Tag Archives: swiss fiction

To The Back of Beyond: Peter Stamm

I’ve read a number of novels this year which explored the stress of married life: juggling bills, childcare, commuting, and Swiss author Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond slots into those earlier reads. This is the story of a seemingly happily married man who one day simply …. walks away.

To the back of Beyond

The book begins with married couple, Thomas and Astrid putting their children Konrad and Ella to bed. It’s mid-August and they’ve just returned from holiday. Astrid and Thomas are enjoying a glass of wine in the garden when Astrid goes to soothe Konrad. Thomas is left alone. He imagines the house was hot and stuffy in their absence, and then his thoughts turn to Astrid:

Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes She carried the dirty things down to the utility room in the basement and put the clean ones away in the closet in the bedroom; the kids’ things she folded neatly and left in a pile on the stairs to carry up tomorrow. She stopped for a moment at the foot of the steps and listened to a few quiet sounds from upstairs, the children getting comfortable in their newly made beds, in thoughts or dreams they were still at the beach, or maybe already back in school.

Thomas folds up his newspaper, walks out of the garden and out into the town. From there he slips into the woods and disappears from Astrid’s life.

Part of this short book follows Thomas while other sections follow Astrid as she tries to adjust to his absence, initially covering for him at work, until she can no longer hide the reality of Thomas’s absence.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to the book. The author very quickly establishes the idea of how life goes on in our absence: for example, the house still exists when Thomas and Astrid are on holiday, so when Thomas leaves, Astrid and his children carry on both in reality and in his imagination.

When Astrid realized that Thomas wasn’t lying beside her, she would suppose he was already up, even though she invariably got up first. She would go upstairs half asleep and wake the children and go downstairs again. Then minutes later, freshly showered and in her robe, she would emerge from the bathroom and call the children who were bound to be still in bed.

There’s a whole ‘Sliding Doors‘ membrane over this subtle tale: did Thomas really leave Astrid or is he imagining a life without her? When we know someone, a life, a routine well enough, we can predict that person’s day, is that what Thomas does? Does he play with the idea of leaving or does he actually go? When does a marriage condense down to a routine? There’s nothing more real than a routine; schedules and routine can so easily replace living. What’s real here and what is fantasy? But this is not just male fantasy (and what happens to Thomas could certainly be construed as male fantasy,) there’s also fantasy taking place in Astrid’s mind. But then again, is this just Thomas’s ego-centric wish-fulfillment of the faithful little woman longing for her absent husband’s return? This is for the reader to decide.

Review copy

Translated by Michael Hofmann

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The Last Weynfeldt: Martin Suter

“If he had lived in the world of his much-loved Somerset Maugham, he would have been one of those unmarried governors on a far-flung island who put on a tuxedo each evening for his solitary supper.”

The Last Weynfeldt from Martin Suter is the story of a wealthy middle-aged man named Adrian. While Adrian is the last of his family, he’s also the last of a certain kind of man, and that is evidenced by his very precise organized lifestyle, and his relationships. He believes that “regularity prolonged life.”

If you do the same things more often, go to the same places and meet the same people, the difference become subtler each time. And if the differences are subtler then time passes unnoticed. Someone you see every month instead of every year never appears to age. And you never appear to age to them.

Repetition slows down the passage of time.

So for this reason, Adrian patronizes the same tailor, visits the same restaurants and never changes his routine–this includes refusing to learn how to use a computer or a cell phone. Although he has no intimate relationships, he has two distinct sets of friends:

One was made up of people fifteen or more years younger than him. Among them he was seen as an exotic original, someone you could confide in, but also make fun of sometimes, who would discreetly pay the check in a restaurant, and help out occasionally when you had financial difficulties. They treated him with studied nonchalance as one of their own, but secretly basked in the glow of his name and money.

Adrian’s second set of friends “was composed of people who had known his parents, or at least moved in their circles.” These friends range in age from 60-80–in other words Adrian has no friends his own age.

the last weynfeldt

Adrian’s set of younger friends mostly sponge off of him. My personal favourite of these parasites is filmmaker Agustoni who’s milking Adrian for 100s of thousands of francs for a film project which has taken him all over the globe while being fully supported by his rich patron’s money. Agustoni plays the role of temperamental, creative artist to the hilt, refusing to be pigeonholed into such a ridiculous thing as a script. In spite of the fact that Adrian continues to shell out money, he never complains, but in typical human fashion, Agustoni’s hostility rises as his gratitude plummets.

