Book review: We’re Flying by Peter Stamm

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IN A month’s time, acclaimed Swiss writer Peter Stamm will find out whether or not he has won the £60,000 Man Booker International Prize or has to content himself with merely being shortlisted as one of the world’s ten best writers.

We’re Flying by Peter Stamm

Granta, 384pp £14.99

In the meanwhile, Granta has published this collection of his short stories, translated with his usual clarity by Michael Hofmann.

Although Stamm is now resident in the US teaching in Florida, this collection very much identifies him as European writer, and almost all of his stories are set on the Continent.

It is presented in two sections, with no no obvious explanation as to why. Regardless, Stamm introduces us to a wide range of characters, mainly in the third person, and his sure handling of situations and characters allows him to move effortlessly between the divisions of gender, age and class.

Stamm’s literary style is sparsely minimalist. Collectively, they are uncompromisingly bleak, but his sharp observation and ability to engage the reader so immediately with his characters make his prose very readable.

For example in “Men and Boys”, Lucas makes a solitary visit to an outdoor public swimming pool, now closed for the season. He is alone in a not entirely welcoming environment, but this is no random visit, he is there for a reason, searching for a connection with a moment in the past summer: “Down by the river he lay down in the short-cut grass and watched the dirty brown water flowing past. The grass was wet and cold. Everything was clear and shallow. It was a mixture of happiness and unhappiness. It was happiness that felt like unhappiness.” In the space of just five short sentences, Stamm has conjured up a powerful picture of teenage angst and unrequited love.

In “The Natural way of Things”, Nicklaus and Alice, a prosperous, comfortable, childless couple seem to be drifting effortlessly apart, when their relationship is thrown into sharp relief by a holiday tragedy. Will they seize the opportunity to explore the reawakening this experience offers, or is this just a momentary hiatus on their inevitable drifting apart?

“Summer Folk” takes us high into the Alps, where a writer spends ten days in an isolated hotel staffed by a singularly unhelpful caretaker.

Lonely, empty corridors contain echoes of Stephen King’s The Shining, but although the ending is considerable less gory, we’re left none the wiser as to the identity of the enigmatic Ana, who seems to have appeared from nowhere and disappeared in an equally baffling manner.

“The Three Sisters” is the name of the mountain range Heidi sees from her apartment window, and as the story unfolds we revisit the moment in her life where she abandons the chance to study art and finds herself trapped in motherhood and a relationship increasingly at odds with her sexuality.

The title assumes a new significance as the reader is invited to imagine the conclusion of the story as a beginning rather than an end for Heidi – an iconic Swiss figure whose complexities Stamm clearly delights in exploring, doing so in a way that is typical of the collection as a whole in the way it raises more questions than it is prepared to answer, leaving a trailing vapour of wondering long after the book has been put back on the shelf.