Tuesday, 23 July 2013

'An einem Tag wie diesem' ('On a Day Like This') by Peter Stamm (Review)

Recently, I've been neglecting my German-language reading, so I decided it was time to take a break from my review copies and library Spanish-language literature education, and pick up a book from my shelves.  It's by a writer whose work I've enjoyed before - and it's a nice, easy read too...

Peter Stamm's An einem Tag wie diesem (On a Day Like This) is the story of Andreas, a Swiss forty-something teaching German in Paris.  He's lived in France for almost twenty years, and his life is in a rut.  He's never been married, has lived in the same, small apartment for a decade and meets two regular girlfriends for no-strings attached sex on a regular basis.

Events, however, conspire to shake up his routine life in a way he couldn't have expected.  A graded reader he is considering for his class, about a holiday romance, reminds him of his encounter with Fabienne, a French au-pair, back in his home village.  Then a visit to the doctor to investigate a nasty cough leads him to face up to the fact that he's not getting any younger.  Throw in an encounter with Delphine, a young trainee teacher, and Andreas' world is in a bit of a spin.  It's time for him to take a trip into his past...

As I've mentioned before, Stamm's style is deceptively simple, and I'm sure that the (kitschy) graded reader is a bit of a nod to this:
"Die Geschichte war unglaubwürdig und schlecht geschrieben, aber sie hatte verblüffende Parallelen zu Andreas' Geschichte.  Auch er war Fabienne nachgereist, allerdings erst nach zwei jahren.  Sie hatten sich während der ganzen Zeit geschrieben.  Andreas hatte den Kuss am Weiher nie erwähnt, aber seine Briefe waren voller Andeutungen gewesen.  Fabienne musste gemerkt haben, was er für sie empfand."
p.29 (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011)

"The story was unbelievable and badly written, but there were startling parallels to Andreas' story.  He had also followed Fabienne, albeit two years later.  They had written to each other the whole time.  Andreas had never brought up the kiss by the pond, but his letters were full of hints about it.  Fabienne must have noticed what he felt for her." ***
At this stage of the story, the unwary reader might be tempted to say that Stamm's book is little better than the one Andreas is flicking through.  The Swiss writer's simple style always has a sting in the tail though; the story unfolds slowly and carefully, becoming more complex as it progresses.

It's a tale of nostalgia, and a warning of the dangers of revisiting the past.  Andreas begins to obsess about his youth, recalling his brief encounter with Fabienne and his return home for his father's funeral.  Even an old postcard is enough to have him remembering the old days, an idealised image of what was - and what could have been.  Gradually, he decides that the reason for the standstill in his life is partly his feeling of having missed his chance for love with Fabienne.

His actions later in the book though are to prove that nostalgia isn't all it's cracked up to be - you can't cross the same river twice (although at one point, he does, literally, and there's nothing on the other side of the bridge...).  Which is not to say that this justifies the path he took instead, far from it.  It's obvious that Andreas' life needs an impetus, and one has just come along in the shape of Delphine.  Will he realise this though?

One thing Stamm excels at is writing real people, people you can imagine meeting and talking to, flawed people, not types.  Andreas, like other Stamm heroes, is, well, a bit of a prick at times:
     >>Du bist ein Schwein<<, sagte Nadja mit vollkommen kalter Stimme.
     >>Ich werde dich vermissen<<, sagte Andreas.  >>Man kann so schön allein sein mit dir.<<
     >>Du bist allein, egal mit wem du zusammen bist<<, sagte Nadja. (p.84)

"You're a pig", said Nadja in a cold voice.
"I'll miss you", said Andreas.  "You can really be alone with you."
"You're alone no matter who you're with", said Nadja.***
Every time we start to try to empathise with him, he does something selfish and stupid, whether it's abandoning girlfriends in the cruellest possible way, or flirting with his best friend's wife after the two of them have just had a fight.  He treats women coldly and uses people when it suits him, and this effective characterisation, despite the simple language and plot, constantly throws the reader off balance.

I keep coming back to this idea of simple language simply because it is, well, simple.  Anyone wanting to read something literary in German would be well advised to try Stamm as a starting point.  He uses very spare prose, but the clear language somehow veils deeper ideas.  One linguistic feature I noted was an interesting use of the subjunctive for indirect speech (rather than using direct speech) at times.  It has the effect of distancing the reader (and often Andreas) from the other characters, enhancing the feeling of solitude Andreas already brings with him...

On a Day Like This is a great story of revisiting the past in order to get your future moving, and one I'm sure most people would enjoy.  I have a couple more from Stamm to come - I already had Wir Fliegen (We're Flying), a collection of short stories, on my shelves, and on finishing this book, I immediately bought his first novel(lla), Agnes, too.  Stamm was nominated for the Mann Booker International Prize this year, and I'm sure he'll pop up on more short- and longlists in the future.  This is a writer you'll definitely hear more about - even if it's only on my blog :)

***All translations into English are my own sorry attempts :)