Adrian is an interesting character–like many people who are born into a very structured upper class environment, he has never developed his own separate life, and we already know that he’s a sap with a fat wallet for the ‘friends’ who use him. He lived with his mother until her death, and the same elderly retainer who worked for his mother still cooks his meals. He had one great love in his life, Daphne, a woman who left but would have probably stayed if he’d just made the right gesture.

Adrian didn’t have enough talent to become an artist but as an expert in Swiss art, he’s an art evaluator and works for a big auction house in Switzerland. He lives in a 5,000 sq. foot Zurich apartment which is composed on an entire floor of a nineteenth century building. The rest of the building is leased by a bank which works to Adrian’s advantage as the bank’s security is a protection for his art collection.

Adrian has a life with certain enviable aspects. He’s well-respected and wealthy, but then again, it’s easy to see that this is a sterile existence–comfortable yet empty. Secure yet boring. And we, of course, are all waiting for the catalyst who will disrupt and disturb Adrian’s peaceful life.

The catalyst is, of course, a woman. A femme fatale of sorts, Lorena, a model on the verge of middle age who picks up Adrian in a bar. ..

Lorena is, at first, a fascinating, damaged woman, neurotic as hell, and prone to grand, self-damaging gestures–definitely a Kamikaze, and Adrian cannot resist. She resembles his lost love Daphne, and since Lorena is always in trouble, he’s only too happy to keep bailing her out of various messes–no questions asked. As the tale continues Lorena becomes less interesting, an opinion I share with Gert.

This is a tale of blackmail, art forgery, second chances and deceit that seems plotted for cinema. I liked this, but didn’t love it.

My imaginary film version stars Andre Dussolier as Adrian and Isabelle Huppert as Lorena (the real film stars other names).

Review copy

Translated by Steph Morris

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All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm

2014

Back to German Literature Month 2014 hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve mention already in my review of Silence that although I had a year to pick books to read for this event, I had no concrete plans other than to read something by Joseph Roth. As luck would have it, a blogging friend sent me an unwanted review copy of Swiss author Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night. I’d been meaning to read something by Peter Stamm, and since it’s German Literature Month, this was a perfect opportunity.

Titles can give a hint about content, and in the case of All Days Are Night–a book which landed on my doorstep, and a book I knew absolutely nothing about, I had the impression that I was going to read something about sad, lonely people. I was right.

All Days are nightAll Days Are Night is mainly the story of Gillian, a successful, beautiful television personality whose life, as she knew it, is wiped out in a moment by a drunk driving incident. Gillian survives with her face badly damaged while her husband Matthias, is killed. No one, except Gillian, knows the details of the fight or why Matthias was driving home from a party in a drunken rage, and when she wakes up from the accident in the hospital, moving back and forth in a semi-hallucinogenic, heavily medicated state,  she doesn’t initially remember what happened:

Gillian tries to concentrate. Everything depends on her reply. She wants to be herself, to get up, but she can’t. She can’t move her legs; it’s as though she has no legs. The radio stops, the nurse walks over to the window and draws the curtains. Gillian remembers; the rain, the low-pressure area. There must be a connection.

You should try and get some rest.

Rest from what? Something has happened. Gillian is hovering around it, the memory, she is moving closer and then getting farther away from it again. When she puts out her hand, the pictures disappear, and the blue water comes instead, the blue water and the empty space. But the other thing is there all the time, waiting for her. She knows there is a way out, and she will take it. Later.

After Gillian realizes what happened that night, she keeps the truth about the fight with Matthias to herself. She must go through a series of surgeries to repair her face, but her life in front of the cameras it is gone. Gradually the backstory about exactly what Matthias and Gillian were fighting about floats to the surface. She has a lot to feel guilty about….

That’s really as much of the plot as I’m willing to give away, but I will say that the second part of the book brings in artist Hubert to the central stage. Both Gillian and Hubert have breakdowns for different reasons, and the story follows the connections between these two characters and how they deal with their problems.

