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Interview with Peter Stamm

Peter Stamm’s international reputation as a writer of acute psychological perception and meticulously precise prose has been growing steadily since his first novel, Agnes, was translated into English by Michael Hofmann and published in 2000. When I try to describe Stamm’s writing to those who have yet to encounter it, it is easy to revert to the words oft-used by reviewers of his work: ‘spare’, ‘clean’, ‘crystalline’, even ‘forensic’. The blurb of one of his novels calls him ‘the master of unadorned prose’. But there are vast depths beneath this cool, clear surface. As Toby Litt wrote of Stamm’s novel Seven Years in the Guardian, his prose is ‘booby-trapped throughout, with devastations waiting to happen.’

 

Always existential, often beginning with a life-changing event – such as the disappearance of the narrator’s girlfriend in Agnes, or the car crash that kills a woman’s husband and leaves her disfigured in All Days Are Night – Stamm explores in his fiction the nuances of identity, self-perception, and the ways in which his characters interact with the world and other people. His novels and stories are deeply psychological, exploring human behaviour and the dark underside of the psyche. He is interested in aftermath, and he is unafraid of difficult emotions – guilt, shame and regret are themes to which he often returns. Many of his characters are haunted by past mistakes and missed opportunities; some desire people they can’t have, others reject lovers or are themselves rejected. Seven Years – my favourite of his novels – tells the story of a handsome man, Alex, and his beautiful wife, Sonia, but also a ‘repulsive’ woman, Ivona, with whom Alex has an affair. Things happen to people in Stamm’s fiction, and witnessing the uncomfortable, darkly funny, often tragic fallout unfold is one of the main pleasures of reading his work.

 

Stamm was born in Weinfelden, Switzerland, in 1963. After leaving school he trained as an accountant, and then studied for a few years Psychology, Psychopathology and Literature (and worked for a time in a psychiatric clinic) before becoming a full-time writer. As well as novels and short stories, he has written plays, radio dramas, and journalism. His work has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.

 

Much of this interview, which took place via email over the course of several weeks this summer, concerns Stamm’s new novel, To The Back of Beyond. It tells the story of a man called Thomas, and his wife and two children whom he leaves behind, from the moment he decides to walk out of the family home and keep on walking, seemingly with no intention of ever returning. It is a novel about love, death, and walking in the Swiss landscape, and an existential exploration of dissociation and the life-changing consequences of a momentary impulse.

 

Q

The White Review

— Much of your work concerns romantic relationships between men and women, often married couples. Why this subject?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I think content is overrated in fiction. If we are looking for novelties, we read the paper. Most literature I admire is not about what happens, but how it’s described. Just think of Hemingway’s best stories about a fishing trip or a cat in the rain. Or think of Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN or Joyce’s ULYSSESor Chekhov’s short stories (and plays). In all these texts not much happens, but how wonderful they are. You do, however, need content to move a text forward and why not take a subject that everybody knows, that can be dealt with in all variations, that is basically limitless. Romantic relationships are probably also the place where most tragedies happen in our modern, saturated lives. It’s where we are happy and sad, aroused and confused.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Have you tried writing novels with even less ‘content’? What happened?

 

A

Peter Stamm

— I had a talk with the great Swiss architect Peter Zumthor a while ago and he suggested I should write a novel without characters. I’ve thought about it since then, but it’s awfully hard. It would be a big step, almost like from realistic to abstract painting. But I feel that I could spend a lot of time trying and not getting anywhere. So I wait a little and do other things in the meantime. Even in realistic texts there are still many things I’d like to try out – mostly to become even freer in how to deal with time and space.

 

Q

The White Review

— What would a novel without characters be like?

 

A

Peter Stamm

— I don’t know any such novel. And to be honest I fear that if I tried writing it, it would not really work and would become one of those projects where you work for months or years and it amounts to nothing much. So I keep the idea in the back of my head for later, maybe. And if anybody else wants to try it out, I’ll be interested to read the book.

