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"Seven Years" by Peter Stamm

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Alex pursues a career as an architect: he passes his exams, he draws, he puzzles over his influences, frets over the lack of creativity he sees in himself. He marries Sonia, a gorgeous, intelligent, ambitious fellow architect who represents everything he wants in a woman. Or almost everything.

With “Seven Years,” Peter Stamm has come out with the story (translated from the German by Michael Hofmann) of Alex, the weak and selfish young professional who splits his long-term commitments between a happy-on-the-outside marriage and an affair with a plain, uninteresting woman who immigrated to Bavaria from Poland. This bifurcation and its effect on everyone represent the bulk of the plot. The first-person narrative alternates between the current time and a sustained flashback which dictates the novel’s unsurprising outcome. Alex sees his wife Sonia as an ideal partner, principally because he sees that everyone else would think it. But he returns to undemonstrative, monosyllabic Ivona, his Polish lover, again and again, to make callous use of her. He finds her puppy-like devotion by turns infuriating and degrading. On the one hand, Hr. Stamm gives us Alex’s outward striving, where he looks for his place in society, viz. the successful firm, the beautiful wife and home. On the other, we get his yearning for dim, plodding Ivona. Ivona is the one who presents Alex with offspring; I always had the feeling that although she checked out physically fine, Sonia represented sterility, or the emptiness of our modern striving.

Hr. Stamm portrays his characters with high skill. Every action and reaction rings true in today’s image-conscious world. In the end we nod appreciatively as Alex learns he must cope with life with only his own devices, such as they are. Our appreciation for this outcome shows how successfully Hr. Stamm has drawn out his modern, cautionary tale.
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