Peter Stamm: “Sweet Dreams”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Peter Stamm’s “Sweet Dreams” (tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann) was originally published in the May 14, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

I’ve had my eye on Peter Stamm for a while now because one of the best translators working today, Michael Hofmann (son of Gert Hofmann, whose work I’ve loved — see here), has been steadily translating Stamm’s work over the years.  It’s one of those things: If Hofmann finds it worth translating it must be worth reading.  Still, I haven’t taken the dive.  After reading this exceptional story, I must rectify that.

On the surface, this is a simple story.  Two young people have left their homes and their parents to make a life with each other, starting out in a shabby apartment above a restaurant along the train tracks.  Lara is twenty-one and Simon is twenty-four.  They’ve been living together for four months.  It’s a beautiful time.  Though Lara finishes work well before Simon, she still waits for him so they can take the bus home together.  That’s where this story begins, a bus ride home.

Stamm expresses this time of happiness incredibly well.  This young couple is independent for the first time, and the strangest, most mundane things have a deep significance as they start their life together:

“Do we need milk?” “You know, the coffee’s almost gone.” “We’re out of garbage bags.” Sentences like that had an unexpected charm, and a full shopping cart was like an emblem of the fulfilled life that lay before them.  When Simon wheeled it into the underground parking garage, with Lara at his side, she felt a deep pride and a curious satisfaction at being so grown up and independent.

But this portrait of a new life is rendered even better since Stamm allows doubt and insecurity to lurk just below the surface.  It’s constant and yet not unbearable.  In other words, unlike many stories of this type, Stamm is not leading the reader to assume this is the beginning of the end for this couple.  They are happy and insecure, a bit anxious, just like most of us would be in this situation.

Even without any additional elements, I’d still think this was one of the best stories of the year.  However, Stamm introduces something new.  At the beginning of the story, on the bus ride, Lara notices a mysterious man in a black coat.  He gets off the bus, and a few times in the rest of the story she swears she sees him.  Finally, she flips on the television and there he is, giving an interview.  It turns out he is a writer, and he is discussing how on the bus earlier that day he saw a young couple he would like to write about.  Now, it’s not what we might expect: Stamm may or may not be that writer, but that’s not the point.  The writer speaks about the time in his own life when he was first with a woman with whom he wanted to start a family, before something got in the way: “But I’ve never felt so sure of anything as I did then, before I really knew the first thing about living.”

9 thoughts on “Peter Stamm: “Sweet Dreams””

  1. leroyhunter says:

    Stamm seems to be popping up everywhere I look these days. I bought On A Day Like This after being recommended it by Caroline on her Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat blog. And just last week The Guardian reviewed another of his (very favourably as well).

    Like you the fact that Hofmann is involved in the translations makes these books a high priority.

  2. Aaron says:

    Trevor, I absolutely loved the story up until that final “twist” with the writer. Like you, I singled out that “unexpected charm” line and was totally vibing on the almost precariously pretty way in which Stamm described this new, young love. (More here: http://bit.ly/K2vHPa) I particularly liked that Lara doesn’t flip out on Simon when she sees him talking with Danica in the bar downstairs; likewise, that Simon doesn’t go nuts when he realizes that Lara’s left the stove on. I think it’s clever, the objects that they keep buying to build a life together, and how this latest one, the girl-shaped corkscrew, leads them to drink an unsatisfying wine that, nonetheless, leads to some seemingly satisfying sex, with Lara at last growing out of her childish shyness around him. Everything flows beautifully and is fully supported by the moments of introspection we’re given from Lara.

    However, to emphasize at the end the fictitious nature of Lara and Simon, to need to use an outside writer to remind us of their Everyyoungcouple-ness and then to end the story by literally pointing out that this is just a sweet dream, that in reality, the people who inspired this story are an admixture of young friends on a bus and the author’s own memories of a more confident youth . . . I just don’t see how that in any way aids the telling of this story; moreover, I don’t see how that doesn’t TAKE AWAY from the overall narrative.

  3. Trevor says:

    I see your point, Aaron, and because I haven’t quite convinced myself of its value have been trying to understand that last twist a bit better. I think I’m getting there and am still of the mindset that it isn’t a metafictional gimmick and that the story is stronger because of it.

    I don’t think it is there just to emphasize that this is fiction about something universal; after all, as Stamm says in his interview, Lara is given the last word, not the writer. When the story cuts to the interview, it doesn’t abandon Lara, leaving her behind in fiction; she’s watching the interview, and the interview cuts back to her, making the writer a potential figment of the imagination. I’m not 100% sure what that says, but I’m currently reading a book that plays a lot with perception of identity within certain contexts and I felt this story, about a young couple shaping an uncertain identity as a couple and as individuals within that couple, fit in with that and that the writer underlined that because he introduces uncertainty and is himself an uncertain element. I could be incorporating my own madness into this, of course.

    I do agree with you that the story doesn’t need this and would have stood well without it, but I like the playfulness and I like play with perception.

  4. jerry says:

    I had never heard of the author but I did like the story. I could have done without the insertion of the author part myself and agree with Aaron that it weakens things.

  5. Roger says:

    I thought the ending was effectively ironic, in that throughout the story, Lara and Simon seemed so palpably real, so particularized — and then the ironic reversal kicks in at the end. That irony seemed like this to me: however specific and tangible a given life experience is, there is a universal, even (shudder) generic quality to that experience. The “universal” aspect could be considered uplifting; the “generic” aspect, though, is something of a downer, to the point where the distinction between real people and imaginary characters turns out to be not much. The reader at the end is left to his own feelings and thoughts about this. To me, the gloomy generic aspect came across more strongly….

  6. Trevor says:

    Great points, Roger. In fact, one could argue that this story, were it not for that ending, would have ammounted to much the same as any number of similar stories about young and uncertain love. Of course, I’d take it.

    Another thing I like is that Stamm seems to suggest the “universal” can also be seen as “generic” while the writer is speaking, but when Lara comes back on, it becomes particularized again — the detractor himself is more or less generic and somewhat meaningless.

  7. Madwomanintheattic says:

    I think the writer’s appearance at the end of the story makes the story into a circuit that repeats itself and deepens on each return, like Lara’s memory of colors in faded photographs. Young lovers start out the same way always – they have to begin, and the ending can be the continuation Lara doubts/wants or the ending the writer has experienced. The circle goes around and around, there are moments of glorious intimacy and moments of separateness. This story works on a literal level as a narrative as well as a wise and gentle commentary on uncertainties. I liked it a lot.

  8. Ken says:

    I agree with Aaron about the story. I actually was o.k. with having the man on the business appear on t.v. but I could’ve lived without the very last line of the story which seemed to be Stamm (not the fictious writer who also could be Stamm or a Stamm surrogate) speaking not Lara as Trevor stated. To be reminded that the whole story we read was a fiction seems rather unneccesarily tricksy. I did, though, really like the rest of it. I felt that this was actually a short-story doing what a short-story can do and not trying to do more, not an excerpt from a novel and also not too small, too slight. The description of Lara’s orgasm struck me as perfect writing/translation.

  9. Ken says:

    I meant “man on the bus” not “business”

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