Agnes by Peter Stamm

December 14, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Agnes by Peter Stamm. 1998 French title: Agnès. Translated by Nicole Roethel.

Preamble: I have read Agnes in French. Sorry for the crash course in French conjugation included in this post but it was relevant to my reading. It also means that I had to translate the quotes into English, so they may not reflect Stamm’s style as well as they should.

Agnes is dead. A story killed her. The only thing I’m left of her is this story. It started nine months ago when we first met in the Chicago Public Library. (my translation) Agnes ist tot. Eine Geschichte hat sie getötet. Nichts ist mir von ihr geblieben als diese Geschichte. Sie beginnt an jenem Tag vor neun Monaten, als wir uns in der Chicago Public Library zum ersten Mal trafen. Agnès est morte. Une histoire l’a tuée. Il ne me reste d’elle que cette histoire. Elle commence il y a neuf mois, le jour où nous nous sommes rencontrés pour la première fois dans la bibliothèque municipale de Chicago.

These are the first sentences of Peter Stamm’s novella, Agnes. You’re mentally prepared to read a story with a bad ending.

Stamm_AgnesThe unnamed narrator is Swiss and temporarily living in Chicago. He’s a writer of non-fiction books and his publisher commissioned him to write a book about luxurious train carriages in the USA. He’s in Chicago for research. Agnes is writing her thesis on a scientific theme I’m not able to translate into English. They meet at the Chicago Public Library, go for coffee, smoke together outside the building and gradually fall into a relationship and in love.

The narrator is a lot older than her (at a moment he says he could be her father). He’s writing non-fiction because it pays the bills and has abandoned the idea to write a novel. Agnes encourages him to write a story about them. He starts reluctantly but he’s soon caught in the game. He writes what happened, writes in advance how he would like things to happen. And their lives become muddled and influenced by the story. There’s a sort of twisted pattern where what he writes must happen and eventually guides their actions. It also generates discussions afterwards about Agnes’s and his vision of moments they spent together. It’s a bit like those books boys used to read when I was a teenager: it’s called gamebooks in English but in French it was marketed under livre dont vous êtes le héros. (book in which you are the hero.) You create your own story. That’s what Agnes and the narrator embark on and it’s a dangerous game.

This novella is excellent, well-constructed and I wanted to know how things unravelled and what happened to Agnes.

Peter Stamm’s style sounds formal in French. The translator chose two tenses that are a little dated for contemporary literature in French. For example, Agnes says Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je détestasse cela. (My father was adamant about it, although I hated it). The détestasse is no longer used in French, especially in dialogues. It is a tense called l’imparfait du subjonctif and nobody uses it in spoken language and hardly ever in written language. The ending in asse sounds heavy and pompous now. Although grammatically incorrect, it has been replaced by the subjonctif présent in common language. It means that the sentence would have been Mon père y tenait absolument, bien que je déteste cela.

I also noticed the use of a past tense called passé simple in the first and second person plural. It’s not as dated as the imparfait du subjonctif but it’s not so used now for the first and second person plural. In Agnes, I mostly noticed it in descriptions, when the narrator relates his time with Agnes. Again, it sounds heavy and emphatic. For example: Nous louâmes une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous prîmes la direction du sud. (We rented a car and early on Friday morning, we headed South) I’m not sure a contemporary French writer would have written like this. I imagine more a sentence using another past tense, the passé composé : Nous avons loué une voiture et, tôt le vendredi matin, nous avons pris la direction du sud.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List has read Agnes in German and he also speaks excellent French. So I twitted him to know if the German text sounded as formal as the French translation. (See his review of Agnes here) He said that Stamm uses the subjunctive more than other German speaking writers. I hope that Caroline drops by and gives us her opinion about that. So I assume that the translation is accurate and that the use of these tenses in French is the best way to give back the flavour of the German prose.

