Peter Stamm was in the House: “I don’t want to trick people”

By Melek Hamer

Graham Greene’s infamous character Harry Lime dismissed Switzerland’s “five hundred years of democracy and peace” as having produced nothing more remarkable than the cuckoo clock. That’s not exactly correct. Switzerland has also produced a strong cohort of writers, including Peter Stamm – a novelist whose preoccupation with the ordinary is anything but commonplace as he discussed at a recent meeting at Kıraathane, the Istanbul Literature House 

Stamm is able to rivet our attention precisely because of his studied disinterest in the unusual. He explores characters, plots and themes of the ordinary: “If you look at the paintings of Van Gogh, he painted sunflowers in front of his house, the woman who rented his room. He painted just ordinary people.” His point is that it’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it. “To me normal life is interesting enough. I’m not interested in the extremes. There are many more secrets in daily life,” he said.

True to this philosophy, Stamm started life as a bookkeeper. Although he wrote from an early age, his first novel wasn’t published until he was 35. In the meantime, bookkeeping taught him precision.

“Make one mistake and everything collapses. From an accountant’s point of view, too, money is the great leveler since everyone has problems with it and everyone has a story – whether it is about getting married or when someone dies. Butchers, restauranteurs and cheese-makers and knife sharpeners and all kinds of people, came to us with their stories.”

He had always been interested in people. From bookkeeping he turned to studying psychology. But that wasn’t satisfactory either. He thinks he was a terrible psychologist. “As a discipline, it makes everything too simple, reducing human complexity to a single condition, like depression,” he said. He was happy with the listening part of the job but not the analysis. “I just wanted to listen to their stories and say ‘good luck’ to you.”

And he wanted to write. He figured that a writer had to know everything; so he studied whatever he could, everything from arts to German, theology to medicine. The annoying thing – or at least some readers might find it frustrating – is that he doesn’t use that knowledge to judge or explain. Or if he does so, he does it incredibly subtly.

This doesn’t faze him. “I need readers who are ready to do some of the work. I think meeting these people (the characters) should be like meeting someone in the real world. You can’t see into the heads of the people you meet in the real world, you have to interpret them.” He denies being detached “I do feel for these people. I just don’t show it, but they are very close to me,” Peter Stamm says.

His characters are clearly not Mediterranean hot-heads. That they do not wear their emotions on their sleeves might seem to render them opaque. Nor are they necessarily confrontational. In circumstances where you would expect the characters to display jealousy, envy, or furry, they behave – maybe the word is – Swiss. Stamm says he reflects what he sees. He says, “In relationships, passion plays only a small part. Maybe that’s what interests me more in a way. Passion is not that interesting, it just happens.” It’s like eating, he says. It’s nice to do it but it’s not so interesting to watch. He quotes Robert Musil on how there are some people who when they have a feeling they let it out, they explode. Then there are other people who keep their feelings inside. For literature the latter are the interesting people.

Architecture is a recurring motif for Stamm. In his novel Seven Years the central characters are a married couple; they are both architects. And this line from the famous Italisn architect Aldo Rossi appears in two of Stamms’s novels: “A building isn’t finished until it had collapsed into ruins.” Stamm says he is not necessarily interested in the architecture of Rossi but he appreciates his written work. It’s like life, he says of Rossi’s quote. “A new-born child, let’s be honest, is not very interesting, it’s just a possibility” he says. “Life is only finished when it’s finished. Maybe literature comes in there. Literature tells the story from beginning to end. So even if it ends badly there is the whole story to be looked at.” In his first book Agnes one of the characters compares happiness to a painting by Seurat. When you’re close to it you just see the points.

Stamm described a reading of his novel Agnes in which the narrator behaves in a self-centered and callous way to the woman with whom he is in and out of love. The audience were all survivors of the ‘68 student movement and true to form, they began to revolt until one of them testified to the truth of Stamm’s fiction: “First they invited me and then they started criticizing me, saying that even as an author I couldn’t treat a woman like that. Suddenly, a younger woman spoke and said ‘but that’s how it is.’”

“To me these are not unhappy books,” said Stamm commenting on his entire work of fiction, “I don’t want to trick people. I just want to describe what is.”