"I think content is overrated in fiction," Peter Stamm remarked in a 2017 interview, adding, "Most literature I admire is not about what happens, but how it's described." I have to wonder, then, what Stamm would make of these short stories if he hadn't written them. What happens might be what's most interesting about them, because formally and stylistically they're coolly self-effacing, rendered, in reviewers' parlance, in unadorned prose.
As with the flat telling of fairy tales, on the smooth surfaces of Stamm's stories we slip easily from ordinary to strange, distinctions elided. At an artist's colony in wintery Vermont a mysterious book of poetry, photographs on the studio walls, a deserted Christmas party that springs momentarily to life — all conspire to make a visiting artist question the brief affair he had decades earlier with the benefactor's daughter.
An old man on the verge of retirement slowly realizes, as we do, that he's already gone. Sabrina, a young woman, sculpted by an artist "looking for perfectly ordinary-looking women," becomes, literally, absorbed by her image. In her discomfort at the unveiling, it seems that "[t]he figure might bear Sabrina's name, but she herself was perfectly exchangeable."
A retired doctor, arriving at the hospital for an operation, is led about, or seems to be, by a disturbed woman she once repeatedly treated. The retired doctor's surgeon says nothing about her own condition, "as though it were somehow embarrassing to him that I was now on the other side."
In the title story a female police officer investigating rumors of a woman and children haunting the mountain hut where she herself stayed as a child with her mother and brother attaches herself to the woman in a way that blurs her troubled present and past. Joining the woman on her pallet in the holding cell, she "became quite small, seeming to burrow into her, her darkness."
On a tour given as a birthday gift by a now-ex-boyfriend, a woman leaves the group in Barcelona and finds herself in an apartment with a fortuneteller at once clearly fake and mysteriously knowing. "I can see how everything will end, but then it always ends that way anyway," either the narrator or the fortuneteller says, it's impossible to tell which. "What I can't see is what we make of it, what we'll look back on. And that's what happiness is." What? Seeing? Not seeing?
Whether it's Stamm, an award-winning Swiss writer, or Michael Hofmann, his trusty translator, mixing things up, the occasional confusion is typical of these stories, where characters wander between menace and melancholy, finding themselves without ever quite knowing where they are.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin. EllenAkins.com
It's Getting Dark: Stories
By: Peter Stamm, translated from the German by Michael Hoffmann.
Pubisher: Other Press, 240 pages, $22.99.