 

Q

The White Review

—  So is it still your intention, as you said in an interview with The New Yorker, ‘to make literature out of ordinary people’s lives’?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  Absolutely. It’s like in geography: there are no white areas on our maps anymore. So if you want to find something new you have to revisit places and go deeper, look closer. You can find the unknown just outside your door, so why then go to exotic places and look at exotic people that you won’t understand anyway.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve said previously that you’re interested in exploring moments of crisis in your characters’ lives. This is truer than ever in your new novel, TO THE BACK OF BEYOND (2017). In the book you describe the idea of a ‘house, which was slowly falling down, imperceptibly but unstoppably. Thomas had read somewhere that a building wasn’t finished until it had collapsed into ruins. Perhaps the same was true for human beings.’ Did you want to show Thomas’s life collapsing into ruins?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  That line is a citation of the architect Aldo Rossi, whose theoretical work I like much more than his buildings. I don’t know if Thomas’s life is collapsing. I just felt that I should go to the end and show maybe not all of his life but a larger part of it than in my other books. The form and the beauty of a person’s life can only be seen when it’s finished. So it’s not the ruins which are important, but the process that leads to them, the ‘life’ of a building. Thomas’s whole life is formed by a decision he takes more or less by chance. As many of our lives are.

 

Q

The White Review

—  The English word ‘crisis’ is derived from the Greek word ‘krisis’, meaning ‘decision’. Is it because of a desire to explore human nature and free will that ‘small dramas’, as you’ve called them, interest you?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I didn’t think of the origin of the word, but it’s nice, isn’t it? Small events interest me more than big ones, that’s true. They are more nuanced. It’s like with cooking: if you put too much spice in a dish, you’ll only have one strong taste, but if you cook carefully and measure well what you add, a dish can have many different tastes and you can also taste the basic ingredient. The behaviour of people in daily crisis seems much more varied than when big things happen. Also I have not lived through natural disasters, wars and the like, so I can’t tell stories about it. I don’t really have thoughts about human nature. My goal would be to understand and to forgive everything, as I think Somerset Maugham once put it. My readers have to judge my protagonists for themselves, as they have to judge people in daily life.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Like Kathrine in UNFORMED LANDSCAPE (2004) and Andreas in ON A DAY LIKE THIS (2007), Thomas begins a solitary journey with a purpose, or at least a spontaneous intention, but unlike the others, the reader is never entirely sure what Thomas is searching for, where he is going, or what caused him to leave. Is this because Thomas doesn’t know the answers, either?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  And because I don’t know the answers either. I have some theories, but I do not know why he does what he does. The German author Georg Lichtenberg said that a book should be more intelligent than its author. So my goal as an author is not to know everything about my characters, it’s to be true to them and sympathetic. I treat them like I treat my friends. I try to be there when they need me but don’t analyse them or intervene in their decisions.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Perhaps his journey could be read as a long, slow suicide?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  He seems to try to exit his life or maybe life in general. That’s probably the reason why he doesn’t start a new life, new relationships, a new career. You could compare his action with a suicide, yes, but in a positive, life affirming sense. He does not want to leave the world, to die, but he does want to live in the world as a non-existing person, a mere observer who doesn’t take part.

 

 

Q

The White Review

—  Without revealing too much (for potential readers), do you mind how people interpret the ambiguous event that happens to Thomas at a certain point on his journey, and its aftermath?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I somehow played with the fact that in books things are possible that are not in reality. I do live in a realistic world, but at the same time I have always found the world quite incomprehensible if not magic. I’m very much interested in science and I’m always astonished by how many more questions than answers there are in all sciences. It’s amazing how little we know about the commonest things. I read an article about the Greenland Shark some time ago. It might get as old as 400 years, or maybe 500 or only 300. We just don’t know. And the same is true about many other things, including humankind’s (not only counterproductive) political decisions. So when the worlds I describe are ambiguous, it’s just because the world I live in seems highly ambiguous to me. And of course my readers are completely free to interpret my books as they wish. After all, what they experience while reading them is completely personal, and has probably as much to do with themselves as with my books. Interestingly most people decide that Thomas is either dead or alive. Very few are ready to live with the ambiguity. I myself do. In the beginning there are a few hints that we see Astrid through Thomas’s eyes, that maybe he just imagines what she is doing. And in the end it’s maybe Astrid who imagines Thomas walking on.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In The Atlantic you wrote about George Perec’s A MAN ASLEEP, which provided the title for ON A DAY LIKE THIS. Many of your characters feel a sense of indifference to life, like Perec’s protagonist. Was this novel in your mind again while writing TO THE BACK OF BEYOND? Why do you prefer to show your characters in action, travelling to a specific or vague destination, rather than remaining in one place, as in Perec’s novel?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  It might sound pathetic, but life is always a journey, isn’t it? Whether we stay or go. Maybe it’s just more in my nature to move. Perec’s book is with me, sure. I haven’t reread it for a while but it’s part of my experience and therefore part of me. Thomas might look for indifference to avoid the pain that is part of every life. When I was a kid there was a special cookie I liked a lot, and I had the feeling that wanting these cookies so much weakened me. So I bought a whole packet and ate all of it at once, hoping I wouldn’t like them anymore afterwards. I wanted to be indifferent to them. Fortunately it didn’t work. And today I’m a bit less strict with myself when it comes to earthly pleasures.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Recently I heard Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN described as a book that ‘changes people’. Do you feel the same way about the books you love? Should literature change people?

