How replaceable are we?
An older gentleman meets a younger woman and recognises his former sweetheart in her. That sounds like an elderly gent’s fantasy, like a man experiencing midlife crisis. In Peter Stamm’s short novel, this test set-up turns into a literary experiment.
By Holger Moos
The questions collected in Peter Stamm’s novel Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt (The Gentle Indifference of the World), are huge ones: is life just one big repeat? Is there such a thing as individuality – or is individuality just a fiction, desire or obsession of modern society? Is it possible to pass on experiences, are people capable of learning? To what extent are our experiences replaceable?
Narrator Christoph, aged around 50, meets an actress named Lena 20 years his junior in Stockholm and tells her his story. The theme is his relationship with past sweetheart Magdalena, also an actress, whom Christoph dealt with in his first and only novel. Lena also has a friend by the name of Chris, who is just writing his first novel. Old Christoph thinks he has encountered his own life story. But the similarities are increasingly vanishing. Everything’s becoming blurred, even things that are supposedly certain. When he wants to show Lena the manuscript of his novel, it has disappeared. Did he really write the novel?
The power of the pictures we make of each otherAt one point it says of this novel-within-a-novel: “That’s what the book is about, about the pictures we make of each other, and about the power these pictures gain over us.” In the end these countless images start to overlap and the boundaries become fluid, in many senses. It is no longer possible to tell what really happened and what’s really going on – neither in the past nor in the present. Stamm confuses his readership like this as well.
The story is told quite laconically. The somewhat over-constructed style means that it occasionally comes across like a textbook – as a reader you start to adopt the distance prevalent between the characters, which is closely related to the eponymous indifference. The reader remains relatively detached from the characters. They are all melancholic and weary – and at the end the narrator remembers a completely different picture that he created in his younger years of himself as an old man.
Stamm, Peter: Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt
Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer, 2018. 155 S.
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