Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, January 8, 2016

Peter Stamm, _Agnes_ (trans. Michael Hofmann)

I HAD NEVER heard of Stamm until a translation of his most recent novel was reviewed by Leo Carey, whose brief description of this, Stamm's first novel, intrigued me: "Currently out of print in English, it is hugely popular in German and features on school curriculums. It is easy to see why: the book is simple and haunting, a kind of parable without a message."

Not only is the book out of print, but out is also fetching rather steep prices on the secondary market, which is why I resorted to interlibrary loan (thank you, Amherst College!).

I can confirm that it is easy to see why the book has caught on--it has a lot of the appeal that The Stranger does. May be just a coincidence that it begins in a very similar way ("Agnes is dead"), but it  also relies mainly on short declarative sentences and relatively ordinary vocabulary, as The Stranger does, with a first person narrator who tells us a lot more about what he is doing than what he is thinking.  As with Meursault, there is reason to wonder why Stamm's narrator is doing what he is doing, why he is making the choices he is making. The choices turn out to have high stakes--the highest stakes, we could say--so it's a highly discussable book.

And as with Camus, there is a philosophical dimension.  The novel is about the narrator's affair with the title character, whom he meets by chance in a Chicago library. He writes a story about their relationship as the relationship is unfolding; not simply a chronicle, as the story does not simply mirror the relationship, but alternately converges with and diverges from the "real" events. To an extent, art imitates life, but occasionally life imitates art, and at yet other moments they seem incommensurable spheres. You could get a good discussion going about this, too.

I could see this becoming a hot property in lit classes, actually, if it came back into print and got the right push.

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