 

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  You change easier, the younger you are. The Magic Mountain might have changed me when I read it some 35 years ago. Today I no longer look for change but rather for an extension of what literature is and what I am. Enjoyment alone in books is not enough for me. For that I prefer to go to the movies.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Have you found that ‘extension’ in any books you have read recently?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  Unfortunately I don’t read that much anymore. I’m a very slow reader and I often prefer to spend time with my family than read a book. At the moment I’m reading The Plains by Gerald Murnane, an Australian author. I like it a lot, but I’m not far enough in yet to judge it. I’ve recently read Tim Parks’ In Extremis and was fascinated by the way he treats autobiographical material. It’s far from what I’m doing, but it made me think about my writing and that’s the best thing a book can do to me.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Did you read a lot as a child?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I come from a reading family. Both my parents read a lot and also told stories to us. Our house was full of books. My father loved to read poetry to us and when we went hiking, which we did very often, we would tell each other stories. In school, literature was not very important. Switzerland is rather a country of engineers and businessmen than of writers. But I grew up in a rural area and had a lot of time to myself in a time when toys had no batteries. So me and my siblings did lots of creative stuff – painting, writing, making music. At one point in my youth I wanted to become a photographer and I also loved to play music (the recorder). I even think that the Baroque music we played influenced my writing. But my talent for music and taking pictures was pretty limited, so I gave that up. Even learning to write took me a long time. I started around 20 but my first book came out when I was 35. I did quite a lot of other things in the meantime, of course, but still…

 

Q

The White Review

—  It can be said that painting, photography and music share similarities with the act of writing, in that the writer is like an artist or composer, having to look (or imagine) and listen carefully. How did Baroque music influence you, in particular?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  Well, everything influences you, you just don’t know how. I sometimes think that Baroque music trained my feeling for form. It’s a very organised music, clear, clean, structured, short pieces with not too many voices. As for photography and painting, I absolutely agree. It’s all about the way you represent something; what you represent is much less important. Van Gogh painted whoever came his way, not the most beautiful people of Arles but a hospital warden or the woman he rented his room from.

 

 

Q

The White Review

—  Did working as an accountant have any formative effect on your writing, too? It seems to me to be a profession that requires discipline and precision, which are characteristics of your writing. Did you enjoy that type of work?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I actually did. I had a great boss who owned a piece of woodland and took me out on weekends to cut trees. And you’re right, book keeping taught me precision and persistence. If there was a mistake in the books, even if it was only five cents missing, you couldn’t just say, that’s well enough. You had to find the mistake. I also learned a lot about the ordinary life, how it is to work from nine to five. And as our customers were mainly small businesses, pharmacies, stationery shops, restaurants, pig farmers, I saw into many different ways of life. Your whole life is reflected in your books and also your character.

 

 

Q

The White Review

—  Your prose style is direct and concise, psychologically astute, never overly descriptive but still vivid. Have you always written this way?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  A personal style is like your voice, it’s always there, you have to learn to trust it and not try to disguise it, and it has as much to do with what you can do as with what you can’t. As a young person I was a big fan of Friedrich Dürrenmatt for example, but he was the wrong model for me. I lost a lot of time trying to write like him. Today he’s not so great a writer to me anymore, as he’s completely absent in his work.

