In Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World, translated by Michael Hofmann and out next week with Other Press, a writer blurs the line between past and present, fiction and reality, in his attempt to outrun the unknown. In the excerpt below, the writer describes his first encounter with his double to a young woman, Lena, who herself seems to be the double of the writer’s former lover.
I’m an actor too, said Lena. I know, I said. How do you know? she asked. What makes you claim you know everything about me? Have you been snooping? No, I said, I wouldn’t call it that. I have no idea why I’m even listening to this, she said. Maybe because you’re curious? Lena shook her head a little, as though surprised at herself. I hate it when someone pursues me. But I don’t think that’s what you’re doing. This isn’t about me, is it?
We had got to the end of the cemetery and had left it behind us and carried on, first through a part of town with modest wooden houses, then another section with blocks of flats. Between the blocks were densely planted trees. In some places, the granite poked through the earth, as though to shrug off the thin layer of civilization. It wasn’t four o’clock yet, but it was already starting to get dark.
Shall we stop for coffee? suggested Lena. I was happy to do that, and after a bit, we found a bakery with a few plastic chairs and tables. We got cups of watery coffee at the counter and sat down in the big plate glass window that was blinded by steam and still had Christmas decorations stuck to it, a Santa Claus sitting on a sleigh drawn by reindeer, laden with parcels. For the first time, Lena seemed properly aware of me. She looked directly at me, smiled, and said, Crazy story. It’s a long way from over, I said, and carried on.
My book had been out for almost a year when a professor at my old university invited me to take part in a seminar on contemporary Swiss literature. He asked me to read aloud to his class, and to tell them about my writing. I was glad of the distraction and spent far too much time over the little talk I meant to give.
It was a rainy day in late March, the seminar met in the late afternoon. The college premises were little changed since my own time there, students still sat around cross-legged on the cold stone floors in the hallways, and the bulletin boards were full of posters announcing various courses and lecture topics and student politics, only the coffee seemed to have gotten better. I thought about the boredom during the lectures, and the dozy hours spent in the library. I had spent weeks writing up various papers, in the knowledge that no more than two or three people would ever read them, a thought that was both comforting and discouraging. I could no longer imagine what it was that had driven me in those days. I hadn’t been idle, but in my memory those years were characterized by a profound indecisiveness. I’d been trapped inside that warren of university buildings as in a labyrinth, with the difference that it held no terrors for me, but rather gave me a sense of security. All the images I retained in my mind from that time were dim, as though lit by low-watt light bulbs.
The professor’s seminar seemed to enjoy considerable popularity. It was held in a large lecture hall. When I stepped in, there were already at least forty students sitting on the benches; just like in my day, more women than men. While the professor gave a brief introduction, I looked around and suddenly saw him, the night porter, the younger version of myself. He was sitting by the aisle most of the way back and was holding a plastic cup that he sipped out of from time to time. The sight of him so utterly disoriented me that I no longer heard what the professor was saying. Only when there was an expectant silence did I realize he must have finished and given me the floor. I got a grip on myself and started on my talk, in which I compared writing to the search for a path in an unfamiliar landscape, and posited the difference between the private and the autobiographical. There were questions afterward. The young man from my village seemed to have been paying close attention, each time I looked up at him our eyes would meet, and I quickly looked away, as though he might otherwise recognize me and give me away. He didn’t ask a question, just made occasional notes in a small notebook that he tucked away in his pocket each time. After the bell rang, the professor said a few words by way of conclusion and reminded those present of the author who was due the following week. I wasn’t surprised that my double was one of the first to leave the lecture theater, with hurried steps, as though he had another class to go to. I had half a mind to follow him, but a few students ringed me with books to sign, one young woman asked me for a piece for the student magazine, and another wanted advice in finding a publisher. By the time everyone went away satisfied, the young man was long gone. I asked the professor if he knew him. Brown hair like mine, a plastic coffee cup in his hand, sixth or seventh row, far left. He couldn’t place him. Probably a freshman, he said, they come and go, I can’t possibly know them all.
The following week, I visited the German department again, waiting in the hallway for the seminar to finish. No sooner had the bell gone this time than there was my double running down the steps. I followed him out of the building and along the street. He only had a sweater on, even though it was cool and rainy. He headed in the direction of the lake, turned off at the theater, and zigzagged through the lanes of the old town to an old-fashioned café I had often patronized myself in my time as a student.
The place was almost empty. I sat down at a table behind him. The waitress took his order, a toasted sandwich and a small beer. I’ll have the same, I said, when she approached. She looked at me in bewilderment, and I repeated his order. He didn’t seem to hear, because he had taken down a newspaper from a rack by the door and was leafing through it. I went and helped myself to one as well, but I couldn’t concentrate on any of the articles because I kept squinnying across to him.
It was as though a playmate had copied my every word when I was a child, copied every movement, which used to put me into a seething rage. Now too I had the feeling that the other party was copying me, my way of crossing my legs, of folding the newspaper, of adjusting the silverware on the table. He used my words to thank the waitress, ate his toasted sandwich as slowly and carefully as I did. When he was finished, he pushed his plate back, took a big notebook out of his rucksack, and started to read in it. Sometimes he would cross things out, or write something in with a fine push pencil of the kind I had once favored myself. I made a few notes too, but when I read them back to myself later, it was just confused stuff.
At the end of an hour or so, the student paid and left. For a brief moment I thought of speaking to him, but I found a strange reluctance, even timidity. I paid in turn and trailed him through deserted streets and lanes. I knew this quarter very well and wasn’t at all surprised to see him walk into the building I had once had an attic room in as a student. On the top bell was my name in a script that was the spit of mine.
From The Sweet Indifference of the World by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann. Recently published by Other Press. By arrangement with the publisher.