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the complete review - fiction
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- German title: Sieben Jahre
- Translated by Michael Hofmann
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B : well-written but tough-to-take story about some very dysfunctional relationships
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Londo Rev. of Books
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The New Yorker
|San Francisco Chronicle
Very impressed -- and many unsettled
From the Reviews:
- "Paternity, happiness, and free will -- who or what is ordering whom about, and to what end -- underlie Stamm's psychologically stark novel. (...) The plot of Seven Years is as remarkably undernourished as it sounds, and glancing references to architectural history and then-current events (the demise of East Germany, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the collapse of the German construction market) don't put much meat on its skimpy frame. But Stamm is a master of quietly deliberative stories." - Eric Banks, Bookforum
- "In Stamms nunmehr viertem Roman Sieben Jahre (...) beherrscht der 1963 geborene Schweizer das subtile Spiel von Licht und Schatten mit altmeisterlicher Fertigkeit. Was recht harmlos als schlichte Dreiecksgeschichte beginnt – ein verheirateter Mann hat eine Geliebte, von der er nicht loskommt –, gerät durch den intimen Blick des Autors in die Innenwelten zur fesselnden Durchdringung nicht nur dreier miteinander verschnürter Biographien, sondern des Ringens um Liebe und Glück überhaupt. Dabei kommt Stamm den Zweifeln, Ängsten und Lebenslügen seiner Figuren so beklemmend nah, dass es beim Lesen schmerzt." - Sandra Kegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Seven Years is far from being merely another novelistic account of an affair. What helps it transcend this is one of the great characters of contemporary fiction. (...) Brilliantly translated by Michael Hofmann, Peter Stamm's prose comes across as relentlessly undemonstrative. Yet it is booby-trapped throughout, with devastations waiting to happen" - Toby Litt, The Guardian
- "Aus dieser Spannung zwischen allzu brüchig scheinender Gegenwart und machtvoll gegenwärtiger Vergangenheit bezieht Peter Stamms Roman seine ganze suggestive Kraft. Gleichzeitig jedoch schrumpft das angeblich Irrsinnige dieser amour fou im plakativ nüchternen Rückblick ins gemässigte Kleinformat." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Related in Stammís spare, reticent prose, Alexís inability to be honest with Sonia and his mistreatment of Ivona appear less as evidence of a flawed character than as documentation of the larger conflict between desire and reality. With its understated descriptions and cool perceptions, Stammís fiction (...) explores the tendency to experience two incongruous emotions or sensations simultaneously: attraction and disgust, warmth and estrangement, anxiety and liberation." - Sarah Fay, The New York Times Book Review
- "The book is cool and immensely accomplished, told retrospectively in a way that seems to flatten suspense (...) while bringing out the half-tones that shadow even the most apparently clearcut decisions." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
- "Some of his allusions can feel a little thin, and major events get explained with lightning speed. But it's all in the service of a highly crafted pathology, a lurking violence fueled by a society still struggling with its own accountability." - Jon Roemer, San Francisco Chronicle
- "I love this novel but Iíve no idea what to make of it. (...) A charmingly plain style draws you in from the off." - Anthony Cummins, The Telegraph
- "Peu romanesque et encore moins romantique, il ne porte pas aux effusions, et si ses attraits charnels peuvent donner lieu à des développements brefs mais précisément décrits, il n'est pas la préoccupation première." - Wilfred Schiltknecht, Le Temps
- "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." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times
- "Stamm develops a beguiling but disturbing tale of the connections between power and devotion, belief and self-deception. (...) The novel's cumulative effect is highly unsettling, its concluding moments are breathtaking, and the ripples that it sets in motion radiate in the reader's mind long after the novel's conversation has ended." - Charlotte Ryland, Times Literary Supplement
- "Die Versuchsanordnung, das wäre der einzige Einwand gegen diesen sympathisch unentschiedenen und elegischen Liebesroman, ist allzu übersichtlich, ein wenig gazettenhaft und männlich konventionell. Die manichäische Zweiteilung des Liebeslebens zerbricht, als aus der leidenschaftlichen Schmuddelliebe ein Kind hervorgeht, das der Held adoptiert und in seine hygienische Kameradenehe integrieren will. Am Ende hat der bemitleidenswerte Mann beide Frauen verloren und ist um eine mit schönem Seufzen und behutsamem literarischen Achselzucken erzählte Erfahrung von dem angeblich unbezähmbaren Tier im Manne reicher geworden." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Seven Years is narrated by Alexander, a man who goes into architecture but who is, at best, intermittently ambitious.
He and his wife Sonia, and their ten-year-old daughter Sophie visit an old friend on Sonia's, Antje.
