We’re Flying

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.

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11 Responses to We’re Flying

  1. Hi, Teresa. Peter Stamm’s name haunts my memory for something else he’s written, and I can’t remember what. Anyway, I have two short story collections out right now which I am still finishing up, de Maupassant’s “Selected Stories” and Richard Bausch’s “Something is Out There,” two books which are not only different in century, but also in characteristics. I alternate when I get bogged down with one and go back to the other one. De Maupassant even when more serious is lighter fare, somehow.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m such a book monogamist at heart that I could hardly imagine juggling two story collections along with my other reading! But that’s me–I’m usually doing well to have one story collection and one novel or nonfiction on the go at once. In theory, I do like the idea of being able to switch to different kinds of stories.

      I really ought to revisit de Maupassant. I remember liking the handful of his stories I read in school, but I’ve only recently gotten the short story bug again, so it’s been ages since I read anything of his.

  2. Usually if I’m reading such emotionally depressive stories, I close them once in a while to take my breath and relax. I remember what Salem’s Lot did to me. Then again, when I read my short stories collection like a novel, resting shortly (and taking notes) between stories.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh goodness, with something like Salem’s Lot, I have to read in huge gulps, all at once, so I can get to the end and know how things turn out. It’s so interesting how people are different in their preferences!

  3. Jenny says:

    I always read short story collections straight through. If I were going to rationalize that, I’d suggest that most authors put together a collection in a certain order for a reason, so that one story informs another, to have a certain effect even if they are not linked. That may not be true! But I read it as if it is, as if I’m going from one to another with some purpose in view.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m sure it’s true in some cases, but then there are the collections made up of lots of previously published stories. I imagine there’s some rhyme or reason to the arrangement even then, but I can imagine that reason sometimes being “I want to include this story, and it has to go somewhere, so I’ll put it here.”

      This particular collection is, from what I understand, the combination of at least two separate collections in German, which may muddy the issue of the author’s purpose.

  4. Tony says:

    Stamm’s writing is deceptively simple and deliberately off-putting, minor notes in the wrong key making the reader feel uneasy for reasons they can’t explain. I haven’t read this one yet, but I have read ‘Sieben Jahre’ (‘Seven Years’), and I’ve literally just finished reading and reviewing ‘Ungefähre Landschaft’ (‘Unformed Landscape’) as part of my efforts for November’s German Literature Month extravaganza :)

    As for short stories, I try to split them up a little, but it’s hard to sometimes – I just want to push on. What I do find though is that it’s easier to put them aside than a novel. A novel has a narrative weight pushing you along, making you come back to it as quickly as possible – short stories are self-contained and the collection doesn’t have the same pull as a novel…

    • Teresa says:

      I like the way you describe his writing. Deceptively simply for sure and often off-putting and eliciting a feeling of unease. Yes to all that. I remember seeing lots of praise for Seven Years, and I’d like to see how his writing comes across to me in a novel.

      And I agree on the narrative pull being less of an issue with short stories. I usually read collections (stories or essays) on my lunch break at work because I’m less likely to lose track of time and forget to go back to work, unless I get to a really long short story :)

  5. 4lovequotes says:

    i like such stories while they make me cry…

  6. Alex in Leeds says:

    I loved this collection but I did split up my reading to take the stories one at a time over most of August. I find that Stamm manages to hit that sweet spot for me, disconnected and abnormal lives that have an internal logic and sense of purpose that wouldn’t be immediately discernable to the casual viewer. He always gives the sense that I am seeing something more than the character would like me to.

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