English Gardens -MunichEarlier this year, I read Peter Stamm’s marvellous Seven Years which is set in my beloved Munich.  It is one of my favourite reads of 2012 thus far.  Given that it’s now June and I’m still wearing a winter coat in Scotland, I am relocating this virtual interview to a warm early summer’s evening in Munich’s English Gardens. We are enjoying a cool, refreshing beer as we chat about his novel.  In the finest tradition of one of the main characters, please eavesdrop on our conversation.

LS:  Describe the genesis of Seven Years. How long did the novel take to write? Are the characters based on real people? 

PS:  I worked on the novel for about two years as it involved a lot of research. The book was inspired by Gombrowicz’s play Yvonne, the Princess of Burgundy.   The main characters are not based directly on people I know, although there may be some similarities here and there.

LS:  When did you decide on the architectural elements?  How, when and why did you settle on Munich and Marseilles as your two cities of contrast?

PS: That came quite early on.  I wanted a city that suited Alex and Sonja.  Somewhere a  bit too trendy.  Hence Munich.  Marseilles was chosen because of the Le Corbusier connection.  I already knew and liked the city, which is quite different from Munich.  First impressions are that it is much uglier, yet it is still a very lively and exciting place.

LS:  How do you know about the mold in the Olympic Village bungalows?  (I’m curious as I lived there myself.)

Olympisches DorfPS: I visited, just at the right time – just before the bungalows were demolished.  (What! Lizzy takes a deep breathe and tries not to hyperventilate. Those bungalows were iconic!)  A student showed me round and explained the lifestyle.

LS:  Seven Years is a novel replete wth flawed and unlikeable characters.  Is there a character you dislike more than the others and why?

PS: I understand Ivona least of all.  Perhaps that’s why I became so fond of her.  Sonja’s not that bad.  She does try to be a good architect, wife and mother. It’s not really her fault that she doesn’t entirely succeed.  And Alex isn’t a bad human being.  I must always feel sympathetic towards my main characters.  I wouldn’t be capable of spending so much time with them otherwise.

LS:  Would you say that Ivona, with her unquestioning and neverending devotion in the face of Alex’s callousness, is nothing other than a male fantasy?

PS: I’ve heard that accusation before.  And although there are no real-life models for the three main characters, people have told me that they know people like that.  

LS: Towards the end of the novel, Alex reviews events and summarises them thus:  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 that anyone else.  Would you really let Alex off so lightly?

PS: Yes.  How often do we make wrong decisions?  An author shouldn’t judge.  My ambition is to understand the human condition and to forgive everything.  Alex is as much a victim as a perpetrator.  

LS:  Describe the translation process from your point-of-view.  Does this differ from language to language?

PS: It does.  There are translators who do not contact me at all.  Other send me loads of questions.  Michael Hofmann is a very experienced translator, who sends in queries only when the German is ambiguous.

LS: Unformed Landscape is described as your masterpiece and was your first novel to be translated into English.  Did this success bring additional pressures when writing subsequent novels? Has being translated made any difference to your choice of subject matter?

PS: Not at all. My first novel, Agnes, was translated into 25 languages. Being translated shouldn’t make any difference to an author’s material. Quality is the only valid criteria. If I had wanted only to make lots of money, I would have chosen a different profession.

LS: I co-hosted German (language) Literature Month last year and am likely to do so again this year. This incorporates a Swiss literature week. Could you give me 3 recommendations of Swiss literature to seek out to read Swiss Literature Week? (They need not have been translated into English.)

PS: Anything that Markus Werner has written; Klaus Merz, Jakob schläft; Tim Krohn, Quatemberkinder

LS: The desert island question. You are allowed to take 3 books onto this proverbial island. What would they be and why?

PS: My Notebook, in case there’s an electricity supply; a note book should there be no electricity and, assuming multi-volume works are allowed, The Encyclopedia Britannica, the best encyclopedia I know. 

LS: You are allowed one more book – one of your own. Which would it be and why?

PS: Unformed Landscape, because Kathrine is my favourite character.  She is so frequently alone.  It’s almost as though she’s living on a desert island herself.

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Peter Stamm (Photo credit Gaby Gerster)

Peter Stamm will be appearing at the 2012 Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 23.  I plan to be first in the queue!

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