The Swiss writer Peter Stamm is one of the most imaginative short story writers at work in the world today. His latest collection is as good a place to start as any, and these compelling, vigorous tales have been translated from the German into a fluid and lively English by the esteemed, Florida-based translator Michael Hofmann.
Stamm (born 1963) pushes the boundaries, often taking an ostensibly moribund or ordinary situation and turning it around and giving it a good shake, churning it into an experience of exquisite terror.
It’s a bit like how Ian McEwan used to write when his imagination was all fresh and new. But, fair enough, McEwan has gone in a different, more cerebral direction, and he doesn’t do that kind of raw spooky thing anymore. So, welcome in, Herr Stamm.
Many of his stories are set in Alpine places, in the environs of Lake Constance, or with side routes into Northern Italy, Austria and Germany. The Hurt deals with a young male teacher who falls in love with a mercurial bartender, a local woman, in a remote Alpine village. You follow the thread of the story mesmerised just to see where it will bring the hapless young man.
Here are the first two sentences. “At the age of forty, Lucia’s mother had gone mad. I think that was the thing Lucia was most afraid of.” Years Later is a hard-edged, gloomy story, mildly reminiscent of John McGahern and concerning one Weschler. He returns to the town he grew up in and where he first practised as an architect twenty years previously. An early marriage to a local woman had failed, and through a chance meeting with the lawyer who had processed the divorce, both men revisit the tragic life of the woman after her divorce, as they visit her grave.
Religion rears its head in these stories, in a not very edifying light. Children of God is a story of religious faith teetering into madness, as a young girl discovers she is pregnant. Her denial of the existence of a human father drives the local church minister over the edge. He believes the child has a divine provenance and they set up house together. Holy Sacrament deals with a Lutheran minister who so totally alienates his flock that all the locals desert his Sunday service.
The Suitcase is a poignant story about an elderly man seriously disorientated by his wife’s hospitalisation after she suffers a swollen blood vessel in the brain. Her suitcase which he packs at home with his wife's belongings becomes a fetish, a medium or means of desperate connection with the love of his life.
The Natural Way of Things is a subtle exploration of a married couple on holidays who as yet have no children. The arrival next door of a family with two children sets an interesting dynamic in train in the lives of the childless couple. The story ends in awful tragedy, economically depicted in the final, climactic paragraphs through Stamm's astute narrative skill.
Also available - in paperback - is Stamm’s much-acclaimed novel Seven Years, which was also translated by Michael Hofmann. Alex runs an architecture firm with his beautiful, intelligent wife Sonia. Sadly, the couple’s repeated efforts to start a family bear no fruit and when the seven year itch strikes, Alex begins an affair with the rather dull Ivona.
“Seven Years is a novel to make you doubt your own dogma. What more can a novel do than that? “ High praise indeed from Zadie Smith for this Swiss master of disturbing scenarios.