January 26, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 13°C
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Fiction

The Unknown Quantity

Hermann Broch's novel of the life and times of a 1920s mathematician is sadly overlooked.

Can't and Won't

Lydia Davis has a problem: she can't not display her ingenious bravura.

Open City

What's most impressive about Teju Cole's debut is its modulated darkness.

Never Love a Gambler

Irish writer Keith Ridgway is beautifully uncompromising in his pitch-perfect thug chronicles.

Scenes From Village Life

Amos Oz's interlocking stories are parables for a brilliant, haunted nation.

The Third Policeman

Irishman Flan O'Brien managed to introduce Disney to Swift in a comic vision of death.

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner's 2011 debut set a fine tone for postmodern irony, but it grows repetitive.

The Underground Man

Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer endures as a detective ahead of his time.

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's brilliant stories eviscerate families seeking Communist-era roofs.

Nonfiction

The Book of My Lives

Aleksandar Hemon's poignant memoir falters when family tragedy becomes its focus.




BOOK REVIEW
All Days Are Night
By Peter Stamm, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
Other Press, 2014. 182 pages

The carpentry of Swiss novelist Peter Stamm turns out characters of average identity and middle class solidity whose desire to acquire essence — substance in the eyes of the self — remains in doubt despite life wakeup calls. Here, successful TV host (but failed actress) Gillian is vacantly married to Mattias. But the union is instantly mooted — a car crash kills Mattias and leaves Gillian disfigured. Her camera-ready looks vanish ("She saw eyes, eyebrows, mouth, but they formed no whole.") Faceless, at least for a time, she's a perfectly damaged Stamm orphan, an anatomically humiliated 35-year-old woman who even before the accident disliked herself her mirror image, "as if her face could already sense its destruction ahead," and who afterwards sees life — "so easy to destroy with a moment's inattention, a false move…" — as the sum of its absences.

Her mangled story is soon joined with that of Hubert, a quirky photographer and painter who TV Gillian once interviewed, and even tried to seduce. Nearly a decade after Gillian's accident and with Hubert facing his own woes, the two wounded wanderers are unexpectedly reunited at resort hotel where Gillian now works and separated, crisis-stricken Hubert arrives to give a show. Their awkward ties are revived, if not made hopeful, with love in sight, or if not love at least personal transformation. But the gulf between what seems possible and what will be never narrows to a stream in Stamm's shaky world. To Gillian-turned-Jill, now well into her 40s, Hubert's kisses seem "far away and attainable." The "different world" into which they dive is exciting at first, but not necessarily better.

"All relationships end badly," Stamm told an interviewer once, and the remark is its own philosophy. Love is a temporary garment that rarely fits well. If there isn't breaking apart, there's death. While Jill and Hubert are both scripted to see the light, the light they do see is muted indeed, because "presence" in the world — in keeping with Stamm's Ernst Bloch epigram — is rarely accomplish in full. Few craft and navigate tight spaces as well as Stamm. His is a literature of miniature houses in which the residents maneuver among the rooms.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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