Only two phrases on the cover of Peter Stamm’s novel The Sweet Indifference of the World can be read as one might expect to read them. These are: “A Novel,” and “translated by Michael Hofmann.” Everything else is mirror writing. The six words that make up the title and the name of its author consist of backwards letters pieced together, running right to left across the page. Reading them requires un-tricking thought and re-processing vision. As a result, the forwards letters stand out in their legibility, calling attention to the name of the translator and to the product of his work. It is fitting then that the plot of The Sweet Indifference is driven by the menaces of imitation, transposition, and of being written over. To read the novel by means of Michael Hofmann’s translation is to carry each of these threats to completion, just by taking in the English text. One can imagine translation and its kin mirrors as the creative forces behind every level of authorship and consumption of the work, both fictional and metafictional.
When the unnamed narrator, an aged writer whose first book earned him a certain degree of fame, encounters a man who is the spitting image of himself, he becomes obsessed with what he’s convinced is not just his doppelgänger, but a younger version of himself. As the narrator understands it, this other man, who turns out to be named Chris, is retracing the narrator’s steps, replicating his mannerisms, habits, acquaintances, and paths through the city, but completely unintentionally, without any awareness that this older, leering man (and potentially ur-self) is following him. The sequence of events, their causation and correlation, only becomes clear much later, once the narrator has told his story. This begins when he comes across a woman, Lena, who is identical to his ex-girlfriend and writes her a note soliciting a conversation. Surprisingly, she decides to show up in the graveyard he specifies, and the man begins to talk: “I am a writer, I said, or rather I used to be a writer. I published a book fifteen years ago. My boyfriend’s a writer, she said, or hopes to be. I know, I said, that’s why I want to tell you my story” (7).
Stamm, of course, is a writer too. This is his fourteenth novel, published after accumulating an arsenal of recognition, including the prestigious Friedrich Hölderlin Prize. Perhaps something of the author’s success has gotten to the head of the aged narrator of The Sweet Indifference, whose self-effacing sentimentality verges on the pathetic. Stamm’s “I” is obsessed with the way he sees himself in time’s passing, as he gazes back at his imperfect career as a writer and a lover. Yet this “I” is also the one recounting and recording, in what rotates between the distant and immediate past, the events that come to make up this novel. While the narrator manages to articulate the futility of his pursuit of the past by means of the written word, he is obviously aware that those very words will go on to become another serious and widely-read book. It’s as if he’s complaining of impotence while flouting his virility.
At the same time, the writing is bearable, because Stamm’s narrator manages to convey both self-respect and self-effacement. Michael Hofmann deftly matches this fraying nostalgia; he makes it feel real by filling out the first-person voice with a lexicon that takes wistful pleasure in its occasionally archaic self. “It wasn’t just that I had no ideas” (17), writes the narrator after describing the events which followed the success of his first novel. “My language was stale,” he continues, “maybe because writing wasn’t a necessity for me, just an obligation” (17). Like Stamm’s prose, Hofmann’s translation never quite seeps into cloying; it’s aware of its imperfections and of its skill. Clauses are short and sparse, but their structures are unconventional, calculated, and perfectly paced.
Both Stamm and Hofmann have earned the right to be self-congratulatory — The Sweet Indifference is virtuosic. Stamm’s premise is impossible — it’s time travel and conspiracy theory. But by positioning Lena, the woman he meets in the graveyard, as the twin listener and accomplice of the primary storyteller, Stamm builds opportunities for the reader to believe they are slipping into truth. As he gaslights Lena in their conversation, he mimics this manipulation in the structure of its retelling as a novel. The book is entirely without quotation marks, relying on Lena’s interjections of details of her own life to fill out the far-fetched narrative. Michael Hofmann’s English manages to allow the voices to weave together, letting the narrator’s account assume the guise of a multi-vocal “I,” without letting the reader forget that this first person is always under the firm control of the man who writes it down.
This narrative “I” becomes more and more transient, wandering like the storytellers as they leave the graveyard and begin to meander through the city. But Hofmann’s attention to German case endings holds the narration in place with its careful use of English pronouns, especially in the constant refrain of “I said” and “she said.” When Lena and the narrator find themselves in a library, she confronts him about his theory, in a conversation that could just as well be an internal dialogue, were it not for the minute variations in pacing and sentence structure which Hofmann uses to distinguish between voices. The narrator’s curt replies, and Lena’s flowery imaginings, fit the story together and take it apart at the same time:
Didn’t it ever occur to you that it might all be your imagination? I’ve long since stopped asking myself that, I said. I don’t think I’m crazy, but if I were, how would I know it? I do what I have to do. I’d like to believe you, she said. I don’t want to know what the future has in store for me, but I like the idea that it’s already written down, and that everything that happens to me has happened to someone else and fits in a pattern and makes sense. As though my life were a story. (93)
The eerie fact is that Lena’s life has become a story; at this point, her words are the narrator’s. No matter the reality of his claims, her ideas and sentences now populate the artistic creation of another, making real the theory of the double that prompted their interactions in the first place. Lena the interlocutor becomes duplicated in the pages of the narrator’s own life. Stamm’s double “I” thereby becomes torn apart between creative desire and fear of predestination, as he watches his characters play out how writing can take agency away from both its creator and its subjects.
Is the act of writing always at risk of imitation? Or does writing without a muse to imitate turn that artificial world into a mandate to render it real? These are the questions that plague the narrator, as he considers his place in a world that for him, seems to be propelled entirely by his literary output. Describing his creative process, he writes:
I had intended to write the exact same book again, but while I was working on it, it turned imperceptibly into a different one. I groped forward through a world that created itself before my eyes, found different routes, and had my characters say and do different things, and situations that had originally seemed intractable to me suddenly seemed to offer ways out of them. (88)
To escape a world by means of rewriting, to use imitation as a form of creation, and to find refuge in the minuscule details where stories differentiate each other is an act of translation in and of itself. Reading the cover of The Sweet Indifference of the World again, this time holding it up to the mirror, the inverted language flips into anew, turning over the double world the book has now delivered.
Stamm, Peter. The Sweet Indifference of the World. Translated by Michael Hofmann. Other Press, 2020.
Elizabeth Yearsley is a translator, museum educator, and aspiring scientist from Ithaca, NY