What prompts me to a digression on the above subject is a novel I just finished reading, Seven Years (Sieben Jahre) by the Swiss writer Peter Stamm. (Michael Hofmann provides an impeccable English translation.) It has echoes of Albert Camus, absent the worldly heft that gave weight to the novels of Camus and even of Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus and Sartre, after all, had lived through a world war and French colonialism, whereas the characters in Seven Years have lived through times of plenty, until the end, when they encounter the economic downturn of 2008. But before that happens, during their architectural studies in Munich, their travels to Marseilles, the success of their business, they are plagued by existential anomie.
The subject of Stamm's novel, as can be guessed from the title, concerns a marriage. Besides the echoes of Camus and Sartre (particularly in the pared-down narrative style), I also thought of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. Again, Bergman made a movie about individuals who were rooted in a historical place and time. History -- in particular war, during which the civilized nations of the world had turned their vast arsenal of "progress" on each other -- had let people down, so to speak, and their anomie was, to an extent, understandable. (Wonderful portrait here of this state of the soul by Richard Cronborg.) The dissatisfaction felt by Mariane and Johan, with their marriage and their lives, related to the disparity between the ideals with which they had been raised and the compromises of everyday reality. The couple in Stamm's novel, Alex and Sonia, are similarly suffering from this disparity, though neither one has a deep historical consciousness. The novel takes place in contemporary time -- the fall of the Wall is mentioned -- but no one has much interest in what that fall represents, aside from the opportunity to make money in the East.
What does Stamm's novel have to do with world literature? Goethe thought of world literature, particularly the work of translators, as a way of allowing us to understand other cultures and peoples and, if not to love or even like them, to appreciate the differences. Goethe lived in a time in which, materially, people in the advancing West were becoming more alike, but Goethe thought that national differences would remain. Goethe's love for the literature of other lands certainly speaks to appreciation of "difference." Yet the fact is that the worldwide commerce that was making people's material lives similar in his time has also led to the uniformity of their moral life. The people in Stamm's novel might be Americans.
This point is made by Tim Parks in his write-up on Stamm in the New York Review of Books: "If you didn't know Stamm was Swiss, nothing in the English translation would betray this blemish." As Parks writes: "Stamm is one of a growing group of writers ... who, whether consciously or otherwise, have evolved a style to suit the requirements of a global literary market. None of these authors writes exclusively or even first and foremost for the country they live in. ... What we are seeing, then, is the development of styles of writing that are no longer to be understood in relation to the literary tradition the author grew up in, but to the new world of international fiction, books translated no sooner written into a dozen languages." I would only add that Stamm's stories and novels of what Parks calls "ordinary emptiness," of "lives without coherence or direction," is a Western phenomenon, again the result of the spread of material affluence with which the West was beginning to be rewarded in the early 19th century.
Picture credits: The Criterion Collection; Richard Cronborg