Peter Stamm, a Swiss writer and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, specializes in characters who feel hollow and adrift. He excels at plots that studiously avoid drama, and he favors prose that is supremely lean and uninflected in Michael Hofmann’s translations from the original German. And yet his fifth novel is, of all things, a page-turner. Even more surprising, his bleak exploration of unmoored lives is tinged with wry humor.
Stamm’s two protagonists are, or rather were, well launched in the lesser orbits of 21st-century cultural celebrityhood. Gillian hosted a television interview show that featured buzz-generating authors and artists. Among her guests was Hubert, a painter with a risqué strategy for finding models: he stopped women on the street and asked to photograph them nude. But both Gillian and Hubert have been haunted by feelings of being impostors, and sudden crises upend their careers and lives. Can they help rescue each other?
In Stamm’s fiction, there is no rom-com resolution. But when his characters retreat to a provincial Alpine resort town, a world away from their former, culturally jaded haunts, he reveals farce as well as high seriousness in their quest. (“Do I have to warn the local women about you, or not?” is all the interviewer from the town newspaper really wants to know from Hubert.) These souls in search of a cure suffer from a very contemporary disease: a dread of autonomy mixed with a yearning for authenticity. Try to imagine a postmodern riff on The Magic Mountain: Stamm’s slim novel pulls off that feat.