"Sweet Dreams" by Peter Stamm translated from the German by Michael Hofmann Originally published in the May 14, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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.”