Form and Discontent
The marriage of two architects turns monstrous in a new Swiss novel
by Peter Stamm
translation by Michael Hofmann
$15.95 List Price
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