Great Writing Is Humble

Peter Stamm, author of All Days Are Night, says his work became deeper once he shed some delusions of grandeur.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Peter Stamm, author of All Days Are Night, doesn’t like big, dramatic gestures in fiction. As he explained in our conversation in this series, he writes for feeling rather than flashy plot. Using a passage from Georges Perec’s A Man Asleep, Stamm praised smallness: The best literature, as he sees it, is humble, rooted in the everyday, and based on looking very closely.

Not that Stamm eschews drama altogether—he only looks for it in unexpected places. All Days Are Night hinges on a fatal crash: A couple gets into a fight at a boozy party, and they wreck the car on the way home. The husband, the driver, is killed. The wife, a television host, suffers a crueler fate: She’s disfigured beyond recognition—an ear torn away, her nose gone. But Stamm refuses to derive tension from flying sparks and tearing steel; he gives the accident just one fleeting description, and works its aftermath instead.

In addition to All Days Are Night, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, Stamm is the author of three previous novels and two story collections. In 2013, he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize; his stories appear in venues such as The New Yorker and A Public Space. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Winterthur, Switzerland.

Peter Stamm: Georges Perec’s A Man Asleep is a very simple book, and that’s probably why I like it. It’s about a student who skips a test he has to take. That’s where the book starts: He simply doesn’t show up for the test. From there, he realizes he doesn’t really have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. He slowly withdraws from his life and responsibilities, reveling in the fantasy that doing so makes him special, maybe a genius. In a way, he stops living all together, doing very little besides eating the same things every day and reading the paper from beginning to end. He does this for a long time, until the very end.

I think, once, when I was younger, I was maybe a little bit like this guy: this young man who seems to be untouchable, so indifferent, who tries to refuse to be a part of everything around him. I recognize, in his gesture, the way I was when I was 20 years old and just starting to write for the first time. Back then, I wanted to be the wise author who is somehow above everything, who somehow understands everything. I wanted to write great books, books that achieved deep insights about the world and showed other people how to live. (Maybe it’s a Swiss thing: The Swiss seem to always think they are extremely special—that we are the chosen people, somehow.)

But then things happened in my life—thankfully—that knocked me from my post. Having children, for example. When I had children, I realized that some points of view weren’t possible anymore. This whole heroic author routine—the literary genius who is above everything—well, that seemed ridiculous when you were changing diapers. It grounded me somehow. I started to realize that, despite my pretensions, I was really just like everyone else.

This is also what happens to the main character in A Man Asleep: He finds out he’s just a normal guy. It happens in the book’s wonderful final pages. I’ve now read the novel in three languages—and the last section works in English, French, and German. It’s just very beautiful. The narrator, addressing the main character as “you”—as he does throughout the novel—berates him for his show of independence, of being above the crowd.

You have learnt nothing, except that solitude teaches you nothing, except that indifference teaches you nothing: it was a lure, it was a mesmerizing illusion which concealed a pitfall. You were alone and that is all there is to it and you wanted to protect yourself; you wanted to burn the bridges between you and the world once and for all. But you are such a negligible speck, and the world is such big word: all you ever did was to drift around a city, to walk a few kilometers past facades, parks, and embankments.

Here, the narrator calls out his character’s routine for what it is: a facade born out of insecurity and loneliness. All the acts of rebellion and put-on eccentricities were part of a sad charade—no better, in the end, than a purposeless kind of drifting. The whole act was merely a “mesmerizing illusion” designed to distract the character from his own insignificance.

The narrator goes on to enumerate the ways that the character is conventional, mediocre, unoriginal. The narrator even suggests it would be better if the young man had some kind of deformity. “If you were ugly, your ugliness might perhaps be fascinating,” he writes, “but you are not even ugly, neither are you a hunchback, a stammerer, an amputee, a legless cripple, and you don’t even limp.” Any of these conditions might save him from being wholly unremarkable—but, alas.

And yet it’s not some huge moment that reveals this essential sameness to the character, that proves he’s forever part of the crowd. He never sees god, or whatever. Instead it’s a dumb little thing: He realizes he doesn’t want to get wet when it rains.

