It would be an understatement to say that the stories in this collection by Swiss author Peter Stamm are not happy stories. In one story after another, we meet people who are alienated from society, often by choice, sometimes by circumstance, but rarely with pleasing results. There’s the main character in the opening story, “Expectations,” who embarks on an affair with her upstairs neighbor only to realize that he’s more appealing—and more real—when he’s nothing more than the sounds she hears from upstairs. There’s Anja in “In the Forest,” who takes to the woods to live a life that feels more normal to her than the more “normal” life of a student, then a wife and mother, that she finds in civilization. And there’s a man who carries around a clumsily packed suitcase that he packed for his hospitalized wife and a priest who takes in an inexplicably pregnant young woman.
None of these are people we’d typically describe as happy, yet somehow their choices are the only ones that make sense to them, the only choices that could make them happy. In one of the stories, a little boy’s feelings as he stands on the outside looking in are described as “a mixture of happiness and unhappiness. It was happiness that felt like unhappiness.” Even though these stories cannot reasonably be described as happy stories, there’s something in these characters that makes their unhappiness seem right. It’s not that they deserve to be unhappy or that they find peace in their unhappiness. It’s more that they cannot find happiness in conventional ways, so they choose an entirely different tack. It’s not necessarily happy either, but it feels honest.
The stories are beautifully written. The prose, translated by Michael Hofmann, is crisp and clear and precise. The sometimes simplicity of the prose makes it easy to miss how meticulous the writing is in its attention to detail. Stamm is lavish with detail and miserly with words. It’s impressive.
As impressive, however, as these stories are, I found that I could not read this collection all at once. There’s a uniformity of tone and mood that caused the stories, each one of which was quite good on its own, to feel relentlessly gloomy and unsettling after a while. I’m someone who likes my fiction dark, but it’s perhaps easier to sit in a single dark room for a while than it is to step from one dark room to another. I was glad that my reading schedule forced me to walk right out of the dark house altogether and enjoy a little light before stepping pack inside with Stamm. When I did that, I found the stories were less oppressive and easier to appreciate.
When you read short story collections, do you find it better to read them all at once, or do you like to take breaks and dip in and out? I find that it depends on the collection. Usually I like to read single-author collections all at once, as if they’re novels, but in Stamm’s case even a story a day was sometimes too much. I think three was my limit in a single day, and I had to put it aside completely a few times. And I think I would have liked every single one of these stories if I’d encountered them in isolation, say in a magazine or online. Together, they lose some of their power.