Seven Years

My Ireland trip is fast approaching (this coming Thursday), and I’m losing my motivation to do anything but read and nap in preparation for vacation sloth. But I wanted to write something at least about Peter Stamm’s novel Seven Years before too much time passes. This novel is written in a distanced, emotionally-detached style while taking as its subject matter emotional detachment. It makes me wonder the extent to which those two things necessarily go together. Perhaps it is possible to write a heated, passionate novel about emotional coldness, but Seven Years is written in the first person from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know much about what he feels and wants, which makes a certain amount of detachment and distance in the writing inevitable.

The story is about a love triangle involving the narrator, Alex, his wife, Sonia, and Ivona, a woman with whom Alex has an inexplicable attraction — inexplicable to him as well as to everyone else who knows them — ever since he met her. Alex and Sonia meet in architecture school in Munich and go on to run an architecture business together. Their relationship begins in a halting, uncertain manner. There is more awkwardness than passion between them; it is as though they know intellectually that they are suited for one another rather than feeling it emotionally.

Alongside the development of this relationship is Alex’s conflicted, on-again, off-again obsession with Ivona, an illegal immigrant from Poland who works in a bookshop. Ivona is unattractive, everyone seems to agree, and also uninteresting. She has nothing of Sonia’s intelligence, style, and poise. She is described in harsh, unforgiving terms as lumpish and bovine. And yet Alex can’t forget her, and he keeps returning to her again and again through his courtship of and marriage to Sonia. Alex is cruel to Ivona and doesn’t seem to care much about it; he knows that she has latched onto him and pinned her hopes on his leaving his wife for her, but still he keeps coming back, not caring much what emotional turmoil she experiences.

This, as you can see, is one of those books where none of the characters are likable and there is no one to sympathize with, except perhaps Ivona, although even there I found her naivete and stubbornness irritating. I don’t mind at all not having anyone to like in the book, however, since the intellectual puzzle of the characters is interesting enough. Alex himself is the biggest mystery, both to himself and to the reader, but Sonia is a puzzle as well, what she knows about Alex and how much she cares. Both characters are living out the life society expects of them, running their business, acquiring a home, raising a child, but they do all this listlessly, carelessly, and only slowly and in the smallest steps do they discover who they are and what they want.

What I found disappointing about the book was that it was hard not to feel as detached and uncertain about the characters as they felt about each other and themselves. Detachment is interesting as a concept, but it doesn’t make for very engaging reading. Here is Alex thinking about Sonia’s past and her personality:

Sonia never did talk much. It often felt as though she had no previous life, or whatever it was had left no traces except in the photograph albums on her bookshelf, which she never took out. When I looked at the pictures, I had the sense that they came from another life. Now and then I asked Sonia about her time with Rudiger, and she gave me monosyllabic replies. She said she never asked me what I’d done before either. It doesn’t bother me, I said. After all, you’re mine now. But Sonia was stubbornly silent. Sometimes I wondered if it wasn’t that there was just nothing to say.

That there might be just nothing to say is an interesting proposition, although a sad one, but it’s interesting — in this novel at least — only in an abstract, analytical way. Still, Stamm captures well the state of not knowing oneself and the consequences that result. At the heart of the book is an emptiness that is frightening. It surely took some courage to try to capture that emptiness on the page.

For another take on the novel, see Michelle’s review of it at the journal Necessary Fiction.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Seven Years

  1. I suppose this is the risk a writer always takes when s/he wants to explore such a character. It is a brave move to make and a shame it hasn’t come off here. I’ve been trying to think of a book where it does work, but haven’t been able to come up with anything. Perhaps it isn’t really possible.

    I’m sorry to say that our weather has just broken and I’m bleary eye’d this morning having been kept awake last night by thunder storms. Get the plane to chase them away onto the continent as you fly across the Atlantic will you. Have a wonderful trip.

  2. Dorothy,

    I admire your perseverance having to finish a book “where none of the characters are likable and there is no one to sympathize with…”. I would have quit already ;)

    On another note, how exciting, a trip to Ireland! I don’t blame you for getting into the vacation mood. Since you tweet about book suggestions to take along, I’m just thinking maybe books by Irish writers. I got this book a few years back but still haven’t read: The Sea by John Banville who won the Booker with it. Or Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. These two are thin and easy to carry. If you don’t mind a thicker one, and if you haven’t read it, I think Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann would be great too.

    Have a wonderful trip and enjoy your holiday reading!

  3. It sounds like it would make a better short story than a novel. I wonder if a short story would allow for exploration and experimentation of subjects that aren’t well sustained for a novel. What do you think?

  4. Is this a contemporary novel or an older one? It is intriguing to think how you could show detachment in an engaging fashion. I guess you’d need to partner the detached person with a few passionate others, so that the cold behaviour stands out in contrast and can be interpreted more richly than there being ‘nothing to say’ – which sounds a bit hard to get across well in a novel!

    Woo-hoo! Packing for Ireland very exciting.

  5. I am kind of curious as to whether Alex ends up leaving Sonia for Ivona, though I wouldn’t want to read through a whole book of detachment to figure that out.

    Hope the packing isn’t too terrible and all is going smoothly before you leave! We’ll miss you; please take lots of photos!!

  6. Annie — well, I should say that other people have liked the book very much, so it does work well for some people. But I wasn’t stirred very much. Sorry to hear that about your weather! I will do my best to banish the clouds and bring back the sun :)

    Arti — thank you for the suggestions! I haven’t read those books yet, and they do sound appealing. I will probably stick to something from my shelves in an effort to get those read, but we’ll see where my mood takes me in the next few days! I’m thinking I might bring along a couple mass market paperbacks that I wouldn’t mind leaving behind me in Ireland, so I have more room to bring new books home.

    Lilian — I think radically paired down it might work as a short story, and then the emotional distance wouldn’t be as wearying because you would be with it for longer. Interesting suggestion.

    Litlove — it’s a contemporary novel, maybe a few years old, but recently translated for publication here. Interesting idea about how to make detachment interesting. The first thing would probably be to change the first person point of view, which opens up more possibilities for making the writing interesting and would make it easier to show the kind of contrast you are describing here.

    Debby — I’ll tell you the ending next time I see you, and then you won’t need to read the book :) I’m a last-minute packer, so I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I have planned a lot of it in my head already, so it won’t take long. We have tried to run as many errands as we can in order to cut down last-minute panic, so I think we are pretty well-prepared. We’ll see, though!

  7. Lauren B.

    Sometimes we have to learn through experience to find what is best for us. I believe this is the case for the characters in the novel.

  8. This sounds like an interesting book, a challenge to write and keep the reader reading. I wonder if it is possible to write a passionate books about disengagement? That would really be a challenge!

  9. I have this loaded onto my Nook but am not sure if I’ll get to it or not. I like the premise, but the problem with having such detached characters is you risk losing the interest of the reader.

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