Peter Stamm: Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt (The Sweet Indifference of the World)
Our narrator is Chris, a one-time writer. He had always wanted to write but his books were ambitious projects full of deep wisdom and literary allusions, that no one wanted to read, much less publish. It is while he is working on a novel, relaxing at at rural Swiss retreat, that he first sees Magdalena. She is with a group of people, who turn out to be actors, and author and director. The director has brought them to the retreat to bond and to get to know one another. It is clear that some of the men are attracted to her. Chris sits at the same table every day to write. One morning she is sitting at the table, writing her diary. She has not gone off with the others. She invites him to join her. They chat and then she asks him to join her on hike. They head off for what turns out to be a long hike, to a beautiful lake and up a mountain. That evening, when she was with the group, she barely acknowledges him, The next day the group leaves.
A couple of months later, he sees her name on a theatre board for a production of Miss Julie. She is acting in a play, which he attends. Afterwards he goes to meet her and she asks him to walk her home, quite a long distance. He does this for several nights. One day he gets a phone call from her. She is sick in bed and wants him to come to her, the first time he has been in her flat. They end up in bed together and, gradually, move in together.
His writing career is not progressing till he sees an ad looking for TV scriptwriters. He applies and takes up TV scriptwriting. It is fairly lucrative and he can write parts for Magdalena. She is happy with their well-to-do middle class life. He is not. He wants to be a real writer and not writing popular entertainment for the masses. He tries writing novels but cannot. Magdalena suggests he writes about their story but he says there is nothing much to say. Nevertheless, unknown to her, he does start writing a novel based on their lives. The TV company sends him off to Stockholm on a course for scriptwriting, carried out by a US scriptwriter. She comes with him, wandering around Stockholm, while he is at the course. He hates the course with a passion.
However, they have a row and he stays out all night, sleeping in the flat with a woman he meets in the library, though he does not have sex with her. Magdalena is furious and they have another row. He moves out of the hotel. They see each other at the airport but never again.
He writes the book, ending with Magdalena leaving. It is a huge success. He gets awards and grants and is able to live off the proceeds for a few years. However, he is unable to write another novel. He tries and fails. Some time he is invited to give a reading at a bookshop in his home town. He gets back late to the hotel and rings the bell for the night porter. The night porter is, as he says, him. In other words, the night porter looks just like him. Indeed, Chris had worked as night porter at the same hotel when he was younger. However, though he sees his younger self, the night porter does not sees his older self in Chris.
By various circuitous ways, he sees and the follows this man (who is also called Chris). Chris 2 goes to the same university, frequents the same places and is very similar to Chris 1 in many ways. Chris 1 is becoming obsessed but is also running out of money. He gets a job teaching German in Barcelona. He is there for many years. One day, while walking in the streets, he sees Chris 2. He follows him and then accosts him and tells him the whole story. Chris looks him up on his phone and can find no record of the book, either in online bookshops or libraries. Nor can he find any mention of Magdalena. Chris 1 recounts an incident in his life with Magdalena and Chris 2 recognises it from a film Chris 1 is so annoyed, he walks away, quits his job and returns home, getting a job supply teaching.
But this is only part of the story. Eventually, he will get back to Stockholm, where he sees an advert for a production of Miss Julie by a Swiss company, and one of the actresses is called Magdalena. He leaves a note for her asking to meet her. He says that he has a story to tell her. She comes to the meeting and he tells her the story I have just recounted. The book, in fact, mixes in his backstory, her story and the story of the two. To make life easier, though they are both called Magdalena and are known as Lena, Magdalena 1 is called Magdalena and Magdalena 2 is called simply Lena.
What soon becomes apparent is how much their stories coincide. She is acting in Miss Julie. She has a boyfriend called Chris who is writing a novel about his Magdalena. Both couples are physically similar. She asked if I saw anything of my Magdalena in her. Everything, I said. Many of the incidents in the life of Chris 1 and Magdalena 1 are mirrored in the life of the younger Magdalena and Chris. Both women state they feel somewhat alienated from their Chris, not least because he is so focussed on his novel. These incidents are gradually revealed, though Magdalena 2 is keen to point out the differences.
So is it coincidence, imagined, planned or just nonsense? Stamm throws in a twist at the end which questions what we might have thought was the answer.
There is no doubt that it is all very clever as the two stories intertwine and overlap. For the two main individuals in this story – Chris 1 and Magdalena 2 – it is somewhat disconcerting to find that for Chris his story is being relived and for Magdalena it has already been lived. Stamm often deliberately tries to confuse us, jumping from story 1 to story 2 but, of course, that is the point.
At least one of the points is that is it worth sacrificing romantic happiness for artistic success or, at least, an attempt at artistic success? Chris 1 certainly misses his Magdalena but deliberately does not attempt to find her, though he/we later learn what happened to her. Magdalena 2 certainly has her doubts. Stamm raises the question but does not answer it.
However, the doppelgänger theme is not unknown in literature but Stamm clearly adds a new and interesting twist to it.
First published in 2018 by Fischer
First published in English in 2020 by Other Press
Translated by Michael Hofmann