No, you are not the nameless master of the world, the one on whom history had lost its hold, the one who no longer felt the rain falling … You are no longer the inaccessible, the limpid, the transparent one. You are afraid, you are waiting. You are waiting, on Place Clichy, for the rain to stop falling.

Here, he’s part of society, part of all the people who are standing around waiting for the rain to stop. Like all human beings, he wants to avoid getting wet. Like everyone else, he huddles under the awnings and archways of Paris as soon as the skies open up. To me, it’s a beautiful image, much deeper than the “big” moment somehow. And the smallness of the image—the everyday nature of this revelation—perhaps undercuts the character’s own grandiose ambitions.

I think it’s good for artists to have this kind of humility in mind. It’s good for you to realize you’re not immortal. You’re part of society. You might be forgotten. Delusions of grandeur probably make work easier—but it makes your work deeper if you admit you’re not so special. It made writing more difficult for me to be grounded, but on the other hand, I think my writing became more substantial when I realized I am no better than anyone else.

But it can be hard to come to this conclusion, especially for young people. There’s so much vanity in literature and all the arts. You see this all the time—take Hemingway, for example, who played the big-game hunter. This whole bullshit about hunting and bullfighting and fishing: That was just the image he wanted us to have of him. Maybe it helped him to feel that way. But it’s not a very mature thing to do. It does not help us understand the work at all—in fact, I think that kind of posturing ruins the work for some people. You can always read the books, in any case, and the persona recedes to the background. When you read Hemingway’s books, it’s there on the page: He wasn’t just the strong guy. He was a hardworking, serious artist, who felt things very deeply.

You can’t just blame the artist, though: We half expect our cultural figures to be these larger-than-life, romantic archetypes. We don’t need them to be, but we want them to be. People want artists to be vain—it probably serves their own vanity, in a way. As long as you’re honest in your texts, it doesn’t do any major harm—but it’s still quite infantile. I think it’s best for writers to strive to be mature, as much as they can, in their life and work.

I think this authorial tendency to self-dramatize can be seen inside some works, too—so many writers seem to need to pump their stories full of sound and fury. I think, instead, of Perec—and the amazing maturity he displays by not reaching for the big, dramatic moment. There tends to be so much drama in writing—too much, in my opinion. I’m just now reading a collection of short stories, and in every short story there’s a suicide or a murder or a rape. Many writers feel that they have to put all this drama in their books in order for us to feel something. Drama is always too easy, in a way. It’s easier just to bring the big drama into things. Especially with young authors, you see so many texts that are just so filled with stuff: You think, get rid of all this! You don’t need that. The young woman I was telling you about, she’s a very good writer. But the book would be much better with fewer deaths. She seems to rely on them, but she doesn’t need them.

To me, though, it’s much more interesting to deal with everyday life, with novelty, with days going by and nothing changing. It’s more difficult, but it’s more interesting—because that’s what most of our lives are. Ninety-nine percent of our days are like the day before. It’s very seldom that we kill ourselves, that we are raped, or killed—luckily. For me, the interesting thing is to deal with that head-on: How do we live when nothing is changing? How do we deal with small things?

This is one reason I love a short paragraph from the end of A Man Asleep, so much so that I borrowed a line as a title for one of our books:

It is on a day like this one, a little later, a little earlier, that everything starts again, that everything starts, that everything continues.

You can still achieve emotional impact without big, dramatic gestures. It’s done by watching very carefully. It’s like when I went to the forest with my children. The first time you say: There’s the trees. But then, you go deeper. You start looking at the individual plants, seeing how different they all are. In one square foot of forest, you can find 20 different species. And that means 20 different types of leaves, and 20 different forms of reproduction, and so on, and suddenly things are very interesting. When you start just explaining and watching closely, a great deal can happen in a very small space.

I’m not saying nothing should happen in stories. I do like events—but the most interesting events are the small ones. Mrs. Dalloway going to buy some flowers for a party. Or, the Raymond Carver story “Viewfinder,” which starts this way: “A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.” The story shifts in a moment when the handicapped man takes a picture of the narrator—you can feel that it changes her life, somehow. But it’s not a big event. The big events—when someone dies, for example—they often don’t really change our lives. They are too big, somehow. And our reactions are usually paradoxical to them: we actually feel less than we think we should. So often, it’s the strange, small details that stay with us instead.

