'together and always separate'
translated by Michael Hofmann
Oh my, what a beautiful book. Opening the envelope in which it came I had no idea what was inside, but once it was in my hand I almost didn't care. With its tracing-paper like dust-jacket and monochrome photograph cover image printed directly onto the boards I was smitten immediately. The white text revealed an author I hadn't heard of previously but underneath that the very well known name of translator Michael Hofmann. Flip to the back cover and there's some nice quotes from Zadie Smith amongst others who is moved to profanity in her praise for this novel that makes you 'doubt your own dogma.' I was intrigued. The icy coldness of the book's outer shell is replicated inside with Stamm's clear and uninflected prose and the emotional detachment of the characters. This definitely won't be a book for everyone, female readers in particular may find the male narrator far too off-putting, but it is a brave and unsettling read that questions how we relate, feel desire and find fulfilment.
Alex and Sonia seem to be the perfect couple. He is good looking, she beautiful; both of them architects with a successful firm and a luxurious lifestyle. The only thing missing from their life is their first child and it is the strain of trying to achieve that final piece of the picture that threatens to disintegrate the foundations of their marriage. It's slightly more complicated than that of course but the idea of marriage as a construct is very fitting for this couple. Alex chose Sonia as a fitting mother for his children, a woman who seemed to ooze success and the promise of a good life together. Looking back on his marriage many years later he realises that 'Sonia was a project ... No sooner had we reached one goal than the next loomed into sight, we were never done.' What is crucial is what came before this logical decision to marry Sonia.
The second woman in Alex's life is Ivona, a plain Polish woman whom he met when she simply made up the numbers on an evening out with friends at college. With a 'docile and long-suffering manner' she gives 'the impression of a natural born victim' something that makes Alex feel both sorry for her and hugely irritated by her. But she seems devoted to him, something very different to 'the usual back-and-forth, the game of trying to seduce a woman.'
I had the feeling Ivona was giving herself to me, and I had absolute power over her, and could do whatever I liked with her. I felt utterly indifferent to her. I had nothing to lose and nothing to be afraid of.
Their strangely chaste affair takes place in her dorm room amongst the soft toys, romance novels and cheap jewellery that mark out her emotional immaturity.
The pokiness, the untidiness, and the absence of any aesthetic value only seemed to intensify my desire.. Thre was nothing there to inhibit me, by reminding me of my life and the world. It was as though I became someone else in that room, an object in Ivona's chaotic collection of treasured and neglected knickknacks.
Then he meets Sonia, 'the absolute opposite of Ivona', a woman who intimidates him and gives him 'the feeling of having to try to be better' than he actually is. But for all her beauty, charm and social ease 'Sonia would never say to a man that she loved him, the way that Ivona had said it to me, as if there was no other possibility.' Perhaps it is this that draws him back to Ivona when he encounters the seven year itch and he conducts an affair that contains passion but not attraction in 'those sluggish hours we spent together in her overheated room, stuck to one another, crawling into each other, together and always separate.'
Her unconditional love for me, however purely random, drew me irresistibly to her and, by the same token, repulsed me the instant I was satisfied. Then I would feel the need to hurt her, as if that was my only way of breaking free.
It feels very much like an addiction: illogical, dangerous, destructive and yet something towards which he is irresistibly drawn.
At the same time his relationship with Sonia deteriorates. In his opinion she had always been inhibited by her beauty, incapable of passion, Alex sometimes with 'the feeling she was watching herself while we made love, to make sure she kept her dignity.' He too is an observer to their intimacy and in this novel of construction it is a moment in their new apartment together that shows just how detached they have become.
We stood next to each other in the bathroom and looked at ourselves in the mirror. Two beautiful people in a beautiful apartment, said Sonia, and laughed. I turned and kissed her, and thought of the beautiful couple in the mirror kissing as well, and that excited me more than the actual kiss itself.
I won't go any further in describing just how destructive and messed up this love triangle becomes except to remind you of the element missing from that perfect marriage. Alex's behaviour is a mystery to himself, he never seeks to investigate his motives or actions, and that selfishness and solipsism may be hard to stomach for some readers. He is an unsettling guide through the novel and even when his marriage and business are ruined not to mention the well-being of Ivona, he is unrepentant, finding solace in a line he remembers from a film (Adaptation) - 'you are what you love, not who loves you.'
It seemed to me that everything had just happened to me, and I was as little to blame for it as Sonia and Ivona. I wasn't a monster, I was no better and no worse than anyone else.
Plenty of readers won't be so quick to let him off the hook but however you feel about Alex personally he is the perfect unsettling guide to this ice-cold examination.