The note arrives without a contact number or return address, signed only with Christoph’s first name: “Please come to Skogskyrkogården tomorrow at two. I have a story I want to tell you.”
Thus Swiss author Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World unfolds with the simplicity and wild peculiarities of a dream. Christoph, a middle-aged writer, is haunted by his own past. After seeing an actress named Magdalena appear in a feminist restaging of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, he summons her with an obscure note. They have never met. At the appointed hour, she arrives. With a nod to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the pair begin a night of walking and deep discussion.
As they progress from the solitary alleys of the cemetery to the Stockholm’s streets, Christoph’s desire to meet her become clear: she closely resembles his first love, an actress named Magdalena, whom he met in the garden of an Engadin pension the summer she played the titular role in Miss Julie. The devastating failure of their relationship fueled his autobiographical debut novel and despite its breakout success, Christoph drifted into obscurity. Rejecting both further forays into fiction and a promising screenwriting career, his only tether was his burgeoning obsession with a young man named Chris, whom he believes to be his doppelgänger. But here, the actress stops him: this Magdalena prefers the name Lena, and her new husband Chris is on his way to commercial success as a television writer.
The Sweet Indifference of the World plays with our understanding of time and reality to create a nuanced exploration of fate and the role of control within the creative process. Shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize in 2013 and winner of the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize in 2014, Stamm’s quiet genius for exposing the longings of human nature has not gone unnoticed. His writing, expertly translated from the original German by Michael Hoffman, is best characterized by its restraint.
In The Sweet Indifference of the World, Stamm’s choice to pare his narrative down to two people on a long walk provides a sturdy scaffolding for the novel’s overarching questions and potentially confusing jumps in time. Enigmatic and melancholy in tone, the novel borders on the philosophical, and the dreamlike feel of the slim volume is buoyed by the stylistic choice to omit quotation marks. While the action is contained within a single night, their conversation allows us to jump back and forth in time as Christoph relays his memories of Magdalena and his encounters with his doppelgänger, Lena’s boyfriend Chris. This sharp focus on the tangled similarities of each of these four characters forms a foundation for an analysis of fate. Are Lena and Chris’s deviations from Christoph and Magdelena’s past triumphs of the transformative power of free will over fated trajectories?
As the night unravels, Christoph and Lena subtly question the singularity of individual experience. We begin to interrogate whether Christoph has a proprietary hold on the events of his life, his subjective memories, or simply his fictional interpretation. As Lena contradicts his narrative several times to point out diversions, Christoph recoils—at first with proprietary indignation, and then with mournful confusion. Is it the supposed originality and individuality of our experiences that give them their potency? If you consider living an art form in its own right, Christoph’s is plagued by plagiarism. Even his memory of Magdalena goading him into signing the library copy of his novel and the subsequent censure by the librarian is an echo of Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard’s iconic scene at the New York Public Library in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Upon this discovery, Christoph despairs. The vivid importance of his lived experience fades with the knowledge of its derivation. However, he is hit even harder by the knowledge of pointed differences between Chris and Lena’s lives and those of Magdalena and his own.
Like Stamm’s 1998 debut novel Agnes, there are parallels between Christoph’s possessive insistence on the way Lena and Chris’s lives are supposed to turn out and the ominous aspects of the control exerted by authors shaping lives on the page. “There are deviations, Lena said softly, so softly I wasn’t sure if it was sorrow in her voice or merriment,” Stamm writes. These “deviations” provoke a quiet anxiety when presented with Lena’s practically perfect copy of Christoph’s own timeline. Indeed, the ambiguity in interpreting Lena’s tone arguably lies in perspective—the sorrow of an author’s lack of control over his characters as opposed to an individual’s joy in their self-determination trouncing fate.
While Christoph’s story could come off as the unhinged ravings of an unreliable narrator, Stamm manages to suspend his reader’s disbelief. Even Lena sinks into Christoph’s vision of their parallel realities. “You’ve taken advantage of me, both of you in your different ways,” Lena says, blending her lived experience with that of Christoph’s Magdalena. The differences between their realities become parallel tracks in a shared narrative—each trajectory heightening a poetic melancholy in what the other lacks.
There will be deviations. Certainly, over the course of Christoph and Lena’s meticulous scrutiny of their lives, Stamm’s novel makes this fact clear. However, as each character subtly presents their case for narrative control, we are left wondering whether we should lament the deviations or the replications. Nuanced, philosophical, and as enigmatic as a dream, The Sweet Indifference of the World leaves its readers yearning for yet unattainable answers.
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