Thursday, June 27, 2013

Frank O'Connor Short Story Contest, 2013: Peter Stamm's We're Flying

The first Peter Stamm story I ever read was “Sweet Dreams” in the May 2012 issue of The New Yorker.  I liked it well enough that when We’re Flying (which includes new translations of the twelve stories published in Switzerland as Wir Fliegen and the ten stories under the title Seerücken, or Ridge) was published a month later, I was happy to review it for Magill’s Literary Annual.  After it made the short list for the Frank O’Connor Short Story contest, I decided to read the whole book again and write this blog without looking back at my review. The publishers, who own Magill’s, therefore cannot accuse me of violating their proprietary rights.

Reading all twenty-two stories a second time, I sometimes felt the urge to skim the lines, since I already knew what was going to happen, and since rereading a 380-page book was taking more time than I had to spare.  But I found myself compelled to read every word –not because the language was particularly dense with metaphor and complex syntax—indeed the language and syntax is seemingly transparent—but because so many of the characters in the stories seemed ensnared by experiences that they could neither control nor really understand, and because their stories were narrated by a voice that seemed to “know” what has the characters in thrall, but can only stand by and tell their complex stories in a helplessly simple way.

Peter Stamm’s stories make me ask those perennial unanswerable questions: Why do people desire the things they desire even though they know such desires are unwise and impossible to fulfill?  What makes people do the things they do when they know such actions are against their best interests and their better judgment?  Why aren’t people happy with their lives or able to take actions that will make themselves happy with their lives?   Of course, therapists and spiritual counselors around the world are kept busy by anguished people trying to find answers to those very questions. Artists take a different approach.

Peter Stamm does not have any answers, but he certainly knows how to use language to create the complex puzzles of human desire and behavior that simultaneously seem so baffling and yet so familiar. It seems absurd for me to say that I like Stamm’s stories precisely because I am not sure I can articulate what they are about. But even though I struggle to explain what I think they are about, I somehow “know” their secrets because even though Stamm’s characters are different than I am, they are somehow the same as I am, and I seem to know them in the baffling and incomplete way I know myself.

Since We’re Flying is two books in one, containing a total of twenty-stories, I obviously cannot talk about all of them, so I will try to account for my admiration of a few of them.

The first story, “Expectation,” focuses on a single woman named Daphne who meets a younger man in the apartment above her own.  From the beginning, she thinks of him as being like a kid. When she tells him about herself, about her little brother who died four years previous in an accident, he listens like the children in her kindergarten class. Even though he is so young she thinks she could be his mother, she is drawn to him.  He always sounds like he is parroting something he has heard grownups say, and when he accidently knocks over a glass, she almost gives him a smack the way she does with the little ones in her class when they do something naughty.  She imagines putting him across her knee, pulling his pants down and smacking his “naughty bottom.”  

When he finally does kiss her, it is greedy, like a child, but he resists making any sexual advances, although she encourages him. She feels they are in closer touch when he is upstairs and she is downstairs.  The story ends with her lying in bed knowing he is directly above her. She imagines him on top of her, kissing her hungrily, grabbing her hair, slapping her face; she whispers to him, “Come, come! Come,” and he is so close she can almost feel him.

This is not a story about a neurotic woman who sexually desires children, although a psychologist might think so. It’s about the intricate little traps we place ourselves in when we desire something, but do not actually want it.  She want the young man precisely because he is like a child, but then many women are drawn to the little boy behavior of many men.  However, she does not want him actually, but only virtually.  And if we admit it, we know that we often desire someone only in the imagination, even though the power of this desire depends on our feeling that we desire the person in the flesh.  However, the fleshly encounter often falls short of the encounter we are able to create in our imagination.  At the end when she says he is so close she can almost feel him, it is that sense of “almost feel” that constitutes the power of the imaginative snare Stamm creates.