I’ll go further. I also noted down the use of passé antérieur like in this sentence said by Agnes, Même si parfois je l’eus souhaité. (Even if sometimes I wished I did.) Nobody says Je l’eus souhaité anymore. We would say Je l’aurais souhaité. Choosing Je l’eus souhaité gives a sense of narration to the phrase. Indeed, the passé antérieur is not used in spoken language but in written language. It’s as if Agnes was speaking in written language because this scene is destined to be included in their novella. It sort of prepares the transcription of what they’re living into future literature.

It participates to the feeling of aloofness oozed by the narrator and Agnes. He’s always preferred keeping his total freedom than give it up partly to be in a relationship:

Et la liberté avait toujours été pour moi plus importante que le bonheur. Peut-être était-ce cela que mes petites amies successives avaient appelé égoïsme. Freedom had always been more important to me than happiness. Perhaps it was what my successive girlfriends had called selfishness.

Although he claims to be deeply in love with Agnes, he holds himself back. And Agnes does the same about her past and doesn’t share much about herself. Both characters are rather hard to define. In appearance, they don’t have much in common. They’re different in gender, age, nationality, occupation. But they do have the same detachment from their life, as if they were more spectators than actors. I have the impression that they watch themselves live through a glass wall and that the story they write is a literal way to indulge in this tendency. Their love is passionate but cold or reserved. It is difficult to nail, that cold passion. They’re detached but not indifferent.

The narrator’s voice is strong and unique. Stamm recreates Chicago very well and his characters came to life in my head. It would make a great film by Won Kar Wai or by a French director. I leave you with one last quote that left me thinking…

Nous pensons tous vivre dans un seul et même monde. Et pourtant, chacun s’agite dans sa propre tanière, ne regarde ni à droite ni à gauche, et ne fait que défricher sa vie en se coupant le chemin du retour avec les déblais. We think we all live in one and only world. And yet, each of us stirs in their own burrow, never looking left or right and only clears their life path while cutting their way back with debris.


  1. December 14, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Interesting thought on how her dialogue gives the impression of her writing her own life. Will you read more Stamm do you think? I’d be interested in whether that was something he did for this novel, or if his style generally is simply very formal.

    Living your life as a choose your own adventure novel sounds rather dangerous. As I recall, most choices led in the end to a fairly terrible death. You had to play several times to avoid dire fates, and in real life of course we only get one go.


    • December 14, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      I will read other books by him. I’ll see if I get recommendations in the comments.
      I wonder as well if he adapted his style to the story or not.

      Ah, so in England these books were marketed as Choose your own adventure. All boys my age were reading those, riding a mountain bike and playing dungeon and dragon.

      I hope Tony will read my billet and tell me if he agrees with me about this “choose your own adventure” impression. It’s not clearly stated in the book of course but the interaction between the two characters reminded me of these books.


  2. December 14, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Great post Emma.

    It sounds as if the entire connection between the tenses and the fact that one of the characters is writing a story a story about the story is fascinating and creative.

    In addition this illustrates some of the shortcomings of reading translated literature.


    • December 14, 2014 at 5:50 pm

      I saw that connection, I don’t know if it was intentional on the writer’s part.

      I don’t know if it’s the same in German but I suspect so because it’s not “natural” to translate into French that way. It’s a recent translation, there’s a good chance that it sounds the same in German. Since I’m convinced it was in the original, I don’t see it as a shortcoming of the translation. Quite the contrary. I’m glad the translator managed to convey it into French.
      The English translator is Michael Hofmann. I think he’s really praised. I’d be curious to know how Stamm sounds in English.


      • December 14, 2014 at 6:20 pm

        I was just thinking that it would be very difficult to translate this into English. Maybe Hofmann. has pulled it off. However I have to believe that it would change the meaning in some ways.


        • December 14, 2014 at 6:30 pm

          I’m curious about the English translation too. Perhaps someone who’s read it will read this billet.


  3. December 14, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    I really liked the Stamm novel I read Emma: All Days Are Night. I reviewed it if you’re interested.


    • December 14, 2014 at 5:57 pm

      I remember you liked one but not which one. The title is appealing.


