On A Day Like This, a novel by Peter Stamm, tr. by Michael Hofmann (Other Press)

The protagonist of Peter Stamm’s fifth novel, On A Day Like This, is a forty-year old Swiss named Andreas who lives alone in Paris, teaches German at a suburban high school, and carries on a series of dispassionate affairs with women. One day, in a German-language bookstore, he buys a few titles, “part of a series of instruction books that he sometimes read with the more advanced pupils, little thriller texts about art thieves or smuggler bands, written in simple vocabulary of six or twelve or eighteen hundred words, that was somehow enough to describe an entire world. Andreas liked the stories, even though they were incredibly banal and predictable.” Andreas thinks of himself as an extra in “a film that had achieved cult status … and when he watched it from time to time, it seemed to him the pictures were more real than the street outside … He was both an extra in the imaginary film and a member of the audience, a tourist who had walked these streets for twenty years now, without ever having a sense of arriving anywhere. He was quite happy with his part, he had never wanted to be anything else.”

In the first few pages, Stamm sets out the hurdles his novel must leap over: How to “describe an entire world” built around an inexpressive character living a routine life. On A Day Like This is a sophisticated relative of Andreas' instruction stories. Employing spare language, slight variations in sentence structure, and a monotone delivery, Stamm proceeds just this side of the “incredibly banal and predictable.” Andreas’ married lover, Sylvie, “asked him why he never talked. He said he had nothing to say. His life was too formless, and at the same time too much of a tangle to give rise to any stories.” Andreas’ expertise is the resistance of triteness, the rejection of strained affect. This gesture is reflexive. After years of teaching, when some of his students “complained to him about a test,” he lectured them. “The longer he went on, the more hollow his words sounded to him. He looked at the kids slumped across their desks ands whispering and giggling and trying to avoid his eye. He broke off in mid-sentence and sat down. From that day forward, he saw the students with different eyes. He no longer deluded himself that he had any influence on them.”

But if Andreas sees his life as formless, On A Day Like This is anything but shapeless. Stamm is simply extremely particular about what contributes to the novel’s shape. In the center is Andreas, who looks at the world and himself with the same detached, blighted clarity. In his apartment, “His eye fell on a little framed photograph … He picked up the picture and looked at it, and then at himself in the mirror over the mantel. He was startled by how little he had changed. His features had gotten a little harder, but the basic expression was still the same, an expression of friendly indifference.” Of his one friend, Jean-Marc (“It seemed grotesque to him that he would certainly have described Jean-Marc as his best friend”), he asks himself “why he had spent so much time with him, when he was someone to whom he felt totally indifferent.” It seems at first that the narrator regards Andreas with an identical attitude. The differences, however initially slight, emerge as the plot develops. Apparently, the narrator isn’t indifferent to his subject since he is tracking and accepting him, even incorporating Andreas’ chilly regard. But more, Stamm is testing the limits of our own indifference – and relying on our recognition of this tendency. For Andreas, the problem isn't the lack or absence of something, but the presence of a void. Andreas refuses to dignify the void by giving it more than an incidental psychological gloss; Stamm pares Andreas down so that the character comes to represent consciousness itself.

The photograph had been taken by his father, and soon we learn more about Andreas’ family, just enough background to be dismissed. But one episode endures, Andreas’ teenage memory of going swimming with his friend Manuel and Fabienne whose “beauty had always taken his breath away. It was the flawless beauty of a statue.” Andreas owns few possessions, and one of them is “a little statuette of Diana with bow and arrow, frozen in mid-step, that he had bought at a flea market.” Later, when Andreas decided to sell his apartment and discards most of his stuff, he keeps this statuette. So, although “emptiness was the normal state of things, he had said, nor was it anything he was afraid of – quite the opposite,” there lingers in his life and psyche a feminine image. In the myth of Actaeon and Diana (not referenced by Stamm), the hunter Actaeon is transformed by the goddess into a stag after he stumbles upon her bathing in the woods. Diana is virginal. Actaeon is then torn apart by his own dogs. This is the sense we begin to have about Andreas, and perhaps the only reason we care for him. He seems to be living in the last days:

“In the middle of the night he was awakened by a fit of coughing. He got up to go to the bathroom. He felt cold. He turned on the central heating, slid under the blankets with his clothes on, and turned off the light. The stand-by lights glowed in the dark. One day, when there are no more people left in the world, he thought, there will still be stand-by lights glowing, and the clocks on electronic devices will continue to tell the time that no longer exists, until the last power plants have switched off and the last batteries are dry.”

The symmetry of this stark and penetrating novel is something like: Andreas is to his women what the unnamed narrator is to the reader. On her last day of employment at Andreas’ school, a teacher named Delphine stops by the lounge to say good-bye. Their new relationship coincides with Andreas’ worsening health, presumably due to smoking, and his awaiting the results of a biopsy. These events compel Andreas to journey back to his hometown in Switzerland, accompanied by Delphine. Fabienne, now married, still lives there. Andreas’ women lose patience with him when he fails to show interest in their needs or opinions. The narrator gives us just enough of what remains of Andreas’ vitality to stir our interest. Driving to Switzerland, Andreas sings along to one of his cassettes:

“Andreas said the music took him back to his youth. At the time he had written poetry when he was in love. ‘Erotic poetry?’ ‘Sentimental would be more like it.’ ‘I wouldn’t have thought you capable of that,’ said Delphine. ‘A spark of love within a frozen heart.’
She said it in jest, but Andreas was a little surprised, just the same. He had never thought of himself as a cold person, but it wasn’t the first time he had heard such an accusation.”

In turn, the reader sticks with the narrator, surprised at and grateful for whatever may unfold. Also, if Andreas’ barely-defined desire impels him to act despite the aridity of his world, the reader also consents to go along for the ride. One even admires Andreas for what begins to resemble courage: “Everything would be much easier if you could see yourself as a victim, he thought, a victim of your childhood, of fate, of the people you had grown up among, and finally too, as a victim of illness. But in order to feel himself a victim, he had to believe in the possibility of another, better life. Andreas believed in nothing but chance. He loved the curious coincidences and repetitions that life threw up, against all logic.” Nadia, an old girlfriend, “called it nihilism; his own word for it was modesty.”

On A Day Like This offers satisfactions at several levels. Stamm entices the reader to venture into the near-vacuum that is Andreas’ self-identity, and to follow his route. The novel concludes without collapsing into the vacuum (since we’ve now taken shelter there) – but it allows no violation of the terms set forth in its first pages. This book is, in its way, as “modest” as Andreas. Its artfulness is a completeness of vision derived from the meager and the bleak.

[Publication date: July 8, 2008. 240 pp., $23.95, hardcover]