly on one another’s lives, sharing an elusive intimacy that is intrinsically disconnected—seeps into the relationships of his characters. Finally, his unique sense of place corresponds to what he calls the “empty, timeless space of train travel,” the sensation of inhabiting a transitory nowhere. His characters dwell in this negative space, out of place in the “strange gardens” in which they find themselves. Using them as receptors of the world, Stamm registers restlessness and unease, irresolution, glimpses of the void. In Unformed Landscape he lets Kathrine shake off the drowsiness that afflicts many of his characters and, by opening her eyes to an obscure half-light, undergo a subtle metamorphosis. With artful understatement, Stamm conveys the mutability of experience, a phenomenon as inscrutable as variations in the weather.

Copyright Artforum Inc. Apr/May 2006