 

 

Q

The White Review

—  Did you write other novels before your first published novel, Agnes?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I wrote about two or three novels before I finished Agnes and they were just bad. I probably tried to be smarter than I was or smarter than the text. I recently read a portrait of an artist in The New Yorker (I have forgotten who he was), who said that art is not about making something but about finding something. In my first novels I tried to make something and it was not good.

 

Q

The White Review

— Comparing Agnes to To The Back of Beyond, it’s apparent that although they share some stylistic similarities and a certain ambiguity, they are mostly very different. At a textual level, the sentences in your most recent novel are longer and more fluid than those in your first book, and in general To The Back of Beyond feels more quietly confident and subtle than Agnes. How have you changed as a writer between these books?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—   I think, I hope, I have become more secure. So I’m probably more experimental now than when I wrote AgnesNot experimental in an obvious way. I’m just freer in the use of my means. Also I’m older now, so what interests me is different from what interested me at 35. My characters always reflect more or less my age and position in life.

 

Q

The White Review

—  When you write in the first person there is often an unsettling detachment – your narrators deliver their story in a cool, calm, measured voice, but what they tell us is often dark and disquieting. One of your earliest published stories, ‘Ice Lake’, is the perfect example of this. What are your thoughts on unreliable narrators?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  All narrators are unreliable, if they want to be or not. I just told my boy today that he should not believe everything that people tell him, and to always be aware of where information came from, because he’s always telling me amazing stories he found somewhere on the internet. Even if a narrator wants to be honest, his point of view is limited and biased. It’s important to me that being detached does not mean my narrators are without feelings. We have to be aware why and when they tell their story. The narrator of Agnesfor example, tells the story just after Agnes has disappeared. So he is afraid, he feels guilty. He is not in a position to mourn her disappearance yet. The same is true of the narrator of ‘Ice Lake’. He probably feels guilty of the death of his friend, so psychologically it is completely understandable that he tells the story in the way he does.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Is your decision to write in the first or third person always a conscious one?

 

A

Peter Stamm

— It is a conscious decision, one of the very few I make. And it does obviously influence the way the story is told. There have been cases when after a few pages I started anew and changed the point of view. It’s mainly a question of distance. If I write in the first person, I’m much closer to my character, but it’s harder to step back and look at him or her from a little distance. The third person also seems more calm and ‘classic’ in a way which sometimes fits a story and sometimes not.

 

 

Q

The White Review

—  What other conscious decisions do you make when starting a new book?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I have a general theme that is more like a question or a problem I want to solve. So I need a constellation of characters. I don’t know much about them, not more than their age, name, profession and where they live, but I need to have an image, like the one you form when you first meet someone and immediately know whether you’ll like that person or not, whether he or she interests you.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Do you work on novels one after the other, or do you have breaks in between or even during, perhaps for short fiction or other writing?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I usually just write one text at a time. And if possible without breaks, but sometimes I can’t avoid them. Family holidays are more important than novels. And sometimes reading trips come between me and my work, but that’s ok. If a story is not strong enough to survive little disturbances it’s probably not good enough in the first place. I haven’t written short stories in a while, but I certainly want to do it again. My last ideas were just rather for novels.

 

 

Q

The White Review

—  Do you write in any languages other than German?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I could never write in any other language. I might try Swiss German, as it’s our spoken language, but I somehow like the artificiality of ‘high German’ as we call it. It’s a language that is not spoiled by daily use. Swiss people do write in German but the language is hardly spoken. Unlike in England, our dialects are not sociolects, and even the king of Switzerland – if we had one – would speak dialect. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to read all of Michael’s translations, but if I do, I always have the feeling that he gets very close to the original. But of course a translation is always something different from the original. Sometimes – very seldomly though – I have Swiss words in my German that are not easy to translate. And the sound and rhythm of words in another language is always different. Sometimes English even has a nicer rhythm than German.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Do you speak any of Switzerland’s other three national languages – Swiss-French, Swiss-Italian, and Romansch? Do you consider yourself to be part of a Swiss tradition, or perhaps a German-language tradition?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  I do speak French, but I learned it mainly in Paris, where I was working for a year when I was twenty. If I am part of a Swiss tradition it’s only because I’m Swiss and share the same landscapes, the climate, the culture with my fellow Swiss writers. But I never read a writer because he is Swiss. When I started writing my main influences were American, French and English writers, also some Italians. But there are of course Swiss writers I admire, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, Friedrich Glauser and to a lesser extent Max Frisch. The usual suspects. And also contemporary ones such as Markus Werner and Klaus Merz.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You studied Psychology and Psychopathology. Is ‘madness’ a subject that particularly interests you as a writer?

 

A

Peter Stamm

— I did study it, yes, but ‘madness’ rather interests me in relation to normality. I think that mental disorders are a kind of imbalance of powers, not exotic states. So they can explain states of mind that we all know in milder forms. I guess my studies have taught me to look closer and analyse less.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Was your time spent working in a psychiatric clinic influential to your writing?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  Not more than other experiences like my time at the army, some weeks I worked for a farmer or as a night doorman at a hotel. I would recommend young writers to do and explore as many different things as possible, to experience whatever they can (as long as it’s more or less safe). It will all add to your equipment store from which you can later draw things out when you need them. And it’s not only good for your writing, it’s also good for your life as a whole.

 

Q

The White Review

— In Seven Years (2012), you write about a love triangle in which the narrator, Alex, is in love with two women – one of whom, Sonia, is beautiful and perfect, while the other, Ivona, causes him confusing feelings of repulsion and intense desire. Though he later marries Sonia, he cannot forget Ivona. I read somewhere that desire and repulsion can be thought of as two sides of the same emotion, and I think they are even processed in the same area of the brain. Desire is a major theme in your work, as it is in most literature, but why did you choose to explore this particular sexual dynamic in that novel?

 

A

Peter Stamm

— That’s indeed a big theme. The major inspiration for the book was the play ‘Yvonne, the Princess of Burgundy’ by Gombrovic. The question that interested me was whether a woman who loves me has power over me even if I don’t love her. In the end the book was about all kinds of things. I compared the perfect relationship of Alex and Sonia once to a house without a basement. Clean, well lit spaces where everything is visible, beautiful, calm. Ivona, the ugly woman, is more like a cave to Alex, a place in which he can hide. Her love has no condition. On the one hand that makes him very angry, as she is really not attractive, on the other hand he feels more at home with her than Sonia, as he does not have to perform. I don’t know if desire and repulsion are two sides of the same medal, but one can quickly change into the other, that’s for sure. Sex is one of the few moments in our lives when our animal side dominates us. In other such areas like eating we have many rules that try to make it more civilised. We put our food on plates, decorate it and eat it with cutlery, even though eating with our hands would be much easier. When we have sex, there are not many rules, it’s a very private moment, we lose control and that’s at the same time very beautiful and a bit scary.

 

Q

The White Review

— It’s well known that writing about sex can be difficult and often disastrous (in a literary sense) – but this cannot be said about your novels and stories (as well as those in SEVEN YEARS, a particularly well-depicted sex scene appears in ‘Sweet Dreams’). How do you go about writing sex scenes? Do you treat them any differently than scenes depicting other ordinary events?

 

A

Peter Stamm

—  They are very difficult to write, so it’s great fun as most difficult things. The problem starts with the words we have for our private parts (even that word…), in German most are either vulgar or childish or too medical. And metaphors are mostly pathetic, especially botanical ones. The most erotic thing about sex is usually the situation, how people get to have sex. Once they start doing it, we can look away. In ‘Sweet Dreams’ I liked the mixture of arousal and awkwardness, when Simon has a hard time penetrating Lara and she gets a cushion to put under her hips but insists on doing it on the floor, as that’s probably the way she thinks about wild sex. And then she has an orgasm for the first time, which is somehow touching, and he doesn’t understand a thing. Their shyness and inexperience is to me much more erotic that it would have been to have them try out all kinds of experimental positions. It’s the contrast that makes things visible.

 

Q

The White Review

— What will your next novel be about?
A

Peter Stamm

—  It’s a doppelgänger story. A man meets his younger self, who lives his life 16 years after him again. And there is also the doppelgänger of his then-girlfriend to whom he tells the whole story. The book has a lot to do with Agnesmy first novel, as the protagonist is an author who has written a book that is probably AgnesIt was quite confusing to write, but also fascinating. And I hope that it won’t be confusing to read.

 

 

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lives and works in London.

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