“Three Sisters” is one of several stories in the book that deal with artists.  In this case, the central character is a painter named Heidi; she is currently married and has a child, but much of the story flashes back to when she was a young woman; while on a train trip to Vienna to go to art school suddenly, without planning to, she gets off the train at another station and begins a new life with a young man she meets there named Rainer, who she later marries. The central painterly motif of the story are drawings she has shown to an older woman Frau Brander, who has encouraged her artist ambitions and helped her to get into to art school; Frau Brander tells her that many of the drawings look like a vulva. A woman Heidi meets on the train to whom she shows her pictures also says that what Heidi calls “imaginary shapes” look like cunts to her. Heidi cannot understand that she does not see what others see.  

After marrying and becoming a mother, she is fascinated by a teenage girl who is training to be a baker.  She imagines her in all sorts of poses, both naked and clothed, and stands in front of a mirror naked and draws many pictures of the girl based on her own body. She and the girl dress up and take pictures and little videos of their masquerades and games. The story ends with Heidi imagining herself changing into the girl, parading up and down, showing off her body, “dolled up for no one except herself.”  She imagines that one day Rainer will find the hundreds of sketches and pictures of her and the girl.  “She’s just a kid, he would say, and shake his head, and not get it.”

So what is there to “get”?  This is not a story of a woman who is a lesbian but unable to “see” it.  Although there may indeed be something narcissistic about homosexuality—that is, that being with one “like” yourself creates something like a “mirror” effect—but this is more a story about the narcissism that exists in all of us—that sense of fascination with our own physical selves and the desire to see that self in someone else.  It is not so much that we narcissistically “love” ourselves, but rather that we long to “know” ourselves, to lapse into ourselves, to see ourselves in the “other.” It makes us parade in front of the mirror; it make us primp and prepare ourselves seemingly for others, but really to make others see us in the ideal way we see ourselves.  It makes us touch ourselves, pretending we are touching others; it makes us want to lose ourselves in ourselves as in the other—all of which is easier with a “kid.” Heidi knows her husband will not understand this.

“The Hurt” is a first-person POV story told by a young man who meets a girl named Lucia, has a sexual relationship with her, and then goes off to college.  He returns to teach in the village school four years later and tries to resume his relationship with the young woman who now works in a bar.  However, she seems different now.  She makes him feel stupid when he tells her he has not slept with anyone since he went away, and she does not want to have sex with him now that he has returned. After she openly flirts with a young ski instructor named Elio in the bar, the narrator takes his television out in front of his house, and puts a sign on it saying, “take me.”  He wants to touch and kiss Lucia so much his whole body aches, and he sees himself a pathetic lovelorn figure.  He begins to rip up his books and burn them, as well as his diaries and notes. He even takes his car up on the mountain and leaves it in the snow. When he tells Lucia that he loves her, she says he is imagining things, that he is crazy and slams the door in his face.  He finally chops up his bed and burns it, after which he gets on a train.  The last sentence is: “Not until the train turned a corner and entered a tunnel did I calm down.”

What is this story really about?   The young narrator is, like many young men, not comfortable with women.  He believes he is in love with Lucia because she is the first girl he has been intimate with.  While he was away at school, he was unable to form relationships with other women and thus--in terms of sexual relationships—has remained relatively immature.  In the meantime, Lucia, who has stayed home and worked at a bar, has become comparatively sexually sophisticated.  The narrator’s acts of systematically destroying all his possessions is an objectification of the lovelorn feeling, “If I can’t have you, I want nothing, I am nothing at all.”  It is childish, but then in many ways feeling you are madly in love is indeed childish, even mad.  Lucia’s calling him crazy and saying he is imagining things is, of course, true. But then, the desperate need to have the only person you feel you can possibly love is, by its very nature, an act of the imagination, not an assessment of reality.

In the title story, “We’re Flying,” a young teacher named Angelika has to take one of her students named Dominic home with her because the parents are late to pick him up. Although she is angry, she also feels oddly proud, as though taking this child by the hand makes him like her own child. When her boyfriend Benno arrives, he also is irritated, but at the same time play games with the boy; she thinks he is like a kid himself, in some ways younger than the boy.  However, Benno says he is not going to let the runt spoil his fun and takes off Angelika’s blouse and begins to kiss and fondle her; she protests but allows this for a time.  When the parents finally show up, they bring her a present to compensate her—a bottle of perfume.  While Benno is in the shower, she dabs some behind her ears and between her breasts.  However, when he comes out, with an erection bulging out of the towel around him, she quickly frees herself from his embrace and goes in the bathroom for a shower, but does not undress.  “When Benno knocked on the doo, she was still sitting on the toilet, with her face in her hands.”

