Country Focus: Switzerland (Schweiz in German, Suisse in French, Svizzera in Italian, Svizra in Romansch )
By Peter Stamm
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Originally published in German as Seiben Jahre by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, 2009.
My edition: Other Press, 2010.
Time period: late 1980s – 2010s
Alexander, his beautiful wife Sonia and their daughter Sophie have just attended a gallery opening for their old friend, Antje. When Antje and Alexander are alone, Antje recalls Sonia introducing him to her twenty years prior. Antje then questions Alexander about the other woman he had been seeing at the time.
“Ivona,” Alexander says, and launches into the past. He and his friends were hanging out at a beer garden. An unattractive woman their age stares at them the whole time. In a burst of frat boy prankishness, one of his friends invites her to their table. She’s named Ivona and she is a Polish immigrant. She either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that the guys are mocking her.
Alexander immediately dislikes her bovine demeanor and appearance. However, after a few too many beers and a several hours of Ivona’s silent but unquestionable adoration, Alexander walks her back to her apartment. She allows him to grope and kiss her. The following morning Alexander tells Ivona that he’s outta there. In response, Ivona whispers that she loves him. He leaves with mixed emotions. He’s embarrassed by the ugliness of his beer goggling conquest, yet also giddy with the thought of the woman’s submissiveness.
He returns to her many times, but keeps their trysts more or less secret. Such a vacant and uncultured person doesn’t fit into his world. Handsome Alexander has just passed his architecture exams and belongs to a clique full of wealthy, highbrow fellow graduates with promising futures. One of them, a gorgeous woman named Sonia, has just invited him to go on a trip to Marseilles. He accepts.
On their drive to Marseilles, Alexander and Sonia disagree about almost everything, including their common interest, architecture. But they look so good together and share the same career path…a perfect match, right? The two stay at a family friend of Sonia’s – the aforementioned Antje, who encourages a romance between the pair. They consummate their relationship before they leave, but keep an emotional distance.
Sonia and Alexander both begin begin busy internships, hers in Marseilles, his in Munich. Alexander falls back into his erotic relationship with Ivona until Sonia returns for the holidays. He and Sonia celebrate the season together but lack an intimate, personal connection. Their physical relationship vacillates between non-existent and perfunctory. Those aspects of their relationship are blown off as beside the point. What matters are the practicalities: Alexander digs Sonia’s design plans for the house on the lake that she dreams of building and Sonia likes that Alexander is a hardworking hottie. There’s the potential of starting an architectural firm together. Alexander asks her to marry him. Sonia accepts his proposal.
Antje interupts Alexander several times during his story to express her disapproval for how he has treated Ivona and her doubt that he has ever loved Sonia. She’s even further unsettled when Alexander tells her what happened when he and Sonia’s marriage hit the seven year mark. It’s then that Alexander’s actions reach the ultimate in reprehensibility and result in long term repercussions.
Author Peter Stamm’s probing look at desire, love, marriage and happiness is a well-constructed piece of psychological fiction. Stamm lays each of his main character’s faults bare: Alexander’s cruel detachment, Sonia’s workaholism and Ivona’s victimhood. Even Antje has a dark side. Her paintings depict half human/half animals engaged in behavior so disturbing that even Alexander is turned off by them. Ironically, his, Sonia’s and Ivona’s escapades epitomize Antje’s creepy canvases.
Readers with an architectural knowledge will pull even more meaning from Seven Years. I had to look up Le Corbusier, Sonia’s hero, and Aldo Rossi and Etienne-Louis Boullee, Alexander’s two muses. Sonia echoes Le Corbusier’s functionality in her plotted out life; Alexander mimics Rossi’s and Boullee’s theoretics in that he plays at relationships rather than building them.
Since there’s obviously not much intrinsic to Switzerland in this novel (unhappy and unfaithful relationships being a universal phenomenon), you may be wondering why I chose Seven Years. Here goes: 1) Stamm is one of the few Swiss writers who have been translated into English; 2) likewise, books about intimate relationships don’t seem to be frequently translated; and 3) I didn’t realize that the novel would take place Germany and France, not Switzerland.
I gave Seven Years four stars for Stamm’s superior craftmanship and penetrating look at relationships, but it rates a zero on my scale of Happy Reading Experiences. That’s all right. Some books are around to point out ugly truths, and at that Stamm definitely succeeds.
I said I had recently heard a sentence in a film that made sense to me: you are what you love, not who loves you. I need to think about that, said Antje, and she filled up her glass. After a while, she said the sentence sounded very Catholic to her. What did I mean by it? That Ivona’s happiness didn’t depend on me. Someone in love is always to be envied, whether his love is fulfilled or not. That’s stupid, said Antje. It would mean that an unfulfilled love is just as happy as a fulfilled one. That’s not how I meant it, I said, all I meant is that it’s worse not to love than not to be loved. It sounds as though you’re trying to get off the hook. Just the opposite, I said. My guilt has nothing to do with Ivona, just as her love has nothing to do with me. That’s all too theoretical for me, said Antje. The fact remains that you’ve taken advantage of her.