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.