The Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s inscrutable, alienated outsiders make bizarre choices to escape stifling mundanity. Their discontent suggests malaise, something Stamm accentuates in his spare prose. The result is a distilled essence of unease: the reader is uncomfortable, but can’t look away. This masterful combination of fundamental themes, explored without embellishment through confused lives, has won the author numerous prizes.
His 2020 novel The Sweet Indifference hinged on the possibility of seizing lost chances and allowing events to unfold differently. In this collection of short stories, the narrator of ‘Marcia’ is a recluse who ponders about an ex from whom he beat a callously precipitate retreat. He’s nihilistic, but there’s grim insight in his black dog. When a fever descends, memory and hallucination blend. But given the chance to redeem himself for his past behaviour, would he grasp it or slope off again to emotional avoidance?
Not all characters allow once-glimpsed opportunities to dissolve forever. ‘The Most Beautiful Dress’ is a modern Cinderella story, whose resolution made me wonder whether Stamm has decided to allow glints of sunlight through. A tinge of dark humour colours ‘Nightigal’, about a disgruntled teenager unable to assert himself, who fantasises about escape. Stamm is astute on self-consciousness. The inadequate boy’s plan to get rich is so inept that when he’s poised between childish fantasy and adult action, catastrophe inevitably awaits.
The taut, dry style of ‘Supermoon’ snags our attention mercilessly as we observe the subservient narrator being serially ignored. It’s Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the 21st century: a premonition of a world that continues while you rasp your wings together in frustrated incomprehension.
A flat note is struck in the demotic idiom in ‘Sabrina’. It’s intended to reflect the Nurse’s speech in Romeo and Juliet, but the intermittent use of clichés (‘went in one ear and out the other’; ‘jump out of her skin’; ‘getting on her wick’) don’t succeed as they would in the first person, and are inconsistent. ‘The Woman in the Green Coat’ is let down by clumsy repetition: ‘Feeling… full of confidence I walked on, full of confidence…’
Stamm and his translator, the excellent Michael Hofmann, are at their best in ‘First Snow’, in which a man temporarily escapes from stress, relinquishing control. The surreal humour and evocative writing are mesmerising.‘Dietrich’s Knee’ is entertaining — Kate Bush’s ‘Babooshka’ in reverse — while the title story ‘It’s Getting Dark’ is haunting folklore. This is another enigmatic collection, tense and satisfying.
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