SEVEN YEARS by Peter Stamm

Book Quote:

“Basically, my relationship with Ivona had been from the start nothing other than a story, a parallel world that obeyed my will, and where I could go whenever I wanted, and could leave when I’d had enough.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (MAR 23, 2011)

The title and the description on the back cover suggest a familiar story of adultery as in the movie The Seven Year Itch: husband, getting bored after seven years of marriage, looks for a younger and prettier woman elsewhere. And indeed there is something of this. But Swiss author Peter Stamm goes out of his way to minimize any normal comparisons between the women. Alexander, the first-person narrator, is married to Sonia, a fellow architect, but more brilliant, more determined than he is, from a wealthier family, beautiful, and self-assured. The other woman, Ivona, is actually an earlier acquaintance, an undocumented Polish worker, dowdy, inarticulate, religious, not at all attractive, yet familiar: “I had known her body in all its details, the heavy, pendulous breasts, the rolls of fat at her neck, her navel, the stray black hairs on her back, and her many moles. I knew how she smelled and tasted, how her body responded to touch. I knew its repertoire of familiar and less familiar movements.”

The story does not even focus on that particular seven-year mark, but is a series of reminiscences, each about seven years apart, stretching back for 21 years in all, to around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most of its action takes place in Munich, where Alexander and Sonia meet as students. It opens at an art gallery, where an old artist friend of Sonia’s, Antje, is having an exhibition. Antje had been partly responsible for bringing the two of them together, and now asks Alexander how they are doing. His answers over the next day or so take up most of the book, as he confesses his dithering between Sonia and Ivona before his engagement and his comparatively rare encounters after that time. Much of his story is not about Ivona at all, but concerns their marriage and the growth of their architectural firm, which at its height had over twenty employees. This was of special interest to me, since I was once engaged to an architect much like Sonia, and Stamm’s evocation of this world seems utterly authentic — though I admit that my coincidental identification may well bias my appreciation of the book.

If Sonia is by far the more dominant of the two women, if Alexander makes no claims to love the homely Ivona, and if the sex is not particularly good in either relationship, then what is his defection about? For whatever reason, Stamm seems reluctant to pin it down, leaving readers to make up their own minds. Alexander’s first encounters with Ivona, though stopping short of consummation, seemed to me so twisted that I thought of heading my Amazon review PSYCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS. This soon passed, however, and I wondered if the answer might be social: “I could understand Ivona’s feelings. I too was moving in a circle I didn’t belong in, only, unlike her, out of cowardice or opportunism I had managed to come to terms with it. The splendid family holidays with Sonia’s parents, the visits to concerts and plays, the male gatherings where fellows smoked cigars and talked about cars and golf, they were all part of another world.” Or was it simply the difficulty of being married to somebody so high on her pedestal that you can only look up admiringly from below?

I now think it mostly has to do with Alexander himself, and his need for some part of his life that is free from high expectations and where he is in control; architecture, after all, is all about control. His marriage to Sonia is actually a pretty good one; not only is she a wife whom any husband could be proud of, they soon settle into a relationship of close friendship, comfort, and mutual respect. In their architectural partnership, she does the designs and he supervises construction, a practical arrangement for both of them, but one which emphasizes their underlying differences: “I remembered listening once to Sonia explaining to a school janitor why the bicycle racks couldn’t be made any bigger. She talked about proportions and forms and aesthetics. He looked at her in bafflement, and said, but the kids have got to park their bikes somewhere. Sonia had looked at me beseechingly, but I had just shrugged my shoulders, and said the janitor was right. She shook her head angrily and stalked out without another word.”

This novel, in an excellent low-key translation by Michael Hoffmann, is nicely bound with a pale grey cover. In many ways, it is a pastel book, a domestic story where nothing earth-shaking happens. The few surprises along the way are gear-shifts rather than changes of direction. For a long time, I was chugging along in what, in Amazon terms, would be solid four-star territory. But I was getting attached to the characters, especially to Alexander despite his stupidities. And certainly drawn into their world. Then at the very end, when we have returned to the present time-frame, the author does something surprising. No, not a coup-de-théâtre, a quiet sigh rather than a loud Wow. But something so true that it authenticates everything that had gone before. I realized that, despite the lack of drama, I had been reading a portrait of a marriage so real that it brought tears to my eyes. So five stars at the end, absolutely. Read this, but give it time.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Other Press (March 22, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Peter Stamm
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More novels that explore marriage:

The Women by T.C. Boyle

My Wife’s Affair by Nancy Woodruff

The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

Translated Bibliography:

March 23, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Contemporary, Translated, World Lit

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