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The thin veneer

Peter Stamm’s clinical account of a disturbing passion

 

Simon Willis | May/June 2012

Author  Peter Stamm
English title  Seven Years
Original title  Sieben Jahre (2009)
Original language  German
Translator  Michael Hofmann

Peter Stamm is a Swiss writer with a style as cold and clear as winter sun. This, his fourth novel to be translated into English, mines a familiar seam in a fresh and frequently disturbing way.

Alex is an architect from Munich who tells the story of his marriage to one woman and his obsession with another. The wife is Sonia, beautiful, ambitious and sexually nervy. They get together in 1989, just after they finish their training as architects. That summer Alex also meets Ivona, who is plain, poor, submissive and Polish. With Sonia he makes plans, discusses Le Corbusier and has a relationship that never even simmers. With Ivona he has an affair that is a queasy cocktail of attraction, revulsion, power and dependency. He does what he wants to her without loving her, and she lets him. “I thought what a thin veneer civilisation is,” he says later, “and how easily it cracks when pain or hatred or lust take over in individuals.”

Stamm’s clinical prose, in a lucid translation by Michael Hofmann, is a symptom of the pathology it describes: a brittle alienation that subsumes passion and makes a mystery of it. He achieves his most alarming effects during Alex’s encounters with Ivona where, despite the edge of violence, the tone remains as orderly as ever. “Her unconditional love for me,” he says, “however purely random, drew me irresistibly to her and...repulsed me the instant I was satisfied. Then I would feel the need to hurt her, as though that was my only way of breaking free.”

Stamm has a fine sense of the pregnant moment which signals things falling apart. By the time you get to the twist at the end, you want to start again. 

Seven Years is out now from Granta

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