From the New Yorker review of Unformed Landscape : “If Albert Camus had lived in an age when people in remote Norwegian fishing villages had e-mail, he might have written a novel like this.”
THIS WEEK IN FICTION: PETER STAMM
The story is set in a Swiss village, in a slightly ominous and claustrophobic landscape: a man has drowned in the lake; someone has been poisoning dogs; the men in the bar seem somehow threatening to Lara. Did you intend the world of the story to feel somehow oppressive?
The landscape is the one near Lake Constance, where I grew up. It’s very nice, with lots of apple orchards, vineyards, forests, and little lakes, where we used to go swimming. The oppressiveness is more in the head of Lara, through whose eyes we see it. She is afraid to lose her boyfriend, and maybe afraid of life in general. How we see the world very often has more to do with ourselves than with the world itself. And, as I do not like to psychologize, I use the perceptions of my characters to show how they feel.
The case of the poisoned dogs actually happened some years ago near where I live. In the end, the police found out that the dogs hadn’t been poisoned but had eaten fermented grape marc in a vineyard.
This should be one of the happiest times in Lara’s life, and yet she’s still shy and not entirely trusting with Simon; she constantly questions the relationship. What has made her so hesitant and timid?
Mainly her age, I guess. A writer I know asked all her elderly friends what age they would like to be if they could go back in time. And they all chose forty-five as their favorite age. I know nobody who would want to be twenty again. I certainly wouldn’t. But I don’t think that Lara is unhappy. Maybe it’s because she is happy that she has all these fears. And she is timid because she is beautiful.
Do you think that this couple will make it through the challenges of intimacy and cohabitation? Will they outlast those high-quality towels?
I still have towels from different relationships, even one that I got for my confirmation. If they are good quality they can virtually last forever.
Whether Lara and Simon’s relationship will last is not so important. They will probably learn at some point that you can’t plan and arrange your life like an apartment. And that happiness in a relationship has to do with more than stability and duration. 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. So I’d rather not talk about happy endings but about happy moments within a life—or a story. Lara and Simon have happy moments and will certainly have many more.
Do you mean to imply, at the end of the story, that Lara and Simon are invented characters in the writer’s story? Is the man in the black coat you?
Of course, all literary characters are inventions, even if they are based on real people. But we don’t really like to be reminded of this fact. We have to forget it to be able to enjoy reading at all.
Let’s say the man in black is the author of the story. He appeared quite early, while I was writing, and I did not yet know what role he would play. When, in the end, he tells us that the characters we have just met are invented, I wasn’t very happy. I usually don’t like to end a story with a punch line. It weakens the plot and turns the story upside down. So I added a second punch line to set the story back on its feet, by giving Lara the last word. So, finally, fiction wins over a reality that is fictitious as well.
You mentioned that “Sweet Dreams” is your favorite story in your forthcoming collection, “We’re Flying.” Why is this one so close to your heart?
It has always been my goal to make literature out of ordinary people’s lives. I don’t like the extremes; I don’t think that they teach us much about ourselves. And very often extreme or willfully original stories are just trying to make up for a lack of empathy on the part of the author. Writers can learn from painters. No great painter would ever choose an original subject for his paintings. Cézanne, for example, needed only a few apples and some old pots and jugs to prove his artistry.
When I was working on “Sweet Dreams,” I told my editor that I was writing a story about a girl who buys a corkscrew—and that’s what it is. (By the way, I did some research on corkscrews and found out that they are sometimes thought to have a soul. The empty space in the middle of the helix of the corkscrew is called its soul in German. And then I remembered a sentence from my first novel, “Agnes”: “The mystery is the void at the center.”) But I guess that the real reason “Sweet Dreams” is one of my favorite stories in the book is that I fell a little bit in love with Lara when I saw her on that bus. Even though I’m much too old for her.
You’ve published eight books of fiction in Switzerland, all but one of which have been translated into English, by Michael Hofmann, and published in the United States. Is it important to you to reach an American audience?
When I started to write, about thirty years ago, American authors were important to me and influenced me, mainly authors from the early twentieth century. I have been to the U.S. many times and even worked there for half a year and once taught at a college for a few months. So of course it’s nice to be in bookstores in a country that I know and like. But, in a way, translations are more important for readers than for authors. More than half of the books published in Germany and Switzerland are translations. So we are very aware of what is happening in the literatures of other countries, and we take part in a global exchange. I have been influenced by literature in translation from Italy, Norway, Russia, Mexico, Japan, and many other countries.
Because American publishers put out fewer translations, American readers who don’t read foreign languages are excluded from a lot of this. Sometimes I have a feeling that the American literary scene is more isolated than it was a hundred years ago. I have twice been to the Pen World Voices Festival and have met many readers there who had a real hunger for foreign voices.
Is the short story a popular form in Swiss literature?
We do not have the tradition of the short story that English-speaking countries have. When I was a child, many magazines here published short stories, but today hardly any of them do. Still, quite a few young writers have started to write stories again, and there are a few festivals dedicated to them. So I think they have been getting a bit more popular in the last ten years. My novels usually sell about twice as well as my story collections, but to me the story form has always been important. I sometimes compare stories to chamber music, where you have only a few instruments but you can hear every single note. I like reduction, concentration, clarity.