Seven Years by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hoffman

08/04/12, The Times

When Alexander meets Ivona, a dumpy, unattractive, religious Polish immigrant in Munich, he is in the final year of architecture school. Repelled by her, yet fascinated by her taciturnity and dog-like subservience, he ends up sleeping with her. On the surface, it is a desultory affair, a kind of shameful, intermittent, casual-sex carousel, but that surface, as Alex begins to understand, is deceptive. The ambivalent repulsion-compulsion polarity of the subsequent few encounters is captured with unrelenting psychological and stylistic clarity.

The respectable relationship Alexander is in, the one that culminates in marriage, is with his beautiful fellow-student, Sonia. She is perfectly assembled: daughter of wealthy parents, intelligent, ambitious, focused almost exclusively on her work; architecture for her is a vocation, not a job. She is also earnest, humourless, driven. Alex himself notes that she ‘was incapable of passion, and I sometimes got the feeling she was watching herself while we made love, to make sure she kept her dignity’.

Just when you begin to think that Swiss author Peter Stamm’s Seven Years is Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage rewritten for our times, you wake up to one of the salient features of the novel: Stamm has allowed us very little, if any, entry into the heads of the two women, Sonia and Ivona, in this unflinching spin on that oldest of all stories. The interpretive space this gives the reader is seemingly inexhaustible. The triangulation between a man, his wife and his lover becomes a meditation, cool and pellucid, on what ties or unbinds a man and a woman, about whether desire fastens or liberates. Narrated by Alexander, the man who forms the third vertex of the triangle, Seven Years springs surprises that are retrospectively explosive for the calm surface of its austere, even parched, prose lulls us into believing, wrongly, that it is bleached of emotion.

It is a measure of the richness of the novel that one can ask endless questions about, among other things, why Alex and Sonia get married without ever managing to pin it down. Both, in their different ways, buy into the image or idea of a perfect bourgeois marriage with all its attendant trappings and trimmings; they are married to some cultural notions of marriage than to each other.

Despite breaking off his relationship with Ivona just before he gets married, Alex searches her out seven years later and they resume their encounters. ‘It wasn’t pleasure that tied me to her,’ he confesses; ‘it was a feeling I hadn’t had since childhood, a mixture of freedom and protectedness. It was as though time stood still when I was with her, which was precisely what gave those moments their weight.’ This time there are consequences: Ivona becomes pregnant. And there are externalities outside the control of Alex and Sonia when the global financial crisis sinks their firm. From here everything can only be, you would think, a series of unravellings. Well, yes and no; it all depends on the light your mind is shining on the book.

You could read Alex and Sonia’s marriage as an illustration of the ways class co-opts desire for its own fulfilment. The presence of Ivona is where the urgings of class trip up over a more fundamental desire loosed from the moorings of societal requirements. Yet this desire is not without its immense cost either, perhaps a greater one, as Alex realises, in a typically self-enclosed manner, by the end of the book. The cumulative emotional impact of this, especially when you consider Ivona, is quietly shattering. How many writers have written with this degree of brutal perceptiveness and wisdom about the indeterminate depths of heterosexual desire? Very few: Wharton, Roth (sometimes), James Salter, Kundera. Stamm inscribes his name in that august list.