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Featuring central characters who dabble in polyamorous relationships with women they can barely recall and obsolete civil servants slowly dissolving into nothingness, Peter Stamm’s It’s Getting Dark operates in a world in which social norms are often suspended, and all perception is slightly askew. Originally written in German and translated into English by Michael Hofmann, these stories explore the dual meaning of darkness, with the world turning shadowy through both extreme weather conditions and the psychology of Stamm’s characters.
From the first of the collection’s 12 stories, “Marcia from Vermont,” Stamm, who was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 2013, creates a fictional world in which nothing is as it appears. As the longest piece in the collection and one of its most seductive, it tells the story of a successful artist who visits a retreat “in the back of beyond” in the run-up to Christmas.
As a blizzard rages, he recalls another Christmas in New York decades earlier, when he had been involved in an open sexual relationship with a woman named Marcia and several of her free-loving friends – both male and female. Although Stamm is never judgmental about the relationship, he invites his reader to understand that many of his characters’ values are outside the mainstream. “During those hours everything seemed to me possible and permissible, everything was correct and good. In the days ahead, we spent a lot of time together in varying configurations,” he says of his hedonistic youth.
And, with Marcia being established as a compulsive liar at the start of the narrative, it’s clear that neither the reader nor the characters can trust their perception of events. Despite the intensity of his relationship with Marcia, the narrator remarks on several occasions that he is uncertain whether he would recognise her if they were to meet again. “I don’t remember the colour of Marcia’s hair or eyes, or if she was short or tall, curvaceous or slim.”
Stamm heightens this sense of disorientation as the protagonist temporarily succumbs to an unspecified illness, which causes him to experience delirium and hallucinations. Like the characters, the reader feels trapped in a feverish state in which everything is slightly off-kilter.
Another element of the collection’s strangeness comes from the way in which Stamm dissolves the boundaries between the modern world and ancient myth-like themes. In “Supermoon,” the main character experiences the gradual disintegration of his physical body. Crucially, however, Stamm places this story befitting myth or folklore in a decidedly modern context, depicting an aging protagonist about to retire from a meaningless civil service job. “I am a part in a complex system, I too have been given a number and a set life expectancy, at the end of which I will be swapped out,” he says of his life’s work.
As his career comes to an end, his emails to the man who will take his job remain unanswered and, reminiscent of Echo in Greek myth, his colleagues initially fail to hear his invitations to lunch. This modern form of social invisibility foreshadows the disintegration of his physical body. Tellingly, the character doesn’t fear this process, instead he appears to find something oddly comforting in the act of fading away. In this exploration of the intersection between ancient and modern, It’s Getting Dark has echoes of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses.
Elsewhere, other stories tap into more primal emotions through the landscapes of folklore, with characters becoming lost or spirited away in possibly enchanted forests. In the title story, the narrator, whose brother disappeared when she was 10 years old, comments:
“The souls of the departed, people said, were caught up in the cotton grass, and truly they did strike me as a community of beings that had once dwelt here, and were whispering quietly in the wind, telling their stories of olden times, illnesses and storms, good and bad people.”
In such instances, Stamm’s pieces resemble fairy tales, with the sinister overtones purists of the genre would expect.
Another of the book’s strengths, and one not always found in short stories, is Stamm’s creation of fully realised characters, rather than empty stock figures. Although many of his first-person narrators remain anonymous, Stamm skilfully creates a sense of intimacy, which allows his reader to gain real insight into their motivations. “The Woman in The Green Coat”, for example, explores the feelings of otherness experienced by a retired doctor who returns to the hospital where he had worked for decades, but this time as a patient. “It was shaming and somehow fascinating how anxiously and fearfully I walked into the hospital, after spending my entire working life there,” he remarks. In “Cold Reading,” Stamm takes on an entirely different persona who is nevertheless equally authentic: a single woman who takes a cruise alone after splitting up with her boyfriend. He had suggested they go as friends, but she had rejected the idea – partially out of spite over the end of the relationship. In both scenarios, readers can imagine themselves behaving or feeling exactly as Stamm’s characters do.
Perhaps ironically for a book that takes its title from the concept of darkness, some of its strongest offerings deal with the theme of romantic love, although predictably these relationships subvert our expectations. In “My Blood for You,” a woman noted for her beauty, recalls an incident in which she accompanied a socially awkward middle-aged male colleague on a visit to donate blood. Following the procedure, he becomes ill and needs to return to the home he shares with his mother. As his health deteriorates, the pair develop an unconventional bond as he confesses that he has never had a girlfriend nor any real friends.
“When he stopped talking and stood still, she could see there were tears in his eyes. As if he’d been a child she put her arm around him and gave him a little hug. At that point she noticed something change within her.”
The writer’s talent for the short story genre is also evident as he seems to know exactly when to end his work. At the close of Stamm’s stories, we feel as though we have been introduced to a unique character at a turning point in their life, but we are also left with a sense that it isn’t the end of their development and that the character is changed by their experiences.
As is perhaps inevitable with any collection of short stories, some offerings are stronger than others. For me, “The Most Beautiful Dress” is the only real misstep, with the actions of its narrator – an outwardly shy woman secretly yearning for her George Clooney-like boss – a little hard to fathom. There are also one or two stories that I would have preferred to have darker or more sinister conclusions, which could also, of course, be a matter of personal taste.
If you’re looking to become submerged in a strange disquieting world, however, It’s Getting Dark certainly delivers – although this mood comes more from the stories’ soporific quality than any particularly shocking or violent events. And, if the stories are like a dream, there is a constant sense that a nightmare is never far away.
It’s Getting Dark
by Peter Stamm
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Other Press, 240 pages
Katy Ward is a freelance journalist from Hull. Her work has appeared in The Metro, The Overtake, LoveMONEY and Independent Voices. She has a BA in English from Oxford University and a postgraduate diploma from City University.