Veering away from the plot, I’ll focus on Hubert’s art–he’s known for his photos of naked women. That may sound salacious, and indeed many people try to make Hubert’s work sound salacious, but the photos are of women mostly performing everyday tasks … naked:

In the next tray were pictures of a small woman with wide hips and large, pendulous breasts. She had short blond hair and hairy armpits. Both her posture and her facial expression had something theatrical about them. She hung washing on a low rack in a tiny bathroom, baby things and men’s socks. She took a book from a shelf, hunkered down on the floor, and swept up with a small broom, maybe crumbs from biscuits she had given her child. The apartment was cluttered and untidy. In the last pictures, the woman looked close to tears.

She looks terribly lonely, said Gillian. Do you have any idea what you put these women through?

They agree to take part, said Hubert, switching the trays. Even in their nakedness they try not to reveal themselves. They hide behind their movements, their smiles, their way of exhibiting themselves.

Identity and authenticity are central themes in the book, and all of the main characters seem to be trying to find authenticity in their lives by various means. Gillian, with her badly damaged face, can no longer appear in front of the camera, so she loses her career, but even before the accident, she begins to feel that she’s “playing a part in a bad film” or “speaking lines from a script.” After the accident she looks in the mirror, sees a fragmented self and later realizes that her life “before the accident had been one long performance.”

It’s easy to see how an artist would constantly strive for authenticity, but in Hubert’s case, his drive is different. He feels like an “imposter” when he teaches, and when he asks his models to remove their clothes it’s as if in so doing, their nakedness will reveal an absolute truth–a tactic which fails, of course. Perhaps he’s driven to seek authenticity for another reason. His girlfriend (later in the book they’re married) is a seeker of some sort of deeper truth, but she’s hollow and superficial:

Astrid pursued her interest in energy and the body. Hubert wasn’t impressed by the esoteric life-help scene she started to move in. He passed occasional ironic remarks, to which she reacted so violently that he didn’t say anything the next time she registered for a weekend course in psychodrama or breathing therapy.

There’s also a terrific sense of emptiness and abandonment in this novel which is partly achieved through a complete absence of quotation marks (see the first and second quotes), but also Stamm’s spare style in this unpredictable, melancholy, yet ultimately optimistic story underscores a deep void which runs through the lives of his lonely, troubled characters.

Gillian clicked on “Gallery.” There were five pictures of unoccupied rooms: an office, a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. In all the pictures it was nighttime, and the rooms were dimly lit. Although not much could be seen, Gillian still had the sense that there was someone in all the rooms, hiding in a corner or else behind the onlooker.

Translated by Michael Hoffman. 182 pages.

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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

“Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with a fifteen-year-old girl?”

Slated to be the blockbuster novel of the year, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair from Swiss author Joel Dicker is a complex and convoluted novel which examines the relationship between two authors against the backdrop of a crime that took place decades earlier. Most reviews of the book are glowing, and since the book won several French literary prizes, sold close to a million copies in France, and is named Amazon’s Book-of-the-Month for May 2014, most readers will come to the book with high expectations.

harryAt close to 700 pages, there’s a lot going on in the book–too much, but more of that later. The book’s synopsis is intriguing, and for this reader, the book was at its best in the beginning as the relationship between author Harry Quebert and his young protégé and former student,  Marcus Goldman is established. Suffering from writer’s block, Marcus, who’s a one-hit-wonder of a novelist, can’t write his second novel. Under tremendous pressure, partly due to the hefty advance that’s already mostly spent, Marcus retreats from the glitzy party scene in New York to his mentor, Harry Quebert’s idyllic beachside home in Somerset, New Hampshire. Marcus knows instinctively that if anyone can help him overcome his writer’s block, then that person is Harry. But shortly after his arrival, Harry is arrested for the murder of Nola Kellergan, a 15 year-old who disappeared back in 1975….

