PD Smith

Fiction of the fatal kind

Times Literary Supplement, April 21, 2000, p 23

Agnes, by Peter Stamm. Translated by Michael Hofmann (Bloomsbury), 165pp. £12.99. ISBN 0-7475-4752-1

Review by P.D. Smith

Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, begins with the end: “Agnes is dead. Killed by a story. All that’s left of her now is this story.” The narrator is her lover, a nameless character who confesses to egoism and cynicism: “I’m not a good man.” Having failed as a literary author (his first collection of stories sold 187 copies) he is researching a book on American luxury trains in the Chicago Public Library when Agnes takes a seat opposite him. He is struck immediately by the expressiveness of her eyes which seem able to communicate words, albeit in a language “which I didn’t know how to read.”

Agnes, who is writing a scientific thesis on symmetrical crystal structures, is impressed that he is a published author and shows him a story she has written. It has a childlike simplicity and is strikingly symmetrical, the first and last lines echoing each other. But he is embarrassed and his tone is patronising: “you can’t just sit down and expect to write a novel in a week.” He compares writing to a mathematical formula in an analogy that attempts to bridge the two cultures of science and literature: “It’s like you’ve got an unknown X in your head that you’re trying to find.”

Yet when she explains her work using X-ray slides depicting symmetrical patterns of atoms there is no trace of condescension in her voice, only pure enthusiasm that reveals a profound wonder at the world: “‘The mystery is the void at the centre,’ she said, ‘what you don’t see, the axes of symmetry.’” Agnes asks him to write a story about her, “one that shows me as I am.”

It is an innocent request, a lovers’ game, but from the first sentence his words reach out from the page and determine her life and ultimately her death.
Stamm’s novel, translated in deceptively simple prose by Michael Hofmann, has the clarity and symmetry of one of Agnes’s crystal structures. The beginning and end reflect each other as if in a mirror and the text is divided precisely in two by a Wendepunkt: Agnes’s discovery that she is pregnant. Her lover’s reaction is shocking: “‘Agnes doesn’t get pregnant,’ I said. ‘That’s not what I…’.”

Imagination and reality collide, and his egoism is apparent even to Agnes. When her pregnancy ends in a miscarriage his inability to respond verges on cruelty. As she cries after reading Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London”, he says: “It’s only a poem … you shouldn’t take it so seriously. It’s just words.”

But words kill Agnes. Whilst out walking she comments: “Do you know that freezing’s supposed to be a good way to die?” They are fatal words, for in the mind of her lover they suggest a way of concluding Agnes’s story, an ending which she reads as a sentence of death. This chilling vision and his description of Agnes’s death in the crystalline coldness of the Chicago snow provide the measure of this narrator’s inhumanity.

Like his fellow Swiss writer Max Frisch in Homo Faber (1957), Stamm chooses a narrator who seems trustworthy but whose view of the world is revealed to be deeply flawed. It is an approach Stamm has continued in his latest collection of stories Blitzeis (1999) which confirms the author as a powerful new voice in European fiction. His narrators are emotionally enervated, as if some vital faculty has atrophied and died. The narrator of Agnes justifies himself: “we imagine we all share the same world. But each of us is in a mine or quarry of his own, just chipping away at his own life, doesn’t look left or right, and can’t even turn back because of the rubble he leaves behind him.”