This is another one of Stamm’s stories about the subtle traps of loneliness.  Angelika sits on the toilet with her face in her hands because she is in a situation that does not fulfill her needs.  And what are her needs?  Well, she does not need a man who is like a child with needs much simpler than her own.  She thinks she may need a man who loves her, a child who loves her, a home—all those elusive goals that single men and women may think they need to make them happy.  But then, how do they know?  Is it really true?  Will it work? Is happiness that simple?

In “The Letter” a woman named Johanna is trying to dispose of her dead husband’s belongings and finds a packet of letters from a woman with whom he has had an affair. She begins to wonder if the affair was not in some ways her own fault.  Reading such lines as “Your erotic fantasies turned me on” from her husband’s mistress, she thinks she had never written such sentences to her husband.  She goes back and reads all the letters again and then throws them away, realizing that he did not have an affair because of some lack in their relationship, but from his “excess of love and curiosity and wonder with which he encountered everything in life.”  She begins writing to him, “quickly and without thinking, sentences the likes of which she had never written before.”

“The Suitcase” is about a man whose wife is ill and has been placed in a coma and will probably never regain consciousness.  When he packs up a suitcase to take to the hospital with some of her clothes and toiletries, he is told they are not needed at this time.  So he boards a train and goes to an unpremeditated destination and gets a hotel room.  While there he uses her toothbrush, puts on her cardigan, and washes his hair with her shampoo.  He then goes back to the hospital, finds a picture of a young woman in a magazine, which he tears out and puts in his pocket, and then with tears in his eyes goes to his wife’s room and puts the suitcase under a stand and leaves without looking back.

These two stories are almost parable-like in their simplicity and brevity, but they still manage to capture in a poignant way the subtle connections between people and what anguish the breaking of those connections can cause.

“Sweet Dreams,” the New Yorker story, is about a young couple setting up a life for themselves, complete with IKEA furniture, in a one-bedroom apartment. They both love the little everyday tasks of furnishing and decorating their apartment, but Lara, the young woman, is uneasy about the indeterminate nature of any relationship. She loves him and he loves her, “but was there any guarantee that he would still love her in five or ten years’ time?” She wants a family, but he wants to wait. When he goes out to get a bottle of wine for them and stays so long she has to go look for him, she feels even more unsure about their relationship.  On returning to the apartment they have sex, with her becoming more vigorous and passionate than ever before.  

Afterwards, she makes him promise that if he ever stops loving her, he will tell her.  When he goes to sleep she gets up and watches an interview program on television in which the guest is a writer.  When the writer is asked where he gets his stories, he says “on the street” and tells about that very day on the bus hearing a young couple talking earnestly together; he imagines they have just moved in together and are furnishing their apartment.  “It’s that blissful but slightly anxious moment of starting out that interest me,” he says and adds that maybe he will write a story about it.  When he is asked how it will end, he says he will only know when he has finished it.  He then says the two people on the bus were not even a couple, getting off at separate stops, and thus have nothing to do with the people he might write the story about.   Lara gets up and looks out the window, thinking the writer would have gone home by now even though for a month they will keep replaying the conversation with him in an “endless loop, until he himself had become just as much an imaginary figure as Lara and Simon.”

In his interview with Deborah Treisman, New Yorker fiction editor, Stamm says “Sweet Dream” is his favorite story in We’re Flying.  It is not my favorite because it is more explanatory than the earlier stories, as if Stamm is not sure his readers will “get it.”  And the self-reflexive invention of the writer talking about writing the very story we have just read seems completely unnecessary to the complexity of the story of a young woman unsure of what holds a relationship together—although I can see how The New Yorker might have found it hard to resist.

I have four more books to read on the short list of the Frank O’Connor Short Story contest (I have already read and posted a blog on Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, which I liked very much).  But the collections of Watkins and Stamm are going to be hard to beat.

No comments: