Reading in Tongues: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years

Posted on | February 28, 2012 | Comments Off slots jungle casino download

Note: “Reading in Tongues” is a very occasional feature on the experience of reading in a foreign language.

The longlist for the Best Translated Book Award was announced today, and I was pleased to see Seven Years by Peter Stamm—which I’d just read at a sloth-like crawl in the German—among the contenders.  I’d been curious about Stamm ever since Tim Parks’s controversial blog post for the NYRB a few months ago comparing him with Jonathan Franzen.  Parks’s argument, in brief, is that Stamm’s prose exemplifies a tendency among contemporary European novelists to privilege a flat, “internationalist” style stripped of regional vernacular—a style that, coincidentally or not, makes their books easier to sell and market in the US.  While an author like Franzen can litter his books with references to corporate Americana (“the new TV remote was stupid, the NBC prime-time schedule had been stupidly arranged, the National League was stupid for not adopting the designated hitter rule”) without diminishing his international market share, Stamm and his peers have to erase any regional tics that will alienate American publishers.  As Parks argued in a follow-up post, European writers have “discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things.”  In other words, there is market pressure towards syntactical ease.

While there is much to be troubled by in these developments, they happen to have the side effect of making German easier for relative newcomers like me.  There is always a trade-off when reading in a foreign language between linguistic and analytic comprehension.  The more mental energy one expends on deciphering what a word means, the harder it is figure out what it really means: Seven Years opens with the narrator, Alexander, watching his estranged wife through a window—a metaphor that opens itself up to interpretation only if you happen to know the word for window. winpalace im banking

Reading Stamm, I found myself turning to the dictionary less frequently than usual. His vocabulary rarely extends itself beyond the ordinary, and he is spare in his use of simile.  His descriptions, rather than reaching for a clarifying image, rely on straightforward adjectives.  Sonia, Alexander’s uptight, architect wife, is “lovely and smart and talkative and charming and sure of herself.”  His mistress Iwona, a sexually artless Polish immigrant into whose arms Alexander occasionally lapses, is “completely unattractive:” “Her face was puffy and she wore her midlength hair loose.  Presumably she had gotten a perm some time ago, but it had grown out, and her hair was hanging in her face.  Her clothing looked cheap and worn.” *

The novel’s plot, insofar as it has one, revolves around Alexander’s vacillations between these two women, but even at its highest emotional pitch, Stamm’s writing has a studied flatness: “We talked probably for two hours about our relationship, about our affairs, and our expectations and desires.  Sonia cried, and at times I cried too.  I had never felt so close to her”—this at a moment when Alexander has confessed to his infertile wife that his lover is pregnant with his child.

The reality is that Alexander doesn’t particularly like either woman, and his reasons for choosing one or the other are obscure even to himself.  For a first-person narrator, he displays remarkably little interest in his own motivations.  Stamm’s emotional monotone militates against the idea of a layered consciousness primed for literary explication; people just do what they’re going to do.  There is a telling moment, when, while discussing the insolvency of their architecture firm, Alex warns the despairing Sonia “not to exaggerate the situation.”  But in German the verb is more revealing—not “exaggerate” but “dramatize.”  This is the closest Stamm comes to issuing his own narrative commandment: nicht die Situation dramatisieren.

That this almost aggressive rejection of emotional texture happens to coincide with a higher degree of translatability seems hard to argue with, but it’s impossible to know whether, as Parks surmises, Stamm’s eschewal of German’s famously difficult sentence structure is part of a deliberate campaign for a wider readership.  Stamm is himself Swiss, but Seven Years takes places in Munich (not that you’d know it).  Unlike in Franzen’s Freedom—heavily freighted as it is with the material detritus of twenty-first century American life—there are few details that place the novel in space and time.  As Parks puts it:

[Franzen] couldn’t be more loudly American, and to come to him right after Stamm is to see how different are the roads to celebrity for the Swiss author and the American.  While’s Stamm’s characters come free, or bereft, of any social or political context, Franzen’s often seem barely distinguishable from a dense background cluttered with product names, detailed history and geography, linguistic tics, dress habits, and so on…

Free, or bereft? I’m relatively convinced by Parks’s argument, but there’s paradox at work in those two words that he doesn’t fully acknowledge.  By catering to the whims of the global marketplace, by trading his native bric-a-brac for basic common nouns, Stamm has escaped the consumerism ingrained, however ironically, within so much of American fiction.  Where Franzen’s characters are forever mired in their social context, their decisions encumbered by the shaping influences of PlayStations and Land Cruisers and Big-Ten sports, Stamm’s have the kind of, yes, freedom that comes with real agency.  In neither novel are the characters especially happy, but in Seven Years, their dramas are somehow more their own.

*I’ve taken these quotations from the English translation by Michael Hofmann rather than rely on my own inelegant approximations. popular gambling games

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