Marcus becomes involved in the case and is determined to write a book which will prove Harry’s innocence, but Harry, one of America’s “best selling and highly respected authors” (and pompous to boot) isn’t exactly helping his own case since he admits that he had an affair with the teen and that she inspired his best-selling second novel, The Origin of Evil, the book that served as the pinnacle of his career.  Marcus finds himself trapped in the flesh-market of celebrity and caught between loyalties: he can write a bestseller and betray his friend or he sink into obscurity, yet another has-been.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is touted as a cinematic novel, and while I don’t agree, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this, with substantial cuts, made into a film. The novel is also supposed to be “tightly-plotted,” but the plot which moves between 1975 and 2008 meanders all over the place, leaving loose ends until convenient moments of discovery.  Other claims about the novel state that it’s a portrait of small-town America, and while the novel begins as a crime story, it clearly morphs into something else as the plot unfolds and becomes increasingly complicated. The missing girl turns out to be a local Lolita; then add corruption, gossip, nosiness, voyeurism, masochism, dodgy police officers, a reclusive billionaire, and the narrow dogmas of some backwoods religion to the mix. (To paraphrase from Out of the Furnace: “Church ain’t over ’till the last snake is back in the bag.”) Unfortunately the wild inaccuracies and implausibilities in the novel eradicate much of the novel’s intentions to portray the ambience and hypocrisy of small-town America.

There’s so much here that’s just off: At one point in the novel, Police Sgt Gahalowood is waiting for a crucial handwriting analysis. A great deal of the case against Harry hinges on the results, and the analysis doesn’t arrive and we’re kept waiting. When the results finally arrive, other story lines appear exhausted so that the timing seems plot driven more than anything else. Then much, much later, just as the plot appears to have been solved, another niggling little loose end drags us back in. The messy, bloated plot includes even a theoretical version of events. Then there’s the issue of implausibility:  Gahalowood allows Goldman to ride along repeatedly for the investigation, question witnesses and even shares crucial, trial-determining evidence. Then there’s the issue of the way witnesses are just sitting around waiting to spill the beans on vital pieces of evidence. Marcus steps into their lives, asks a question or two, and all these secrets all too conveniently pour out. Another problem concerns the female characterizations of two middle aged women–Marcus’s mother, and Tamara Quinn, the former owner of the town’s café. These two women are mostly caricature with the result that the scenes between Tamara and her husband are almost comic–a tone which jars with the rest of the book:

Satisfied with the arrangements outside, Tamara went into the house to monitor what was happening there. She found Jenny at her post in the entrance hall, ready to welcome the guests. But she did have to scold Robert , who was wearing a shirt and tie, but had not yet out on his pants–because on Sundays he was allowed to read the newspaper in his underwear in the living room; he liked it when the draft from the open windows blew inside his underpants because that cooled him down, particularly his hairy parts, and he found that very pleasant.

“Enough parading around  naked, Bobbo!” his wife rebuked him. “all that is over now. Do you really imagine that you’re going to walk around in your underwear when the great Harry Quebert is our son-in-law?”

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is an ambitious novel which tries to achieve several things. There’s a long buried crime, and a relationship between two writers–one at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Then there’s an exposé on the hypocrisy of small-town America, and finally, there’s a hard look at American society and the fickle publishing industry, its savage focus on celebrity, the invasion of privacy, media manipulation, the disposability of authors, and the ephemeral nature of fame. I don’t like to slag off on any book, but The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is riddled with problems. So why did I slog through nearly 700 pages?… I wanted to know who killed Nola, the girl who was the living embodiment of, and also interestingly, the vessel of small town hypocrisy. Nola is dead when the novel begins, and yet somehow her image remains alive thirty-three years later. Through memories, Nola has left behind a series of representations, but are any of these memories correct? Or did people just see what they wanted to see? How did Nola become a reflection of various twisted desires? These are some intriguing questions which are unfortunately obfuscated by the bloated, convoluted and implausible plot.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair depicts a whorish American publishing industry while garnering glowing rave reviews and phenomenal sales. The American publishing industry is shown as the real villain here with authors only as good (or as interesting) as their last best-seller. There’s an irony here which did not escape me.

“People like you because you’re young and dynamic.  And hip. That’s what you are–a hip writer. Nobody expects you to win the Pulitzer prize; they like your books because they’re cool, they’re entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Here’s Stu’s review

Translated by Sam Taylor. Review copy.

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