Photo Credit: Claudia Below, 2009

Writers have traditionally taken non-literary jobs to pay the bills. Kurt Vonnegut sold Saabs; Arthur Rimbaud sold armaments. Anton Chekhov and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were doctors. There’s teaching, too, of course—Frank McCourt, James Joyce, Charlotte Brontë—seafaring, manual labor, politics, and sundry other trades. But I know of only two writers who started in accounting: John Grisham and the Swiss novelist and short-story writer Peter Stamm. They have little else in common. 

Stamm was born in 1963 in Münsterlingen on Lake Constance, in the northeast corner of Switzerland, near the German border. “Very nice,” he said in an interview in The New Yorker, “with lots of apple orchards, vineyards, forests, and little lakes.” (This landscape appears in some of his fiction, but he’s as likely to choose a foreign setting.) His father was an accountant, and Peter followed in his footsteps, practicing the profession for five years before pursuing further university studies. Later Stamm lived in New York, Paris, and Scandinavia before he embarked on a serious writing career with Agnes (1998), a surreal little novel that begins with the stark and memorable words, “Agnes is dead. Killed by a story.” 

Such is the Stamm style, which is no style but the absence of one: an ideal Samuel Beckett strove, somewhat successfully, to achieve. Perhaps it’s partly the influence of Stamm’s translator, Michael Hofmann, who has also ably translated the letters of Joseph Roth. Or perhaps Beckett would have better managed un-style with training in accountancy, for Stamm takes the same detached bookkeeper’s approach to his writing that doubtless served him well as an accountant. “I like reduction, concentration, clarity,” he says. “I sometimes compare stories to chamber music, where you have only a few instruments but you can hear every single note.”

In stories, as in chamber music, an economy of resources impedes bombast and brings clarity but also limits range. There are no Joycean rivers of prose here. But the limitations of Stamm’s art are its strengths. Unflappably, he tots up the everyday gains and losses of ordinary lives, from which he teases out intriguing details: an illicit romance here, a sudden death there. There’s little passion, however. Most of his characters are so aloof they might as well be bookkeepers themselves, or scientists engaged in an experiment. 

In Agnes (now out of print in English), the title character is in fact a scientist, or rather a science student, in Chicago. The fact that she is also a cellist, à ses heures, injects sufficient romanticism into her soul to render her love affair with a visiting Swiss journalist believable. The journalist is researching the history of Pullman cars and also, tangentially, writing the story of his on-and-off relationship with Agnes. Like all of Stamm’s narrators, he seems to be a species of mild sociopath, unable to empathize, detached to a fault. 

We imagine we all share the same world. But each of us is in a mine or quarry of his own.

The novel turns into an Escher-like conundrum, as Agnes becomes a character in both the eponymous novel and the story her lover is writing. 

‘Write a story about me,’ she then said, ‘so I can tell what you think of me.’

‘I never know how it’s going to wind up,’ I said. ‘I don’t have any control over it. . . .’

‘I’ll take my chances,’ said Agnes.

When she takes her chances, she learns she’s helpless, a bug under the microscope of the lover-author, himself the object of his creator’s scrutiny. But is her apparent death from the fictional demise her lover creates for her real or another of his slanted, self-gratifying versions of the world? Escher’s staircases are, after all, merely drawings, not real staircases. And Agnes is more of an elaborate finger exercise than a concert piece.

‘I don’t like extremes; I don’t think that they teach us much about ourselves.’

But Stamm was just getting started. Backing away from the quasi-surrealism of Agnes, he set his sights on lucidly interpreting the ongoing battle between desire and reality in people’s lives. Ordinary people: no Napoleons or Mozarts here. “It has always been my goal to make literature out of ordinary people’s lives,” Stamm said in the New Yorker interview. “I don’t like the extremes; I don’t think that they teach us much about ourselves.” By which he presumably means extreme situations that lend themselves to melodrama—polar exploration, warfare, serial murder, etc.—rather than extreme emotions, because fear, love, and hatred are present everywhere in his fiction, as they are in the world, subsumed by everyday life. 

In his next two novels, Unformed Landscape (2001) and Seven Years (2009), Stamm is true to his accountant’s training, lining up emotions in moral credit and debit columns: attraction here, repulsion there; affection here, hostility there.

In Unformed Landscape, which in this reader’s opinion is Stamm’s best novel to date, you can throw in despair and redemption, too. Kathrine, the protagonist, is a desperate housewife in Narvik, in the far north of Norway. Narvik, which in 1940 was the site of an Anglo-French attack on German naval installations, is so far north that Kathrine, when we meet her, admits to never having been south of the Arctic Circle. She wants to go, but more to escape her messed-up life than to see the world. She’s relatively hard-bitten for a 25-year-old, having already been married twice, with a son she can’t talk to and an egomaniacal oaf of a husband, Thomas, who ignores her and whom she despises.

