Peter Stamm: Das Archiv der Gefühle (The Archive of Feelings)
Our unnamed narrator, as the title implies, was an archivist. With the advent of the Internet, his employer, a newspaper, decided they no longer needed an archive of printed matter and made him redundant. He seems to be comfortably off, with a large house inherited from his late mother and no family to support. He has never married and while he has had long-term relationships, they have never worked out There is one conspicuous exception, as we shall see.
He was reluctant to let go of his archive, which had been his life’s work so he persuaded his now former employer to let him have the archive. They hesitated but finally relented, subject to certain conditions. He strengthened the floor of the basement in his house and moved the archive in. He continued to add to the archive, clipping articles from magazines and newspapers. We get examples of the sort of articles he clips and archives but also how he keeps rethinking what subjects might be included, based on his life wandering round the area where he lives. Indeed, during the course of the book, he will remove some subjects (e.g. political ones) which would have been important for the newspaper but less so for him, and added ones that the newspaper would never have considered (The smell of sleep, for example).
He lives an entirely solitary life, having virtually no contact with anyone. Even in the shop where he does most of his shopping, he seems to maintain only a very formal relationship with the staff.
But, as mentioned above there is someone else in his life – Franziska. they met at school and became friends. After the ninth year end-of-year party, he plucked up the courage to ask her something he had been planning to ask her for some time: I love you. May I kiss you?. Her response disappointed him: All right, you can kiss me, but I’m not in love with you.. They remain friends even though their lives take different paths. He goes to university to study history while she trains to become a psychiatric nurse.
Franziska has a lovely singing voice and gradually starts a career as a professional singer. He drives her around to various gigs and helps set up the basic equipment. On one occasion, at a remote hotel, they sleep together but it is just sleep – no sex.
Gradually her career is taking off and he realises their relationship is going nowhere, so he heads off to Paris for further studies. They remain in touch but it is clear that their relationship is going nowhere. He has a desultory affair with a Swiss woman in Paris. She left Paris. When the train pulled out, she waved until I could no longer see her. That was the last time I was in Paris.
He initially keeps in touch with Franziska but not much. He follows her career and has a large file in his archive about her. She is now known professionally as Fabienne. He is the only one who still calls her Franziska. Even her mother calls her Fabienne. But gradually, all contact is lost and, by the time the books starts it is some thirty years since he last saw her. He knows about her career and her love life, all publicised in his newspaper.
He may not see her but, during the book, he has a host of imaginary conversations with her. He reproaches himself: Maybe I was too afraid of losing Franziska for me to seriously try winning her. When he starts dismantling the archive, he keeps the archive on Franziska/Fabienne.
But gradually, in his solitary life, he realises that there is only thing he wants. It is not the archive, it is Franziska. He has always loved her, always will. Through a former colleague, he obtains her email address and writes to her. His first attempt is
I don’t know if you remember me. A long time ago, we were school friends, and maybe a little more than that.
He changes that but will she get it and will she respond?
While our narrator can, at times be infuriating, in that he is somewhat indecisive, particularly as regards Franziska, while also being somewhat obsessive, such as with his archive. We all have our faults and he has his. He is understandably reluctant to declare his love for her, having been rejected as a child, feeling, if he did, he would lose her altogether. But that, essentially, is what has happened as, by the beginning of the book, he has not seen her for thirty years but continues to have imaginary conversations with her and clearly still loves her and only her. But writing to her, albeit by email, may get a positive response but could end up with a negative response or simply no response, thereby taking away all his hope. Stamm tells his story very well and we really get to know his troubled narrator.
First published in 2021 by Fischer
First published in English in 2023 by Other Press
Translated by Michael Hofmann