Near the beginning of Swiss writer Peter Stamm's bleak new novel, Seven Years, ten-year-old Sophie innocently asks for someone to fetch her a glass of orange juice at the gallery opening her parents, Alex and Sonia, have taken her to. Irritated, Alex snaps at his daughter and tells her to stop ordering people around. Sonia, as annoyed with her husband as he is with Sophie, mutters, "I wonder who she gets it from." The exchange sounds unremarkable, the sort of occasional bitchiness that might pass between a pair of people like Alex and Sonia, married for a decade and a half and principals in a struggling architecture firm. But in Stamm's terse, economically composed novels, which show off his savvy for compression and understated foreshadowing (both inheritances of his acclaimed work as an author of short stories and radio dramas), big jolts of meaning can be delivered in forgettable chunks of throwaway patter. Their significance may even escape the characters uttering them.
Paternity, happiness, and free will—who or what is ordering whom about, and to what end—underlie Stamm's psychologically stark novel. Composed of Alex's steady stream of first-person narration, Seven Years toggles present and past to relate the slow decline of his marriage and professional partnership. He tells his story to an expat Munich painter named Antje who now lives in Marseille, where, we learn in flashbacks, Alex and Sonia consummated their relationship eighteen years earlier. The year was 1989, and the two recent architecture school graduates had gone on a road trip to see her beloved Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse. In the French city, Alex had fortified himself with Corbusierian mottoes ("Everything is different. Everything is new. Everything is beautiful") and convinced himself that he, too, could believe in ameliorative hopes, both romantic and architectural.
And why not? Who wouldn't be dazzled by the Mediterranean light and by Sonia, tanned and ambitious, a talented student and the radiant child of upper-class breeding? She's the sunny antidote to the striving Alex, and her idealism initially thaws his own sour predilections, expressed in his grad school preference for the "anti-modernist melancholy" of Aldo Rossi. As he puts it retrospectively to Antje, the time in Marseille seemed a prelude to a vision of total happiness. "It was a scene from a French movie of the fifties or sixties, our whole life was a film put together from distance shots, wide angles under white light, with little people moving through it, all very aesthetic and cool and intellectual."
But even before the Mediterranean reverie, their relationship is shadowed by a third figure, Ivona. A Polish woman who works without papers in a little parish knickknack shop that sells kitschy inspirational literature, she's the anti-Sonia: loathsomely unattractive and practically mute, devoutly Catholic, decked out in ugly beige corduroy skirts and folksy embroidered blouses. Her skin gives off a faint vegetable odor. Ivona is foisted on Alex by rowdy friends who pick her up in a beer garden as a sort of gag not long before his Marseille jaunt, and Alex finds her repellent, particularly her simpering habit of trailing a few steps behind him over the course of the evening. He's tempted to break off in a dash and lose her. Yet the logic of attraction being what it is, Alex's repulsion from Ivona is coupled with an urge he'll act on that night and that he'll spend the rest of the novel attempting to unravel. Seven years after he and Sonia marry, while they try unsuccessfully to have a baby, Alex receives a letter out of the blue from Ivona, asking in childlike script for money for an operation; he visits her, and the fretful affair that ensues produces Sophie, a being as much an alien to Alex as the blank and largely silent Ivona. Alex and Sonia adopt Sophie as their own.
The plot of Seven Years is as remarkably undernourished as it sounds, and glancing references to architectural history and then-current events (the demise of East Germany, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the collapse of the German construction market) don't put much meat on its skimpy frame. But Stamm is a master of quietly deliberative stories. In Seven Years, as in the best of his work, he puts often simple-seeming characters through extraordinary paces, all the more remarkable given the Carver-like restraint he exercises in his writing. In his 2001 Unformed Landscape, his second novel but the first to be published in the US, Stamm told the story of an inarticulate half-Sami named Kathrine as she left her marriage to a dullard in Norway and traveled south to an exotic Paris and back to Scandinavia; in that book, his subdued prose gave her transformation a memorable and bittersweet dignity. In the new novel, Alex lacks the coeur simple of Kathrine—much of the time he comes off as a creepy loser self-justifying a lot of loutish behavior—but Stamm gives him a presence on the page that feels equal to his considerable flaws. And though the Munich setting where most of Seven Years occurs is less harsh than subarctic Norway, the terrain of Alex's psyche may be even bleaker than the frozen North. Michael Hofmann's translation captures the rawness of Alex's testimony. (To shrink the distance between the reader and Alex's narrative, to make it seem less mediated, Stamm eschews quotation marks to indicate reported speech, a device that's familiar enough but only partly justifies an annoying lack of clarity in places.)
Even given its German and French settings, the milieu of Seven Years will be, to American readers, familiar territory. It's easy at the outset to empathize with a figure like Alex, in his homey aspirations to stability and upward mobility. There's still a measure of recognition and kinship even as his firm goes belly-up, his wife flees to Marseille in search of work, and he sinks into a funk of heavy drinking in the years after Sophie's birth. One of the curious achievements of Stamm's novel is that as Alex's actions grow more monstrous, and the ineluctability of his fate seems to confirm his own doubts as to just how free he (and we) really can ever be, he never disappears as a tangible character.
Fate in Seven Years unfolds with a momentum that's almost scriptural. Stamm underlines the Old Testament thrust when a member of Ivona's prayer group informs Alex of her pregnancy by alluding to the biblical story of Jacob. The seven years of Stamm's title refer not just to the fabled itch of infidelity but to the length of time Jacob must toil in order to wed his beloved Rachel, the subsequent way he is tricked into bedding her homely sister, Leah, and the further burden of seven years' labor before his marriage to Rachel (who, until divine intervention, remains barren).
There's no miracle in store to fix the sterility of the life Alex and Sonia have built. Still, Stamm seems almost to pity his characters' obliqueness. What is their alternative? Over drinks, Sonia and Alex's former roommate Birgit describes an erstwhile friend whose paranoia has led her to join a cloistered group of anti-Islamic neonationalists:
It's not the worst people who end up in sects. . . . It's the seekers, the ones who are missing something, and can't live without it anymore. Then they go and hang their hearts on some guru or some idea that's in the air just at that time. Something that gives them security. A relationship can give you just as much security, said Sonia. Money gives you security, said Birgit. I said I hoped to be able to endure insecurity. Birgit laughed. If you expect a certain standard of living, there's only the appearance of freedom for you, anyway. . . . The only alternative is sainthood.
Saints are rare birds of absolute devotion, and in the dumbly obedient yet somehow pure Ivona, Stamm has conjured a sort of modern-day equivalent. "Strange as it may seem," Alex tells Antje, "the only one of us not to have compromised at all is Ivona. She's the only one who knew what she wanted from the get-go, and who followed her path to the end. Didn't exactly make her happy, did it?, said Antje. Who can tell, I said." Stamm based Seven Years loosely on an early play by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, in which the pathetic title character catches the eye of a prince. "From the start the prince cannot stand her, she irritates him too much," Gombrowicz later summarized this fairy-tale-like work for the stage, "but at the same time he cannot bear to see himself obliged to hate the wretched Ivona. He suddenly rebels against those laws of nature which order young men only to love seductive girls." Gombrowicz pared Ivona's lines from a meager twenty-five in the original 1935 play to an emaciated seven in later productions, but even with such a radically muted voice, her banal presence motors the drama, and she isn't to be dismissed. "She isn't stupid," Gombrowicz once commented, "she's in a stupid situation." Stamm might say the same about his trio of unfortunates, and in his telling of their desperate stories, it's his achievement that we might concur.
Eric Banks is a New York–based writer and former editor of Bookforum.