Peter Stamm: “Sweet Dreams”

05/09/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 14, 2012. (Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.)

Apropos of nothing comes Stamm’s lovely dream of a story, which spends six or so pages establishing the firm yet forever tenuous reality of Lara, a bank employee, and Simon, who hiply works electronics and music in a hi-fi store: young lovers who have been living for four months in a fixer-upper apartment in a run-down neighborhood, slowly building a life for one another by buying random new objects, discovering an appreciation for the “unexpected charm” of conjoined life (“a full shopping cart was like an emblem of the fulfilled life that lay before them”) and a deep pride in this parent-free independence. They’re grown-ups at last — well, at least in their eyes — even if Lara is still a bit shy about sex, only now getting used to the fact that they don’t have to be wary of making too much noise, or mortified by the thought of a parent walking in on them. On Lara’s mind, at least, is the thought that this might all vanish one day: the story opens with her remembering childhood photographs of a lost family that is only half-remembered now: “The colors were faded, which made them somehow more garish. It was as though the photographs had captured the sun, the sun of childhood, pale and ever-present. Thereafter the family had fallen apart, and people had gone their separate ways.” You might say she’s actively in the process of clinging to that sun, and you can see this reflected in the nervousness she feels around strange men or potentially meddlesome women — like their young Serbian neighbor, Danica — that might interfere with the perfect little life she’s carving out of nothingness. The story is a blend of introspective insecurities and external manifestations of them, shown in charming little quirks.

Lara remembered what Simon had said: “Forever is along time.” Presumably, the towels would outlast their relationship, she thought, and that gave her a shock. She loved Simon, and he loved her, but was there any guarantee that he would still love her in five or ten years’ time? Her notions of the future were both very precise and very vague.

All this is plainly, superbly written. I buy these characters in an instant. Which is what makes Stamm’s ending so frustrating: he throws back the curtain and emphasizes that these characters are mere fictions. Throughout the story, Lara keeps coming back to the familiar face of a stranger she made eye contact with on the bus; now, in the middle of the night, with Simon asleep after a crucially un-prudish bit of sex (“She rode him until she could no longer feel the burning in her knees, and sensed the blood rushing to her face”), she watches television and sees the man — who is a writer — giving an interview. In this interview, he describes making eye contact with Lara from his perspective, noting that Lara and Simon had reminded him “terribly earnestly” of his own youth, and proceeds to describe the “blissful but slightly anxious moment of starting out.” He’s describing, of course, the story we’ve just read, and in the next beat he notes that in reality, the people who inspired Lara and Simon weren’t actually a couple at all — they got off at different stops. And while it’s unclear in the final sentences if that transforms the Lara that is still the focal point of this story, it’s painfully obvious of empty of a shell “Lara” now is, and the story goes on to end as follows: “For a month, the channel would keep replaying this conversation with him, in an endless loop, until he himself had become just as imaginary a figure as Lara or Simon.” I want to say that this reminds me a bit of the fake-outs you’d find in classic German literature, say the constant unease and distrust of reality found in E. T. A. Hoffman, but I don’t really know it all that well; I can speak only to the effect Stamm’s writing has here, which needlessly pulls us out of the story. Must we be woken up from the dream in order to realize that it’s a dream? Must the awakening be so rude?

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