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Category Archive for 'Switzerland'

Swiss author Peter Stamm has made a career out of writing short novels in which characters who seem ordinary on the surface become more intriguing – and sometimes more self-aware – as they try to control change or learn to live with it. Some of his characters are damaged while others are simply out of tune with themselves – lacking self-awareness and often oblivious to what is happening around them. Most of these characters must learn to deal with relationships, especially those involving romance, and Stamm often uses dual points of view to convey two different opinions about a relationship and the characters involved in it. This novel is no exception, except in the nature of the couple which is the focus. Here the two main characters, Thomas and Astrid, are older than the characters in the earlier novels – in their thirties as the novel opens and in their sixties when it closes. At the outset, they have been married for a decade or so and have two young school-age children. Having just returned from a five-week family vacation in Spain, they are tired from all the traveling and the need to open up the house and get settled again. Suddenly Thomas, the father, disappears from home. The novel that results tells the story of his wandering and the story of his wife, who becomes the primary support of the family, as both learn who they really are.

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The cold and snow swirling across Lake Superior in the opening paragraph set the scene, the tone, and the atmosphere of the conclusion of this love story, which is presented in the opening chapter and told in flashbacks from that moment on. The unnamed narrator, a student researcher writing a book about luxury trains, also writes fiction in his spare time. Having come to Chicago from Switzerland to work on an advanced degree, he soon meets Agnes, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student in physics, working on her own dissertation. Like him, she uses the resources of the Chicago Public Library, and from the first time that she sits opposite him at the library, the narrator is drawn to her. Though Agnes is a plain woman, her eyes “had something unusual about them, an expressiveness [the narrator] hasn’t often seen.” Before long, they take cigarette breaks together and, later, go out for coffee, though Agnes admits that she is “not a very sociable person.” Still, it is April, spring-time – a time of promise and growth, and within a couple of weeks, the narrator and the innocent Agnes are spending nights together. As the novel develops, change and decay pervade the action, but it is the related question of how we perceive reality and the role of fiction as part of that reality which make the conclusion such a shock. It is one thing for the observant reader to become so involved in the story that s/he is horrified by the ending, and quite another for an author to write fiction with the idea of encouraging a particular outcome in real life.

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Gillian, a TV commentator and drama school graduate, has just begun to regain consciousness in the hospital following an accident which has killed her husband Matthias, the editor of a magazine, and as her memory of blue water and empty space comes and goes, she alternates between awareness of her surroundings and complete befuddlement. The impact of the crash has destroyed her face, and it will be many surgeries and many months before it can be rebuilt. She and her husband, both intoxicated, had been quarreling because he had found a long-forgotten roll of film hidden in her desk, had had it developed, and had discovered that the film contained nude pictures for which she herself had posed. Already jealous about her career, her friendships, and her easy conversations with those she interviewed, Matthias was outraged – “no one took him seriously” – and went on to embarrass her at a party, later refusing to let her drive home, though he was even more intoxicated than she. Now he is dead, and she will not have a real face for six months, at least. What follows in this novel of relationships by Swiss author/dramatist Peter Stamm is a vibrant story of love with its many complications, as damaged people, including Gillian, try to rebuild their lives and find some sort of peace. Time is fluid here, as memories intrude for Gillian, and as Stamm, dramatist that he is, recreates much of her life in vivid scenes of natural and revelatory dialogue. The novel speeds along, helped by some humor, which highlights the absurdities in the characters’ lives.

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Winner of the prestigious Patrick White Award in her native Australia, Christina Stead (1902 – 1983), acclaimed in England and Australia, still remains unknown to most readers in the United States, and that’s a shame. Her 1973 novel The Little Hotel, given to me by a friend from England, reveals her deliciously twisted sense of humor, her pointed social satire, and her vividly depicted but often very sad characters, and I am now poring through Amazon’s Marketplace listings to find as many of her other sadly neglected novels as I can. In this novel, set in a small hotel on Lake Geneva in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Stead introduces an assortment of bizarre characters who live at the small Hotel Swiss-Touring for various lengths of time, some of them for a season, and a few as residents. Most of them are there because they cannot afford the more elegant accommodations to which they have been accustomed, though the twenty-six-year-old hotelkeeper, Selda Bonnard, and her slightly older husband Roger do their best to meet their guests’ needs. Touring artists associated with a local nightclub, and the road companies that play the casino, also occupy the hotel, residing on another floor above the guests. All of Stead’s characters are flawed, and as all are shown in intimate scenes in which they reveal themselves, at least to the reader, they inspire a kind of empathy within the reader – and even a kind of pervading sadness – which does not often happen within social satire, which is usually characterized by sterotypes.

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An author revered as much for the controlled lyricism of his prose as for his careful attention to details of the natural world, his uncompromising characterizations, and his ability to incorporate subtle symbols, Swiss author Jacques Chessex (1934 – 2009) was the first foreign citizen to win the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. In this dramatic novel, he tells the story of Jean Calmet, a thirty-eight-year-old schoolteacher, whose physician father has just died and with whom he has had a fraught relationship. The youngest of five children, Jean both loved and feared his father, with good reason, and he is glad that his father has been cremated, rather than buried. “The doctor would be reduced to ashes. He could not be allowed any chance of keeping his exasperating, scandalous vigour in the fertile earth,” Jean thinks. “Make a little heap of ashes of him, ashes at the bottom of an urn. Like sand. Anonymous, mute dust.” As the family gathers to choose an urn, Jean meditates on his father’s relationships with the whole family, and especially on his own chances for a life of his own. With no emotional resources of his own to sustain him, even by the age of thirty-eight, he is a completely lost soul, someone ready to become a victim of others, if not himself.

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