We’re Flying: Stories, by Peter Stamm
The problem with this bleak but brilliant story collection is that it’s too hard to put down
We're Flying: Stories
Everyone is on their own. This emerges as the prevailing reality of the Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s outstanding, often bleak and always unsettling fiction. This new collection of 22 stories brings together two books in one. It offers a generous and explicit insight into Stamm’s chillingly existentialist art. He was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and is probably the favourite, deservedly, to win the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award from a very strong shortlist. Stamm is that good, that perceptive, that compelling.
In Three Sisters a young girl, desperate to fulfil her ambition to be an artist, sets off from Switzerland to Vienna against her parents’ wishes. She has barely crossed into Austria when something makes her get off the train. Late at night, in a strange place, she sits down by the river. A young man, passing with friends, notices her and fears her intentions. She goes home with him, and they have sex. “He seemed very detached and entirely wrapped up in himself and his pleasure, and that was some consolation to her. He used her, but perhaps she used him even more, because she felt nothing, not even pleasure. She viewed herself as from a distance, and was surprised at herself.”
The ambivalence of sexual relations is Stamm’s theme. Sex is never a comfort or even a connection in his work; it is a torment, an affliction, frequently an obsession and, for women, invariably a humiliation. In Years Later Wechsler, now middle aged and remarried, returns to his native village. It was there that he lived out the mistake of his first marriage, with its whiff of scandal. As he approaches the place he notices “the looming shape” of the great mountain that forms a natural backdrop. “From the distance its mass had always suggested to him the body of an enormous animal that had come down ages before to lie down in the plain, and had gradually been overgrown with grass and forest.”
Never given to superfluous details, Stamm is precise and measured, and always provides glimpses of what has been, leaving sufficient gaps to suggest the haphazard course life can take.
This remarkable story opens with echoes of George Orwell’s fine novel Coming Up for Air (1939). Wechsler, in common with Orwell’s George Bowling, appears to have wandered in for a helping of nostalgia, but there is no evidence of Orwell’s buoyancy. Wechsler, an architect, is in his home village to assess a potential project, and he is soon struck by the changes. “The butcher’s shop no longer existed, now it was lingerie.” He decides to eat. At least the restaurant he chooses looks the same. The cook approaches; when Wechsler asks the man about his father, he is told that he died years ago.
Stamm makes it clear that far more time has passed than Wechsler wishes to acknowledge. Yet it is Wechsler who attempts to remind the cook about the scandal, even mentioning the lawyer who handled the case. On cue, Hodel, the attorney, also much older, arrives for lunch.
He fails to recognise Wechsler. When Wechsler prods his memory and asks if the lawyer remembers his first wife, Hodel does, and also has his own history to share. Wechsler’s first wife, Margrit, had to live in the shadow of her husband’s defection. Her tragedy is at the heart of the story.
Hodel suggests they visit Margrit’s grave. The old lawyer fills in the narrative, albeit at a remove, the way Stamm does so well. “He had helped Margrit out a couple of times, said Hodel, not out of pity, he freely admitted. Desperate women were the best lovers. You could do anything you liked with them, they had nothing left to lose.” Hodel holds out his hand to Wechsler “without looking at him” and leaves him, telling him next time to call him in advance.
The closing paragraph sees Wechsler, alone, looking at the grave, thinking “of the girl she had been when he first met her, her happiness, her lightness, and how he and Hodel and others had wrecked her life. He wanted to cry, but couldn’t.”
Throughout the stories, people drift in and out of relationships and situations; they rub off each other like so many boats tied to temporary moorings. Stamm conveys the random anger of humans who are simply dissatisfied. A couple caught in a dying marriage attempt a self-catering vacation. Nothing pleases the woman. To add to her many irritations, a younger couple arrive, bringing their noise and their two young children. The edgy older woman knows her husband can’t help but gaze at the sunbathing antics of the new arrivals, particularly the young woman. The story takes a dark, brilliant shift in one sentence. Ironically, the ensuing tragedy gives the older couple hope – or at least something concrete to think about.
Though he has many attributes, including clarity, perception and subtlety, Stamm sometimess appear to be lacking humour. This deficit is repaid in Summer Folk, one of the best works in a volume of riches. The narrator is a writer and academic who needs some peace to prepare a lecture on Gorky for publication. A friend has recommended a country hotel at which he has spent many summer vacations. The narrator phones and has a slightly bizarre conversation with the unhelpful woman who takes the reservation. After a two-hour walk through the woods, he finds the hotel. Expected to pay for his week’s stay in advance, he is also supposed not to complain about the lack of running water and electricity. The menu consists only of cans of cold ravioli. It is brilliant and very funny, executed with Stamm’s instinctive timing.
The gifted English novelist and intuitive critic Tim Parks has consistently championed Peter Stamm. It is easy to see why. The novel Seven Years (2009; English translation 2010) is one man’s account of his life from his student days in Munich, preparing to be the great architect that he would never become, with studies of the two women that he used, betrayed and depended on. It is an astonishing performance, as cold as ice and yet desperately affecting despite the narrator Alexander’s ego and selfishness. Alexander is good-looking and ruthless. He eventually becomes involved with a college friend, the beautiful and wealthy Sonia, who is ambitious and boring yet considered the perfect woman. It is a one-night stand with a Polish girl that shapes his life.
Seven Years is a shocking and compelling book, and traces of it linger in the world of these stories. The psychological intensity of Stamm’s vision helps compensate for the grimly sexist realism.
The problem with We’re Flying is that instead of reading it as volume of short stories should be read, one at a time, we are hooked by Stamm, who mercilessly draws a steel wire through one’s gut. Before you know it, you have reached the end of the book. But the stories live on, with their questions and their possibilities, their twists of fate, and the relentlessness of life and its many, many mistakes and wrong turnings.
Not all of the stories are about sexual errors of judgment; there is also plain regret. In The Last Romantic a middle-aged piano teacher is distraught when one of her best pupils chooses swimming over music. She attempts to bully and cajole the boy and his parents. Another of her pupils, a wealthy older man, arranges for Sara, the teacher, to have an audition that will lead to her own belated public debut. This proves a fiasco, causing Sara to take revenge on the shapeless plant she has been tending: “with its air roots dangling in space”, it “struck her as an emblem of her own life”.
These stories will make one think and squirm and think again. Peter Stamm’s ability to explore dark secrets and lead them towards the light of reason may be cool, even clinical, but it is never completely heartless and is always unforgettable.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.