Eros Smith

The Sweet Indifference of the World by peter stamm, translated from german by michael hofmann. new york: other press. 144 pages. $15.

The cover of The Sweet Indifference of the World

Lately I’ve been feeling differently about birthdays. For a long time I looked forward to them, as we do when we are children. Then I went through a long stage when I dreaded my birthdays because they were little—no, big—reminders of what I’d wanted to do but hadn’t yet done, or had missed the chance to do altogether. Then I entered the birthdays of my late forties and early fifties (I’ll be fifty-three in May), when I actually started to feel, well, old. Death approaching, all that.

But for the past few months I’ve been thinking, Well, fifty-three, that’s not a bad accomplishment. I’ve survived this ongoing battle of being human for fifty-three years. And also: You know, maybe I don’t have to do it forever, and that would be OK. I can entertain these two almost incompatible ways of thinking about aging at the same time, and they comfort me: proud of myself for the struggle, and not dismayed at the prospect of a break.

The hero of Peter Stamm’s latest novel, The Sweet Indifference of the World, is old, older than me, older than Stamm—who is fifty-seven—but like me he doesn’t dread getting older. His only friend, a young actor, is often late, and he thinks to himself, “I don’t mind about that, the less time I have left, the more time I allow myself. I don’t do anything but wait anyway, and the later she comes, the more time I have to look forward to her.”

Once the friend does show up, the narrator, a novelist at the end of a successful career, tells the story of his life—focusing on the story of a love affair that led to his first novel—in Stockholm’s Woodland Cemetery. And we get the point. He’s killing time. As he tells his stories, which are interwoven with the history of his debut novel and subsequent literary efforts, he’s also telling her about her own future, how love will come and go, and that it’s OK: She doesn’t have to hope or fear, she can enjoy the ups and downs of her life.

In Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942), the hero, Meursault, contemplates his untimely death and, finding himself without hope, lays his heart “open to the benign indifference of the universe.” Camus wrote this in his late twenties, around the time that he published “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which he explains the conflict between our own demand for meaning and the world’s inability to provide that meaning to us. This is a young person’s frustration: angry at existence, or destiny, or love, for not behaving according to our expectations. The universe may be indifferent, but we are not.

For Stamm’s hero, though, the sweet indifference of the world is matched by his own gratitude for its acceptance. This is the kind of love he has to give, and the kind of love he wants: telling a story, listening to a story, expecting only a little and also not promising too much. This old man’s attitude—more the wise patience of Nestor than the long-winded pedantry of Polonius—is tied to the view of love we see all through Stamm’s work, dating back to his debut novel, Agnes. For Stamm, like Stendhal before him, erotic love is not something given to or withheld from you so much as an act of the imagination, and the kind of fictionalizing it requires is very much like writing a story. Rather than demand love and recognition, Stamm’s characters are more generous, more accepting, more creative.

Love at first sight, I said. Looking back, you believe that kind of thing, when you find your narrative, settle on a version, a creation myth for your relationship. Because that’s always the easiest thing to believe, and the pleasantest. That you were destined for each other, that there was no other possibility.

“Finding your narrative” here just is writing the creation myth of your love affair. We don’t passively wait for love to be given to us, but recognize instead that we play a part in its creation. This makes sense, but there is also the fact that love is still disappointing to Stamm’s characters—it doesn’t always work out. Where does creativity fit into that? It seems like there are two qualities: creativity and acceptance. But of course we have a different relationship with our disappointment in the things that we create: It’s not their fault that they’ve failed, it’s ours. And as we age, we see more and more clearly that we have no choice but to forgive ourselves for our limitations, as lovers, as artists.

This is the central conceit of Stamm’s latest novel. The book is rife with juxtapositions between art, imagination, and memory. Not only does the man recall a real affair, and the way that affair became material for his first novel. It also happens that the woman he’s telling has the same name and vocation—an actor, meaning a double, a counterfeit, an imitation—as his long-lost lover, and he has the same name as the man she presently loves. As readers we realize that perhaps the old writer is inventing both past and present worlds as he goes, or remembering a past self to whom he is telling the present invented story, or rewriting the story he’s already lived to tell his present-day friend, or some mix of all of these. Whatever Stamm is trying to do, his questions about the relationship between art and life are happily left unresolved. I don’t think the novel contributes much as metafiction. But its meditations on how erotic love may work are fascinating. And of course Stamm’s prose, as always, is lean, deliberate, and gorgeous.

The novel closes with the narrator reflecting that there are years from his life that he barely remembers. “Even major events that changed my life, real turning points, I often don’t remember them, it’s as though they had taken place without any help from me, in my absence.” Exactly how he feels, now, alone. And maybe the victory of the imagination is in the failure of memory: Unless we invented it, it’s as though it didn’t happen. But it doesn’t make much difference either way, and the not mattering of it is sweet.

Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell (2009) and Love and Lies (2015; both Farrar, Straus and Giroux).