Reviewed by Daniel Kennedy
Although Agnes is the sixth of Peter Stamm’s books to be published in the US by Other Press in Michael Hofmann’s translation, it is in fact his debut novel. With this slim volume, first published in 1998, Peter Stamm established himself as one of the most promising Swiss writers of his generation. The recent reissue of Michael Hofmann’s translation, originally published by Bloomsbury in the UK is as good a starting point as any for American readers not yet acquainted with Stamm’s writing.
Agnes is dead. Killed by a story. All that’s left of her now is this story.
Agnes ist tot. Eine Geschichte hat sie getötet. Nichts ist mir von ihr geblieben als diese Geschichte.
These short opening lines let us know exactly what we are getting ourselves into. Agnes is not so much a novel about a woman as a novel about the story of a woman. The narrator, who remains nameless and entirely nondescript throughout, meets a young woman, Agnes, in the Chicago Public Library. We gradually discover that he is a solitary, presumably middle-aged, swiss man, who seems to make a comfortable living writing uninteresting books about the history of cigarettes, bicycles, and luxury trains. They soon form a relationship, which takes a strange turn when Agnes—upon finding out that he once aspired to be a fiction writer—asks her lover to write down the story of how they met. Before long they become acutely aware of how different their perceptions and memories of events are, and the disconnect between their respective experiences becomes the main focus of narrative tension throughout the book. We quickly become aware that the narrator is not to be trusted, that his version of events does not generally match up with that of Agnes. He is neither especially perceptive, nor a skilled reader of another person’s psyche:
In my head, our relationship was already much further advanced than it was in reality. I was already wondering about her, beginning to have my doubts, though we hadn’t even been out together.
It isn’t long before the narrator’s story catches up with the present, yet he continues to write. He begins to fantasize about future events, inventing scenarios and dialogue for Agnes’s amusement:
“You’ll be wearing your navy-blue dress,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she asked in amazement.
“I’ve overtaken the present,” I said. “I know the future.”
To his surprise though, Agnes plays along and starts following the script, transforming his words into actions and submitting herself to his every whim. The narrator now finds himself in a position of considerable power: with a few strokes of the keyboard—on his 90s-era desktop PC—he can control the actions of this young woman: he can decide what she’ll do, what she’ll wear, what she’ll say, and even what she’s supposed to be thinking.
Michael Hofmann’s translation is characteristically excellent. He succeeds in rendering the mood and atmosphere of the original with apparent ease, simultaneously hewing closely to Stamm’s sparse, crisp German, yet always ready with a judicious paraphrase where necessary. The fact that the novel is set in the United States, yet originally written for a German-speaking audience, presents the need for some interesting tweaks: the overly generic “hochbebirge literally “high mountains” of the original, becomes the more specific “rockies” in the translation, where vagueness would stand out too much to the American reader. On other occasions, Hofmann is careful not to dilute the foreignness of the narrator’s eye: “Every year, the university stages a big parade on Halloween, which is the last night of October.” An Anglophone reader does not need to be told when Halloween falls (information the Swiss reader might have appreciated twenty years ago) but by removing this detail, we would have lost some sense of the Narrator’s outsider status.
One of the devices Stamm uses, to great effect, to highlight the gulf between the two characters is the dialogue, which often seems more like a pair of interlocking monologues than a conversation. At times, the mood is stiflingly bleak as the lovers talk over each other’s heads in a series of staccato non-sequiturs.
“I could almost be your father,” I said.
“Yes, but you’re not.”
[. . . ]
“Do you believe in life after death?”
“No,” I said, “it would make everything somehow. . . meaningless. If life went on afterward.”
Structurally the novel is well put together. It has the meticulous arrangement and balance of a novella, where everything has a place and where nothing is included without reason. The plot is well-paced and compelling, managing to be both satisfying and open to multiple layers of interpretation (readable yet dense, it is no surprise that the book has become a perennial favorite on the German school syllabus).
If the novel has a flaw, it is that the flat, humorless voice of the narrator runs the risk of grating on the reader’s nerves; whatever life the character of Agnes possesses must be pieced together by reading between the lines—there is a nagging feeling that there must be more going on with her than meets the eye, but these echoes are faint once they have been filtered through the words of the narrator. Secondary characters act as little more than plot devices, leaving the unpleasant feeling of visiting a world populated by unconvincing approximations of humans.
At its core, Agnes is about human isolation and the inevitability of being alone. Stamm would have us believe that, like his narrator, we are all trapped in worlds of our own making, our memories are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves, and we barely even notice when we step over the line between truth and self-deception. Short enough to be consumed during a single train journey, or one lonely evening in a hotel room, Agnes is well-suited for readers tempted to submit themselves, for just a few hours, into the hands of an able storyteller. A feel-bad page-turner that will linger in the back of your mind like a half-remembered dream.
Stamm, Peter. Agnes. Tr. Michael Hofmann. New York: Other Press, 2016.