When I wrote the story “Sweet Dreams,” which was published recently in The New Yorker, I told my editor, “I’m writing a story about a woman who buys a corkscrew.” And that’s all it is: She buys a corkscrew and shows it to her boyfriend. But in this moment, you can feel that many things happen. You can see the whole relationship in this thing. Your DNA is in every cell. You can find the DNA of this relationship in this very small cell, where she’s buying a corkscrew. I don’t need the big drama. I don’t need the main characters to fight and kill each other to see who they really are.

You can somehow feel which moments are important. Even in your own life, you can feel when things are important if you’re attentive enough. I’m not looking for them. But once in three months, when I see something or read something or encounter something, I have this feeling: That’s something important. Those are the things I write about. Very often, I don’t know why what I saw or read or experienced is important. I just know that there’s something there that I want to explore on the page. Sometimes, as I start writing, I discover what drew me to my subject. Sometimes, I don’t find out until after I’ve written the text and I re-read it a few times.

This feeling of intuition guides me more than any sense of structure or plot. I’m completely against the idea that you should know you character’s whole background, or whole biography, before you begin. I think that’s just nonsense. That’s how you make movies in Hollywood, but that’s not how you make art. You find out about your person by writing about them. You need to relate to them: have feelings for them, love them, hate them. Start writing. Find out about your setting by writing about it, too. I compare the process to an expedition sometimes: It’s like going into the wild and seeing where you get. Sometimes you don’t find your way and you have to turn back. Sometimes you find something incredible: America, or India, or the source of the Nile.

I don’t structure. I think I’ve developed a feeling for form just by writing for 30 years now that I can feel—even without knowing where I’m going—which way could be a good way. I sometimes introduce minor characters without knowing what they are for, and later I realized they’re important to the text. I don’t want to mystify the whole thing, but most decisions really are by feeling and intuition. I did read some crime novels when I was 20 or something, but even then I got tired of the whole plot thing. I came to George Simenon, where he gives us the information in the very beginning, and it’s not about plot any more. You always know who murdered the guy. It’s about how Commissaire Maigret figures it out. I think plot has always not been too interesting to me. If you can be open and rely on your feelings somehow, and let them guide you—not look for the bestseller, or whatever—then something good might happen.

The readers can feel the writer’s genuine interest, and they care more about locating that interest than they do about the machinations of plot. They are not stupid. I want to go hand in hand with my reader, to explore something together with him or her. And that’s more interesting, because I think the reader can feel my interest in the subject. But if he knows that I’m just god who sits somewhere on the throne and decides what I should tell him and what not, it’s not really a good relationship.

I think entertainment isn’t the goal of literature. I’m not against entertainment—I like, say, James Bond movies or Die Hard. But I separate them from movies like Richard Linklater’s movies, which make me see things differently. To me—I’m not a religious person, so I have always looked for meaning in books. For me, literature must be more than entertainment: It’s the place where I was look for meaning and insight. Literature started as religious texts, after all. And then somehow we reduced god, and now it’s just literature left. It’s the same with images. When you see images in a cave that are 30,000 years old, it’s not about painting a bull or a tiger, but there is much more to it: These illustrations are explorations of the world and the way it works. Literature to me has always been like that. It’s about relating to the world and trying to understand it. When I want to be entertained I’ll watch a film on DVD. When I read, I’m looking for something else.

As we speak, I’m looking at maybe a thousand books. I have the authors A - H downstairs in my living room, the rest upstairs. I can see Camus, Richard Ford, Don DeLillo, all kinds of wonderful authors. Each volume is like a different being somehow. Each one is a different world. Sometimes it’s a memory of who you were when you read them—Hemingway reminds me of when I was 20, how much I learned from him as I was just starting to write. Sometimes it’s a feeling—I love Don DeLillo for the way he seems to be unsure where he’s going, the way he’s willing to experiment and try things out. Reading a good book is like meeting a real person. You relate to a book, just the way you can relate to a flesh-and-blood individual. It’s so much more than just spending time. You’ll never be the same after you’ve read a really good book—you experience something almost like life.