  4. December 14, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    I really want to read Stamm and have a collection of his short stories (We’re Flying) in my tbr. Definitely one for next year as I keep hearing good things about him.It’s interesting how the story bleeds into the lives of this couple.

    P.S. I haven’t forgotten to do my Reading Bingo. It’s half written, I just need to finish it.


    • December 14, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      I remember that Caroline reviewed his short stories and liked them a lot. I’d like to read that too but I’m –again *sigh*– on a book buying ban. I HAVE to make the TBR decrease.

      Re-PS : Looking forward to discovering your Reading Bingo


      • December 15, 2014 at 9:56 am

        It’s good to hear that Caroline liked his stories. I’m trying to focus on the TBR, too. The current plan is to read twenty books I own before buying any new ones, and The Good Soldier is number 4 in my 20.

        P.S. My Reading Bingo is up!


        • December 18, 2014 at 11:05 pm

          Same here: “decrease the TBR” is the moto.


  5. December 14, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    I enjoyed the book by jim I read found his style quite sparse and to the point


    • December 18, 2014 at 11:05 pm

      He’s quite good. Everybody who’s read him likes him apparently.


  6. December 18, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    I’m also currently reading Stamm in French; Sept Ans, translated by Roethel as well. Previously I’d read (actually listened) to a New Yorker podcast of him. The short story they read was Sweet Dreams, and in it was also a mirroring of the main characters. The language felt as simple as possible but I loved it because it captured the minor transformation the leading character undertakes. Sept Ans so far is not disappointing. It’s slow to start yet immediately went into flashback mode, so let’s see where that leads.


    • December 18, 2014 at 11:07 pm

      Let me know how much you liked it after you’ve finished.


  7. December 19, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    I haven’t read this but I know it’s quite different from his other books. You can pick any of his novels though, they are all good.
    I didn’t pay attention to the use of subjenctive but it’s possible that he uses it more since he’s Swiss.


    • December 20, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Thanks for your answer. I’m curious to read another one by him and see if I notice the same thing about the language.


  8. TBM
    December 19, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Haven’t read anything by him. The story sounds good. As for the verb tense … my French teacher will tell you I’m hopeless.


    • December 20, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      French conjugation is not the easiest, unfortunately. More people might learn French and speak it if it were easier.


  9. December 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

    This sounds like an interesting read by a Swiss writer of whom I never heard… although the French edition seems to have been slightly annoying. Translations! This is exactly why I prefer reading original versions (provided that I can!). I would have enjoyed the latest book that I reviewed on my blog a lot less if I had been limited to its German translation which is most dreadful! All the elegance and lightness of language were lost. Luckily I only needed it to help me understand certain difficult passages.


    • December 21, 2014 at 12:58 pm

      I don’t think the translation was annoying. The French was odd at times but I have the feeling it was in the original text and not from the translator’s lack of judgement.
      I can only read in French and in English (most of the time) so I have to rely on translation. Of course, the best is to read the original but many of us don’t speak foreign languages well enough to do it.


      • December 22, 2014 at 6:37 pm

        It’s difficult for me to imagine that the translator of Peter Stamm’s book used odd or old-fashioned grammatical forms to translate peculiarities of style in the German original… Of course, also German has changed over time, but the differences between old and current language use rather show in the length of sentences, the extent of nestings and the choice of words. On the other hand, Swiss German has always been a thing apart…

        Well, the desire to read books in the original version has always been an important incentive for me to learn a new language. I’d love to learn even more, but how find the time?!


        • December 22, 2014 at 6:48 pm

          Stamm is a contemporary writer. I’m in contact with another reader who’s currently reading Stamm’s Seven Years in French and he didn’t notice the same particularities. I suppose Stamm used outdated tenses on purpose.

          Is there a lot of difference between the German spoken in Germany, Austria and Switzerland? I often think that German doesn’t translate well into French but the German books I’ve read sound heavier than the Austrian ones. Does it make sense or it was just bad luck on the translator’s side?


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