I don’t normally write here about books I didn’t like, or felt indifferent toward. First, I’m unlikely to finish them. Second, if the book is out of print, as this one is, there’s not much point in writing a post just to say: Here’s a book you probably haven’t heard of; and it’s no good. Peter Stamm’s Agnes is not, in fact, no good, but it doesn’t match up to the high standards expected when Michael Hofmann’s name is attached as translator. It was by searching for Hofmann translations that I found Stamm. Another novel of his, Unformed Landscape, has the funniest (intentional, I hope) quote of praise I’ve read in a long time, from the New Yorker: “If Albert Camus had lived in an age when people in remote Norwegian fishing villages had e-mail, he might have written a novel like this.”
Agnes (1998; tr. 2000) is an object lesson in the dangers of book blurbs, which have to be interesting enough to make the reader pick the book up, but not so detailed that they will detract from the pleasure of following the line the author has drawn. Here, the blurb tells the story from start to finish.
Agnes is dead. Killed by a story.
All that is left of her now is this story. It begins on that day, nine months ago, when we first met in the Chicago Public Library…
‘Write a story about me,’ Agnes said to her lover, ‘so I know what you think of me.’ So he started to write the story of everything that had happened to them from the moment they met.
But as he writes, at first studying her intently from his computer, and later on his own, the borders between fiction and real life begin to blur. Each day he reads a new chapter to Agnes, and eventually their story catches up with the present.
On New Year’s Eve he leaves Agnes alone in their flat. She turns on the computer and reads on, into the future which he had imagined for her. And to her death.
Agnes is an unforgettable and haunting love story with a chilling conclusion.
The problems with this are threefold. First, it sells the book as some sort of metafictional piece of postmodernism, which it is not. There is no real blurring of the border between fiction and real life in the story, or in the story which Agnes’s lover writes about her. Second, it omits what is actually most interesting about the book, which is its portrayal of personal interdependence and freedom. Third, it is not accurate: in neither the story nor the story-within-a-story is there any indication that Agnes has died, and only the most generous interpretation would allow for it. The pointer does also appear in the opening line of the book (“Agnes is dead. Killed by a story”), but this is a far more ambiguous use of ‘dead’ and ‘killed’ than the blurb suggests. So by altering my expectations of what the book was about, it became a disappointment which it needn’t have been.
The narrator, unnamed, is a Swiss writer living in Chicago, who has published non-fiction books on Pullman trains and the like, and whose aims for art have broken down over the years (he started a novel but never finished it). He is disaffected and disinterested.
I liked [the coffee shop] because none of the waitresses knew me or talked to me, because I didn’t have a special place where I always sat, and because someone asked me every morning for my order, though it was always the same.
He meets Agnes, with whom he falls in love (“I felt an almost physical dependency on her; when she wasn’t there I had a dismaying sensation of not being complete”), but this love does not improve his constitutional mood:
We imagine we all share the same world. But each of us is in a mine or quarry of his own, just chipping away at his own life, doesn’t look left or right, and can’t even turn back because of the rubble he leaves behind him.
The story explores dependency: the narrator’s for Agnes; hers for him when he begins writing her story which she comes to rely on as a guide for what to do (“Now Agnes was my creation”); the reader’s for the author generally. “I’m always sad when I finish a book,” says Agnes. “It feels to me that I’d become the character in it, and the character’s life ends when the book does.” (This, presumably, is the passage which is supposed to lead us to conclude that Agnes dies at the end of the book.) This dependency clashes with the need for freedom, as the narrator observes when his relationship with Agnes ends. “My freedom had always mattered more to me than my happiness.” It is also reflected in the research the narrator does on his Pullman trains, finding that their creator, George Mortimer Pullman, suffered a revolt by the workers for whom he had created a model village:
The failure of Pullman’s vision and the uprising of his labour force against the complete control of their lives by their employer fascinated me more than the company’s celebrated railway carriages. It seemed that Pullman had planned for every contingency, except his workers’ desire for freedom. He thought he had constructed a kind of paradisal community for them. But his Paradise didn’t have a door.
The question for Agnes and the narrator is whether life has a door. There’s not much spoiling to be done here – the book comes pre-spoiled by that blurb – but one other excerpt is worth quoting, going right back to the issue I began with, of whether to write about books we don’t care for. The more I write about it, the less sure I am that I didn’t care for it. Why do we go back to books we’re unsure of? Does hope spring eternal, do we think that all writing must have some qualities if only we can dig deep enough (in the same way that even a poor film gives me pleasure, because I so enjoy the experience of going to the cinema)? Or is it something else?
‘I don’t read much anymore,’ said Agnes. ‘Because I didn’t want books to have me in their power. It’s like poison. I imagined I’d become immune. But you never become immune.’