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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Sweet Indifference of the World

Peter Stamm

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To purchase The Sweet Indifference of the World

Title: The Sweet Indifference of the World
Author: Peter Stamm
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 123 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Sweet Indifference of the World - US
The Sweet Indifference of the World - UK
The Sweet Indifference of the World - Canada
La douce indifférence du monde - France
Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt - Deutschland
  • German title: Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt
  • Translated by Michael Hofmann
  • Swiss Book Prize, 2018

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely slippery tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 2-3/2020 Clancy Martin
FAZ B 24/3/2018 Katharina Teutsch
Le Monde . 13/9/2018 Florent Georgesco
NZZ A 21/2/2018 Paul Jandl
Le Temps . 26/10/2018 Stéphane Maffli
TLS . 20/3/2020 Becca Rothfeld
Die Zeit . 15/3/2018 Hannah Schmidt

  From the Reviews:
  • "For Stamm’s hero, though, the sweet indifference of the world is matched by his own gratitude for its acceptance. This is the kind of love he has to give, and the kind of love he wants: telling a story, listening to a story, expecting only a little and also not promising too much. (...) I don’t think the novel contributes much as metafiction. But its meditations on how erotic love may work are fascinating. And of course Stamm’s prose, as always, is lean, deliberate, and gorgeous." - Clancy Martin, Bookforum

  • "Lakonie heißt es, sei die stille Kraft aller Romane Peter Stamms. Hier schlottert sie allerdings wie ein viel zu dünnes Leibchen auf einem Denkgerippe, das im 21. Jahrhundert seltsam morsch wirkt. Andererseits, und das muss man Peter Stamm zugutehalten, liest man dieses Buch nicht ungern. Man hat es allerdings schnell wieder vergessen. Es hinterlässt eine „sanfte Gleichgültigkeit“, und vielleicht ist das ja gewollt." - Katharina Teutsch, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Das ist vertrackt und auf gut abgesicherte Weise raffiniert, denn durch die komplizierte Handlung fädeln sich Sätze jener adjektivfreien Schlichtheit, für die Peter Stamm berühmt geworden ist. (...) In staunenswerter Perfektion lässt er seinen Roman abschnurren, verpasst ihm auch noch eine Rahmenhandlung und greift ein, wo Grenzen der erzählerischen Hygiene überschritten werden könnten. (...) In Peter Stamms erfundenem Roman, dem Buch im Buch, steht schon alles. Es könnte eine Gebrauchsanweisung für die Nachgeborenen sein. Ein Tutorial zur Fehlervermeidung in Zeiten allgemein verschärfter Lebenslagen." - Paul Jandl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Malgré cette complexité, La douce indifférence du monde est un récit simple et agréable à suivre car Peter Stamm reste fidèle au style concis de ses textes précédents: un vocabulaire courant et des phrases sobres qui vont droit au but. En lisant les 37 chapitres si courts que certains s’apparentent à des vignettes, on sent que l’auteur est un grand maître de la nouvelle" - Stéphane Maffli, Le Temps

  • "This is a neat and unsatisfying trick. Stamm's characters, like his narrators, can only exist because they do not exist. If Magdalena's boyfriend can lead the same life as Stamm's narrator, it is only because both of their biographies are so schematic and impersonal -- because, that is, all vacancies resemble each other." - Becca Rothfeld, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Das Erinnerungskarussell, das Stamm anschmeißt, erreicht das Höllentempo einer Zentrifuge. Und am Ende seines Romans sind Autor und Protagonist, Schreiber und Geschriebenes nicht mehr voneinander zu unterscheiden. Ein betörend verwirrendes Buch." - Hannah Schmidt, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sweet Indifference of the World is narrated by Christoph. Around fifty years old now, he had published a book and found some success as an author fifteen years earlier but never been able to follow up on it. For three years, almost two decades ago, he had been happily in love with an actress, Magdalena -- and his story has him now encounter another Magdalena in the same Stockholm he once haunted with his, drawing her out into the city and into his past with a message he leaves at her hotel, signed simply with his first name and reading only:

Please come to Skogskyrkogården tomorrow at two. I have a story I want to tell you.
       Boy, does he ever -- and, despite how cryptic the message is (summoning her to a freaking cemetery, no less), Magdalena shows up to listen to it.
       The narrative is presented in short chapters -- thirty seven of them in the short book -- and while they can be said to shift back and forth in time they also meld, double, and repeat it. Already years earlier Christoph had first encountered a doppelgänger, a younger version of himself; the second encounter with the young man: "threw me for a loop" he admits -- and this narrative and this time he spends with this Magdalena is just him continuing in this loop.
       Yes, this second Magdalena calls herself Lena, and everyone calls her boyfriend Chris, but that's just a small shift in the overlap between the two couples. Like Magdalena, Lena is an actor; like the younger Christoph Chris is working on a novel. And what connects them isn't just such similarities, but rather actual events and experiences -- separated only by more than a decade. It's eerie how well Christoph knows Lena and Chris, and while Lena has her doubts about (t)his story -- "I don't think he's anything like you", she insists (or tries to continue to convince herself ...) about her Chris -- she gets drawn into it, sticking with Christoph on the unusual tour they take -- unusual both as far as their Stockholm-ambling goes (quite far) as well as Christoph's past-and-present ramblings.
       Though Christoph practically begins his narrative with the note he sent to Lena's hotel, inviting her to hear his story, it's only well into the novel that he gets around to revealing how he came across her and what led him to leave that note. He explains to her that, before making contact:
I followed you all afternoon, for at least a couple of hours I wanted to live in the illusion that I was young again and I could give my life a different turn.
       His stalking is not menacing, but it is a determined sort of pursuit; he similarly followed his doppelgänger. Oddly, he is not noticed by his subjects -- "How odd, said Lena, I didn't see you", Stamm adds for emphasis. Meanwhile, Christoph also wonders whether he himself might not have had a similar shadowy stalker sixteen years earlier, in a further recursive loop .....
       When Christoph was with Magdalena, he struggled with becoming a writer. The book he finally managed to write was one about their life and relationship -- but also came at the cost of it, his fictional Magdalena coming in some significant ways to overshadow and replace the real one. If the cause of their split was then a different one, it was nevertheless also one of Christoph's words failing him, of him being unable to explain himself to her. And then, in trying to convince doppelgänger-Chris of what he had experienced and written, the very existence of the book is cast into doubt.
       A neat scene has Christoph try to literally resurrect the book, to re-write it, verbatim -- only to find:
     I had thought I had my novel in my head word for word and scene for scene, but when I started writing it out again, the memory dissolved, and I realized how much I had forgotten. It was like a dream, where everything seemed perfectly clear, but which recedes at once, the moment you try and look at it hard, concentrate on it. My recollection of the book didn't consist of words and sentences, but feelings, which are much more precise than any thought could ever be, but at the same time elusive.
       Christoph repeatedly reflects on memory -- noting also how he barely has any tangible recollection of many of the major events in his life, while there are small, arguably insignificant scenes which he finds: "twenty or thirty years later they're as vivid to me as though they had only just happened". Christoph's narrative, in its back and forth and the pieces that are highlighted, itself reflects that. In part, The Sweet Indifference of the World is also about capturing and reflecting the essential: already the book he wrote so many years ago was an attempt to capture his life at that time -- with his written Magdalena ultimately overshadowing the real one, the sense and memories of her more real than the woman he could not hold onto. His present-day effort -- both the written narrative and his encounter with Lena (as well as earlier ones with Christoph) -- are not only an attempt at recapturing and reliving the past but a thought-experiment of: could it have been otherwise. It is a re-writing of life, and of trying to exert control over our stories -- and realizing that they have lives of their own.
       The Sweet Indifference of the World is an appealingly elusive tale. Stamm's neatly turned short chapters, with episodes that, even when they include unusual elements, nevertheless feel grounded in the real contrast with a much more ambiguous larger tale. As Christoph admits to Lena:
Of course I've doubted myself. The whole story drives me crazy. But what should I do ?
       Stamm's novel is not so much open-ended as it is simply open, allowing even in its conclusion different interpretations of just what the hell is going on. It's an approach that can be frustrating, but Stamm handles it about as well as one can, making for a satisfying, and satisfyingly though-provoking, experience (that goes beyond just reading-experience).

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 January 2020

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The Sweet Indifference of the World: Reviews: Peter Stamm: Other books by Peter Stamm under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Peter Stamm was born in 1963.

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© 2020 the complete review

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