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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Peter Stamm

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To purchase Agnes

Title: Agnes
Author: Peter Stamm
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 153 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Agnes - US
Agnes - UK
Agnes - Canada
Agnès - France
Agnes - Deutschland
Agnes - Italia
Agnes - España
  • German title: Agnes
  • Translated by Michael Hofmann
  • Agnes was made into a film in 2016, directed by Johannes Schmid and starring Odine Johne and Stephan Kampwirth

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Our Assessment:

A- : creepy but effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/4/1999 Sabine Doering
TLS . 21/4/2000 Peter D. Smith
TLS . 20/3/2020 Becca Rothfeld
Die Welt . 14/10/2000 Dagmar Leupold
Wall St. Journal . 21/10/2016 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Soweit ist es eine alltägliche Geschichte. Doch Peter Stamm begnügt sich nicht damit, Bekanntes neu zu erzählen; sein Roman ist auch eine verstörende Parabel über die Macht der Literatur. (...) Peter Stamm traut dem geschriebenen Wort viel zu, und er hat allen Anlaß dazu." - Sabine Doering, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Stamm's novel, translated from the German in deceptively simple prose by Michael Hofmann, has the clarity and symmetry of one of Agnes's crystal structures. The beginning and end reflect each other as if in a mirror and the text is divided precisely in two by a Wendepunkt (.....) Like his fellow Swiss Max Frisch, in Homo Faber (1957), Stamm chooses a narrator who seems trustworthy but whose view of the world is revealed to be deeply flawed." - Peter D. Smith, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Agnes is an unbelievable book, which is what makes it believable: it is conspicuously and gratingly fictional. Agnes, who is incapable of conducting a conversation unclouded by gloomy philosophical undertones, is very much and very melodramatically a character. She even foreshadows her own demise" - Becca Rothfeld, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Auf den ersten Blick ein bestürzend einfaches Buch (...) Ein anderer Erzähler hätte an dieser Stelle genüsslich ein Anspielungs- und Analogiengewitter entfacht -- nicht so derjenige Stamms: Er reiht Satz an Satz, parataktisch, beinah tonlos, als wolle er an der Geschichte nicht rühren, schon gar nicht mit trügerischen Allegorien" - Dagmar Leupold, Die Welt

  • "In Michael Hofmann’s lean, effective translation from the German, Mr. Stamm’s minimalist lines grow blurred and permeable. The haunting sense of something foretold accompanies the lovers’ actions. (...) Agnes is a moody, unsettled and elusive little fable -- and it’s always interesting. " - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

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:

(Please note that this review is based on the German edition, and all translations from the text are ours, except where indicated.)

       Agnes wouldn't seem to hold many surprises. This is a novel that seems to tell it like is -- and makes clear, in its opening lines, what happens:

Agnes ist tot. Eine Geschichte hat sie getötet. Nichts ist mir von ihr geblieben als diese Geschichte.

[Michael Hoffman's translation -- as quoted in the TLS-review -- has that as:
Agnes is dead. Killed by a story. All that's left of her now is this story.

We would have opted for:
Agnes is dead. A story killed her. All that I have left of her is that story.]
       It's a bold claim, and what's astonishing is that Stamm not only pulls it off, but that despite making clear how this love-story will end the end itself still comes as a something of a surprise and shock.
       In a way, Agnes is just another love-story, and as banal as most. The narrator is a Swiss writer, researching a book on American luxury trains in Chicago. When Agnes sits down across the table from him at the Public Library he is smitten, and a relationship develops.
       They both are fairly solitary individuals. The narrator doesn't seem to have made any friends here -- but he likes his near-anonymous lifestyle. Agnes is a considerably younger physics student. She plays the cello in a string quartet, but also seems to have no close friends, and her parents live far away. The closest to a love-affair she's had petered out before it could even get started, as the love-interest, Herbert, moved to New York -- though he still seems to be infatuated with her.
       The narrator tells his tale in a cool and detached manner. It's not that he's indifferent, but he is to some extent emotionally retarded, and self-centred (not so much because he is an egotist, but simply because he essentially can't understand others' perspectives). Though Agnes is a scientist, she is the much more vulnerable of the two -- but she also clearly accepts (in fact: loves) the narrator for who he is.
     "Was weißt du überhaupt von mir ?" sagte Agnes, aber es klang nicht bitter.