Some twenty years earlier Sonia and Alexander had become a couple while visiting Antje; now their marriage is near collapse, and over the course of the book Alexander recounts the stations of their relationship and how they've reached this point to Antje.
Alexander goes back to his student days, in the 1980s, when he and some friends of his came across a Polish woman named Ivona, a real sad sack -- "She seemed to have given up all hope of ever pleasing anyone, even herself".
Despite himself, Alexander finds himself irresistibly drawn to her passivity and complete unremarkability
She becomes a sort of obsession of his -- though nowhere near the obsession he becomes for her.
At some point Ivona decided Alexander was the love of her life, and though she is no stalker (indeed, she remains largely passive, and follows her passion quietly and almost unnoticed) she can't imagine life with another man.
Alexander, meanwhile feels much more ambivalent:
The thing that kept me fascinated with her was her utter devotion.
Her unconditional love for me, however purely random, drew me irresistibly to her and, by the same token, repulsed me the instant I was satisfied.
Satisfaction is, however, limited: Ivona is a devout Catholic, and one thing she refuses to do is go all the way (even as she subjects herself to most anything else Alexander demands of her).
Indeed, Alexander seems to be drawn to women who want to be with him but are reluctant to have sex with him: the other woman in his life is another (more ambitious) architect, Sonia, formerly the girlfriend of a good friend of his whom he then hooks up but with whom intimacy also comes in stops and starts and is never entirely satisfying.
When Antje first pushes Sonia and Alexander together she tells him:
If you want to get married, Sonia's the perfect wife.
She's beautiful, intelligent, cultivated, and she's a good sort.
That's not enough, I said.
Yes, Alexander has very strange ideas about what constitutes a good mate and partner; nevertheless, he's obviously right about Sonia.
Their relationship is a slightly hesitant one (certainly as regards sex), and it's typical that many, many years later, after Alexander broke some particularly momentous news to her, it was in a telephone conversation that:
We talked probably for two hours about our relationship, about our affairs, about our expectations and desires.
Sonia cried, and at times I cried too.
I had never felt so close to her.
They spend much of their life in close proximity -- they open an architecture firm together -- but they certainly aren't truly close.
There are many significant things they fail to mention to each other or discuss (so, for example, Sonia's decision to go on birth control again after Sophia becomes part of their household).
After marrying Sonia Alexander does stop seeing Ivona -- until, seven years on, he hears from her again and, instead of putting the past behind him immerses himself in it (and the patiently waiting Ivona) again, beginning a real affair with her.
She even winds up pregnant -- while Sonia and Alexander have struggled (and failed) to conceive.
The solution to that situation they come up with is also an unusual one, and further undermines Alexander's relationships with both women.
Alexander -- like the reader -- sees the signposts all along the way, flashing warnings brightly.
Both women, for their different reasons, are ill-matched to him.
Sonia's establishment-bourgeois family always makes Alexander uncomfortable, while:
Basically, I yearned for the lower-middle-class world of my childhood, with its clear rules and simple feelings.
However limited it was, it still seemed more honest and genuine to me.
Even more fundamental and significant are Alexander and Sonia's basic outlooks on life (and architecture).
Alexander reports from early in their relationship:
When, quoting Aldo Rossi, I said in a letter to Sonia that every summer felt like my last, she shot back that to her this summer had felt like her first.
She had never cared for Rossi's melancholy and fixation on the past.
She believed the world could be transformed by architecture, and when I objected that all the great things had already been built, she mocked me and said I was just trying to excuse my lack of ambition.
Clearly, these are not two people who should open an architectural firm together.
Or get married.
The other woman in his life, the passive (but psychopathic) Ivona, is also entirely inappropriate.
But Alexander, essentially unable to think of anyone but himself -- and with exceptionally weak impulse-control -- doesn't even see that his attitude is destroying not only their lives but his own.
Drifting through life, Alexander has a hard time being satisfied alongside the goal-oriented Sonia -- but the ultra-passive Ivona offers an alternative only in the moment.
Alexander remains unwilling to make the necessary compromises that might allow him to be part of a couple or larger family.
At the end he's left with one dependent -- but from the picture he's painted so far things do not look particularly bright for her or that relationship either.
Stamm tells his tale quite well, but it is a rather ugly tale, of a weak man who feels no qualms about destroying the lives of two women (who, admittedly, also have their own very big problems).
Seven Years is a fairly cleverly presented character(s) study, but it's hard to get over the unpleasantness of the protagonists and their actions.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 March 2011
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Other books by Peter Stamm under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of German literature
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About the Author:
Swiss author Peter Stamm was born in 1963.
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© 2011-2015 the complete review
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