Monday 3 November 2014

'Agnes' by Peter Stamm (Review)

Welcome to another month of German-language reading - November is here and that means that it's time for Lizzy and Caroline's German Literature Month event :)  It's the fourth edition, and once again I'll be dusting off some books from my shelves and brushing the cobwebs from the German-speaking part of my brain...

While I'm not sure I'll be able to get quite as much read this year as I have in the past, I'm still planning to get to a fair selection of books, and that all starts today.  Today's review looks at a new book for me, but it's one from a very familiar source, a writer that would be a great starting point for anyone interested in contemporary German-language writing :)

Agnes was Swiss writer Peter Stamm's first novel(la), and it's an excellent introduction to his work, featuring many of the themes and stylistic quirks of his later books.  The story is set in Chicago and features a (nameless) middle-aged writer who has come to the US to work on a work of non-fiction about trains.  One day, while doing research in the Chicago Public Library, a young woman comes in and sits down across from him.  Her name, as he soon finds out, is Agnes.

Naturally, the two are destined to become involved, but the book starts off dramatically, leaving us in no doubt as to what will happen to the heroine of the piece:
"Agnes ist tot.  Eine Geschichte hat sie getötet.  Nichts ist mir von ihr geblieben als diese Geschichte."
p.9 (Fischer Verlag, 2013)

"Agnes is dead.  A story killed her.  Nothing of her has been left to me but this story." *** (My translation)
Now that's quite a start.  From there, we have just 153 pages to see how the two meet, fall in love and have things go horribly, horribly wrong.  Nine months and counting...

For anyone who has read his books before, Agnes is very typical of Stamm's work.  It's a fairly ordinary story with fairly ordinary people, but the beauty here is that he makes the ordinary seem unusual.  He's an expert at drawing characters who have fatal flaws, something the reader gradually recognises is actually 'normal' - these are real people.

The narrator of Agnes is a typical Stamm man, from his laconic manner to his emotional coldness.  He enjoys the anonymity of being a stranger in a big foreign city, avoiding making contact with people before meeting Agnes.  This extends to the places he feels at home - his high-rise, hermetically-sealed apartment and the coffee shop where he is just another passing customer (he wants to go where nobody knows his name...).

Agnes herself is not without a few issues.  Right from the first chapter, we sense her anxiety:
"Sie mochte die Wohnung nicht, nicht das haus, überhaupt die ganze Innenstadt nicht.  Am Anfang lachten wir darüber, dann sprach sie nicht mehr davon.  Aber ich merkte, dass die Angst noch immer da war, dass sie gewachsen und nun so groß war, dass Agnes nicht mehr darüber sprechen konnte.  Sie klammerte sich stattdessen immer enger an mich, je mehr sie sich fürchtete.  Ausgerechnet an mich." (p.12)

"She didn't like the apartment, nor the building, in fact the whole inner city.  Initially we laughed about it, then she stopped talking about it.  But I could tell that the fear was still there, that it had grown and was now so big that Agnes could no longer talk about it.  Instead, she clung to me, tighter and tighter, the more she was afraid.  To me, of all people." ***
As the story develops, so too does her anxiety, leaving her constantly on edge, unable to relax into the relationship.  She's especially afraid of death, just the idea of ceasing to live causing her many restless moments.  In several discussions (for example, on Stonehenge or about the narrator's books) she fixates about leaving something behind, making a lasting impression on the world before her time ends.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the couple's relationship is that there is a third corner to the triangle - and it's a literary one.  The narrator is a failed fiction writer, and he is persuaded by Agnes to write a story about her, an ongoing work which gradually turns into a distorted mirror of the relationship.  While the tale initially reflects the start of their time together, it eventually catches up and begins to predict the future; in fact, before too long, it actually starts to influence the relationship, becoming a major impediment to the couple's happiness.

More than being a record of dates and cosy nights in, the story is a symbol of the control the narrator tries to exert over the relationship.  The narrator is like other male protagonists in Stamm's work; while not a bad man, he's rather selfish and self-centred:
"Es ist schwer zu erklären, obwohl ich sie liebte, mit ihr glücklich gewesen war, hatte ich nur ohne sie das Gefühl, frei zu sein. Und Freiheit war mir immer wichtiger gewesen als Glück.  Vielleicht war es das, was meine Freundinnen Egoismus genannt hatten." (p.110)

"It's hard to explain, although I loved her, had been happy with her, it was only without her that I had a sense of freedom.  And freedom had always been more important to me than happiness.  Perhaps that is what my girlfriends had always meant when they talked of my egotism." ***
Having chased Agnes, he then has second thoughts, but the trouble is that he's playing with a fragile mind.  He's not so much evil as thoughtless - but the end result is the same...

It's a wonderful read, definitely a one-day book (it was over in three short sittings for me), written in Stamm's usual, elegant, sparse style.  He's a great writer for people who want to try to read in German, his work seemingly simple, yet subtly complex.  Again, like his other books, the story often provides a warmth which quickly cools down, leaving the reader slightly wrong-footed, wondering where it all went wrong.  A warning - Stamm's not really a man for happy endings.

The story is definitely a compelling one, though, despite the chill of its setting, starting and finishing upon the isolated 27th floor.  It's a detached portrait of a woman with issues, and a man who simply can't understand her, but the background is almost as important as the people.  The apartment, the library, the parks, the walks - all reflect and increase the mood of the lovers, warming up and then slowly cooling down again, the relationship struggling as the winter approaches.  It's all very apt in the end...

Agnes is another great read from Stamm, a book I really want to reread when I find the time, and luckily enough for those of you who aren't quite up to the task of trying the original, it's available in English, translated by Michael Hoffman - as is his new novel, All Days are Night, which Other Press are releasing right about now!  I've pre-ordered the German-language paperback original, Nacht ist der Tag, but I'll have to wait until December to get my hands on that one.

Once I've tried that, I'll have read all of his novels, but as he's also an accomplished short-story writer, there are still a few more of his books to try yet, and I'm sure I'll get to them all.  You see, having enjoyed all I've read so far, it seems I'm destined to be a Stamm completist - which means that I might be back this time next year with a review of another of his books :)