     ["Do you even know anything about me ?" Agnes asked, but it didn't sound bitter. ]
       The narrator now writes non-fiction books, but he used to try his hand at fiction, too, and Agnes asks him to write a story about her. She asks early in their relationship, when they're still feeling each other out, but she admits to what she hopes to find in the story:
     "Schreib eine Geschichte über mich," sagte sie dann, "damit ich weiß, was du von mir hältst."
     "Ich weiß nie, was dabei herauskommt", sagte ich, "ich habe keine Kontrolle darüber. Vielleicht wären wir beide entäscht."
     "Mein Risiko," sagte Agnes, "du mußt nur schreiben."

     ["Write a story about me," she then said, "so I can tell what you think of me."
     "I never know how it's going to wind up," I said. "I don't have any control over it. Maybe we'd both be disappointed."
     "I'll take my chances," Agnes said. "You just have to write."]
       Well, he did warn her .....
       The story he writes is that of their relationship; in a nice touch, Stamm has their memories of some of the details differ, his reality not exactly matching hers. But, of course, the story catches up with the present -- and can suddenly take the lead for the future. But it's not easy for him to write a happy end.
       There's a crisis in the relationship, too, when she discovers she's pregnant. For once his sober reaction (and suggestion of an abortion) are too much for her, and she leaves him.
       Another woman enters the picture, Louise. She knows what she wants, and she goes for it; she seems a far better match for the narrator, but he winds up with Agnes again, after she loses the baby.
       When they are back together he again writes a life-fiction -- this time imagining what would have happened if the baby had survived. But this, of course, is pure invention, an alternate reality that was not meant to be -- and the written version isn't enough to make up for the loss; indeed, it is ultimately unbearable.
       But the narrator can't leave imagining the future alone. He doesn't show it to Agnes, but he completes the book Agnes originally wanted him to write. Is it wishful thinking ? A neat resolution for a fiction ? Whatever the case, he opts for anything but a happy end -- and finds out, too late, the true power of words.
       In summary Agnes sounds almost too artificial, a concept-novel unfolding almost entirely predictably. And occasionally he does push it to its limits -- as when the narrator tells Agnes not to take the Dylan Thomas poem she is crying over (on the death of a child ...) too seriously: "Es sind nur Worte" ("They're only words"), after all. In part there is, of course the suggestion, that his failure as a fiction-writer is based on his inability to see the incredible power of words (and literature); here then, in Agnes' story, he has proof to the contrary -- yet this, too, is presented as a true-life (non-fiction) account, a straightforward presentation of the facts (even as he reminds the reader repeatedly that he doesn't alway remember things exactly the way they happened). Even as Stamm reveals the ending at the beginning, the path he then leads the reader down is by no means as clear-cut as it at first seemed. The novel is constructed, but very carefully so, and Stamm's attention to detail is unobtrusive: there are many sentences that seem merely incidental, and yet prove to be additional building blocks: an aside like "Ich errinerte mich an ein Gedicht von Robert Frost, aber mir fielen die genauen Worte nicht ein" ("I remembered a poem by Robert Frost, but couldn't recall the exact words") is just one of many that pegs the narrator ever more precisely.
       Stamm's protagonist is not very sympathetic, and elements of the story seem too pat and simple -- though in part this is because this really is only a novella, the tale compressed more or less to its essence (without, however, feeling hurried). But the distinctive tone, the protagonist's neutral, clear, often slightly puzzled recounting of his (and others') actions, words, and thoughts make thes tory so compelling.
       Agnes is not a real love story, because Agnes is only an object, not a love-object. The narrator only feels so much; it's easier for him to manipulate (or, in the case of Louise, also be manipulated). But he's no cruel puppet-master, he's merely fascinated by the possibility of wielding such power over another.
       The lovers' isolation makes for a bleak picture, too, but solitariness -- alone, or just the two of them -- is about all the narrator can handle: one late scene takes place at Halloween, and neither handles the crowds and masquerade well.
       Agnes isn't flawless, but it is very good, a powerful dark story of love and writing gone wrong. Recommended.

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Agnes: Reviews: Agnes - the film: Peter Stamm: 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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