“Seven Years” by Peter Stamm – One Man, Two Totally Different Women

Seven Years” by Peter Stamm  (2009) – 264 pages     Translated by Michael Hofmann 

 It is November, time for  German Literature Month which is hosted by Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life and by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  Today’s novel is “Seven Years” by Swiss writer Peter Stamm and translated from the German by writer Michael Hofmann.

 In “Seven Years”, Alexander has two women in his life.  First there is Sonia.  Sonia “was lovely and smart and talkative and charming and sure of herself.  I always found her presence somewhat intimidating, and I had the feeling of having to be better than I actually was.”  Sonia is headed for a successful career in architecture, the same field as Alexander.  She is the perfect socialite and from a well-off background.

 Then there is Ivona who “was completely unattractive.  Her face was puffy…Her nose was reddened, and a few crumpled up tissues were in front of her…Her clothing looked cheap and worn…From the very onset Ivona was disagreeable to me…Her whole appearance was somehow sagging and feeble.  She seemed to have given up all hope of pleasing anyone, even herself.”  Ivona’s monosyllabic replies stop any conversation in its tracks.

 There is no comparison between Sonia and Ivona.  Yet who is Alexander always sneaking off to see and be with?  Ivona.  He sneaks off, because he doesn’t want any of his friends and especially Sonia ever to see Ivona and him together.  Why is Alexander so strangely attracted to Ivona?  Ivona is in love with Alexander and her love is unconditional.  She was actually stalking him when they met.  Maybe his attraction is based on the fact that he doesn’t have to be something he isn’t in front of Ivona.

 I have not encountered this plot in a novel before, so I give Peter Stamm points for originality.  In most novels the hero winds up with the lovely lady, and that’s that.  “Seven Years” goes deeper, and I find it somewhat courageous how Stamm sets this story up.

 There are a few things in the novel for which I would subtract points.  Whenever Stamm describes Ivona’s unattractiveness he mentions that she is from Poland. This is mentioned so many times you wonder if that is one of the reasons Alexander finds her unattractive.  Also I don’t think Stamm goes quite deep enough to find the underlying reasons for Alexander’s visceral attraction to Ivona.  Alexander does express severe guilt at times for his clandestine treatment of Ivona, but she doesn’t seem to mind.    

 I found “Seven Years” to be quite a strong novel overall.   It is well-written, and it’s always refreshing to read a novel that has an original yet realistic plot.  I suspect many men are faced with a situation similar to Alexander’s.             .   .

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for the review. I like Peter Stamm a lot but this isn’t a novel I have read yet.
    To see it mentioned so often that she is Polish would bother me as well. It doesn’t seem important and surely has nothing to do with her attractivity. The idea that a man is with a beautiful woman but perfers the uglier one reminded me of the movie with Depardieu and Carole Bouquet – Trop belle pour toi.
    I’m glad you liked it overall.

    Reply

    • Hi Caroline,
      I had not heard of ‘Trop belle pour toi'; It sounds like an interesting movie. Probably the hidden factor for me was that I had just completed ‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante which I thought was just incredible, and no next novel, even ‘Seven Years’, could compare. I definitely thought ‘Seven Years’ was a strong, original novel written in a unique style.

      Reply

  2. [...] Seven Years by Peter Stamm (Tony’s Book World) [...]

    Reply

  3. I’m a big fan of Stamm, and I enjoyed this one a lot. I think the point is that Alex is not a very nice person. His possible prejudices add to the picture we get of him, making him a more realistic character.

    If you’re interested, my review can be seen here:

    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/seven-years-in-munich.html

    Reply

    • Hi Tony.
      I can think of two plot points that go along with your idea pf Alex not being a very good person. One, Ivona’s female friend who lives with her tells Alex he better quit mistreating her. Two, when Alex leaves Ivona during one of the last times they get together, he says maybe Ivona is happier than any of the rest of his group. That sounded like a terrible rationalization for his mistreatment of her.
      I read your incisive review, and do see how Alex can be considered a not very nice person, if not an outright bad person. That would explain his constantly bringing up Ivona as Polish. It does appear that the novel is an example of an unreliable narrator in that the reader is supposed to see that Alex is not as good a person as he takes himself to be.

      Reply

  4. Lovely to see a review of this book as I’ve been curious about it for a while. I’ve only read Stamm’s short stories and I wondered whether that polished bleakness can be sustained across a whole novel. Prior stalking sounds like an interesting twist to the tale though!

    Reply

    • Hi Alex in Leeds,
      “Polished bleakness” is an excellent description of Peter Stamm’s “Seven Years”. I guess that is why I preferred Elena Ferrante’s new novel, because her style seems to be more “colorful liveliness”, more fun to read while at the same time being quite literary. Of course there is a major question whether Elena Ferrante is a man or woman, but there is no question she can write. But “Seven Years” is also a fine novel.

      Reply

  5. [...] Lamdscape by Peter Stamm was added in a more roundabout way. The other Tony whose blog I read reviewed Seven Years by this author this week and it reminded me that after loving Stamm’s most recent collection [...]

    Reply

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