She had believed Thomas loved her, but he had hardly even been aware of her. She was a good listener. The part she played in his life could have been played by pretty well anyone.

Estranged from everyone on both sides of her dysfunctional family except her mother—who “sat silently at home, watched television, and waited”—Kathrine works in the
local customs office. She enjoys her job checking for contraband cigarettes and smuggled fish as much as she enjoys anything (i.e., not much), and spends her down time flirting with the occasional foreign visitor. There’s Alexander, a jovial Russian sea captain who brings vodka and suddenly disappears into the endless night; Ian, a Scottish missionary who faces an uphill battle with the stubborn locals.

‘The people here believe in God, they just don’t believe in Jesus,’ Ian said once,

‘They believe in the Creation, but they don’t believe in love.’

‘Well, Creation exists,’ said Kathrine, ‘whereas love. . . .’

Ah yes, love. There hasn’t been any, really. Her marriages have contained none, and potential lovers such as Ian and Alexander come and go with the bitter tides. A fling with Morten, a childhood friend, doesn’t work out, either. But at least the passing foreigners give Kathrine a glimpse of the outside world, impressionistic mostly; she isn’t a reader. Her curiosity is greater than her knowledge. Not that her isolation is complete, even in the middle of a sunless Northern winter. There’s the Internet, for one thing; she sends and receives plenty of e-mails. And for such a remote place, the village is quite cosmopolitan, living off the busy cross-border commerce with neighboring Russia, Sweden, and Finland. These routine, intimate commercial relations render the very notion of borders almost redundant. 

Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, up here they all looked alike. . . . The real borders were between day and night, between summer and winter, between the people.

Kathrine thinks she has succeeded in abolishing that interpersonal border between herself and a young man named Christian, an itinerant machinist from Denmark who passes through town briefly, but who—judging by his e-mails—seems genuinely to like her. After one letdown too many from her obnoxious husband, Kathrine reacts with the pent-up enthusiasm of a lifetime’s frustration and sets off to find her Christian, far south of the Arctic Circle. (It’s an ironic take on Pilgrim’s Progress, but one in which Christian is the hoped-for goal rather than the seeker thereof.) Passing through his hometown in Denmark, Kathrine learns from his suspicious mother that he’s doing a job in Boulogne, France, so that’s where she goes. But when she gets there her native pessimism asserts itself. 

Suddenly, she wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to come. They had liked each other quite well, but maybe there was a woman here Christian liked too. A woman who walked through these streets every morning, who had caught his eye, whom he had spoken to in a café or a bar. A customs employee, thought Kathrine, called Chantal or Marianne, with a baby. Unhappy.

Unhappy? You bet. Stamm’s characters exercise their right to the pursuit of unhappiness. When Christian and Kathrine finally meet again, he seems oddly remote, even embarrassed. He behaves willfully, like a child. The man Kathrine thinks she knows turns out to have been an illusion, just like her impressions of the outside world, which is, indeed, different from home, yet the same. 

She had supposed that everything would be different south of the Arctic Circle. She had pictured worlds to herself, wonderful, colorful worlds . . . . But this world wasn’t so different from the world of home. Everything was bigger and noisier, there were more people around, more cars on the streets. But she had hardly seen anything that she hadn’t seen at home.

Unformed Landscape is the story of Kathrine’s abandonment of illusions and of her arrival in the real world. In the end, this is good news for her own pilgrimage, because life is more livable when you stop expecting miracles, desire succumbs to reality, and the unformed landscape of your being comes into focus. Like so much else in this skillfully underplayed drama, the subtlety of her transformation almost passes the reader—and Kathrine—by, like a ghost chord in a piano sonata. But it’s no less real for that. Unformed Landscape is a masterpiece of minimalism but with deep undercurrents, as if—to extend the musical metaphor—John Cage had collaborated with Sibelius.

Stamm’s latest novel, Seven Years, which was shortlisted for the 2013 International Man Booker Prize, ups the ante on desire vs. reality. The title refers to the traditional itchy onset of adulterous yearnings, but Alexander—a 30-something Munich architect and the novel’s narrator; “hero” seems too ambitious—doesn’t wait that long. He was cheating on his wife before they were even married, he freely admits to the non-judgmental friend he’s telling his story to. As an architecture student in Munich and engaged to lovely Sonia, he meets pale, dumpy Ivona, a Polish working girl whom he finds irresistible from the get go, in spite of the fact that she seems to possess not a single attractive quality, especially by contrast to Sonia. There’s no rational explanation for Alexander’s behavior. It’s as if he were planning the end of his marriage even before it begins. But that’s par for the course, in Stamm’s world. “All relationships end badly,” the author remarks, dryly. “Even if you stay together for the rest of your life, sooner or later one of you will die, then the other.” Which is certainly one way of looking at it.

Life is more livable when you stop expecting miracles and desire succumbs to reality.

Stamm was inspired to write Seven Years after reading Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, an obscure early play by the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, in which the homely title character seduces a handsome prince. Stamm’s version is less glamorous. Alexander’s no prince, as he gradually comes to realize. He tells his story in the usual self-centered way of Stamm’s narrators, presenting Ivona as the guilty party, himself as put upon. 

From the very outset, Ivona was disagreeable to me. I felt sorry for her, and at the same time I was irritated by her docile and long-suffering manner . . . . Ivona gave the impression of a natural-born victim.

We never get a full picture of Ivona because Stamm wants either to demonstrate Alexander’s fundamental lack of interest in her or Alexander’s overall inability to square up to reality, or both. “I do not like to psychologize,” Stamm has said. “I use the perceptions of my characters to show how they feel.” So Ivona becomes another female cipher, like Agnes, whereas Alexander, like all of Stamm’s male characters, is less opaque. One aspect of his personality that’s quite clear is that, for all his attitudinizing, he’s a bit of a sadist, like so many losers:

I felt like hurting her, being rude to her. Her ugliness and pokiness were a provocation to me.

Hardly the formula for a passionate affair, and it isn’t, at least not from Alexander’s perspective. But it’s a lasting one, and he needs it as the antidote to his marriage to Sonia, whose beauty and talent arouse his worst instincts, which Ivona satisfies. It’s as if he can’t stand to be so near near-perfection, although there was a time when he seemed to yearn for it, confusing desire and reality. Stamm’s female characters—Sonia here, Kathrine in Unformed Landscape—cope better with this than do the men, who generally distract themselves with other women, or drink, or memories of an idealized past. In one of the novel’s long digressions, Alexander wallows in nostalgia, recalling a trip he and Sonia took from Munich to Marseilles during their student days just before they were married. They were young, untried, and ambitious: driven by her dreams, Sonia took Alexander to see Le Corbusier’s signature housing development, the Cité Radieuse, which she admired. Alexander claims to prefer the stagier efforts of Aldo Rossi (the architecture details are convincing throughout), although clearly he cares little. Over time, such disagreements can become significant indicators of strain in a relationship, but in those early days Sonia and Alexander were more or less in love and at least not unhappy, which is the most Stamm has on offer. Alexander analyzes the memory as a film critic might:

It was a scene from a French movie of the fifties or sixties, our whole life was a film put together from distance shots, wide angles under white light, with little people moving through it, all very aesthetic and intellectual and cool. 

To Alexander, life is still a series of distance shots. He’s a cold fish and motivated by very little except his own immediate desires. This renders those around him irritants at best, slaves at worst. His knowledge of his wife, for example, is as superficial as his self-knowledge, although he implicitly accuses her of holding back.

Sonia never did talk much. It often felt as though she’d had no previous life, or whatever it was had left no traces except in the photograph albums on her bookshelf, which she never took out.

One suspects that she didn’t talk because Alexander isn’t much of a listener. He’s not much of an architect, either, and deep down, he suspects, not much of a man. Halfway through, having run his and Sonia’s firm into the ground, he turns to drink, and drifts back to Ivona. Her inertness is precisely what he wants in a lover: no reciprocity, no feedback, a sense of effortless superiority. He takes her as if she were a whore.

I knew I was making a mistake that could not be amended, but I was reeling with desire. . . . Ivona lay naked on the bed, her pose had something obscene about it. I lay down on top of her and she shut her eyes again.

Actually, there’s nothing obscene about her pose. It’s Alexander’s wishing that makes it so. Wanting a whore on the side is a common enough phenomenon. It was (and is) the reason for men to have what used to be called mistresses, and Alexander’s no different from most. In fact, we begin to see his character flaws—his inability to be honest with Sonia and his blurred contempt of, and domineering desire for, Ivona—to be not so much unique to him as symptoms of that opposition between desire and reality that is Stamm’s leitmotif, illustrated by the manipulative writer-lover in Agnes, Kathrine’s adventures abroad in Unformed Landscape, and Alexander’s helplessness in the face of the dissolution of his own life. Stamm hints that women are more inclined, or obliged, to face up to reality, most of the time. But we all fall prey to self-delusion. 

Now writing books rather than keeping them, Stamm has no illusions about making everything tally in the end. All too often, human nature tips the balance into the debit column. In his words, “How we see the world very often has more to do with ourselves than with the world itself.” 

Which is no doubt true even of accountants.