The first in our series with Granta on writers and their translators, Peter Stamm pens new short fiction and Michael Hofmann writes on translating Stamm.
After twenty years with one barber, I’m looking for a new one. At the age of exactly a hundred, Herr S. has closed his salon. He started out in 1933 as a trainee in Winterthur, worked in Lindau on Lake Constance and then in Lichtenstein for a few years before the war, before setting up his own business in 1945 in Zurich, where he has worked for the past seventy-four years. His salon looked just the way it must have looked in the forties, or even earlier, given that he had taken it over from a predecessor and barely changed anything.
Herr S. was a great reader of newspapers. Over the years, he had more and more time for the habit, as his customers died away or lost their hair and were no more trouble to him. Once, when I brought along my two boys for a trim, he groaned: ‘All that hair!’ It was the only time I ever saw him in a bad mood. After that, I went on my own again. It was the unfussiness of his salon that attracted me, our halting conversations, Herr S.’s movements that had become mechanical and streamlined over the decades, his ‘Merci, thank you,’ when I paid him. Over the years, he would occasionally mention retirement, but he kept putting off the moment. Quitting, I had the impression, would have been more onerous than going on working.
Herr S.’s salon seemed to be always open, from 7.30 in the morning to 6.30 at night. He hadn’t had a holiday for many years, in his younger days he had enjoyed going away, but that was no longer the case. Herr S. would occasionally tell me that someone from the paper, or from the local TV station had been by, suggesting an article or magazine feature about him. He was surely the oldest barber in Switzerland, perhaps in the whole of Europe. The interest flattered him, but he declined. He just wanted to do his job, and otherwise be left in peace. Perhaps he sensed that no newspaper article or TV spot was enough to encompass the thick end of nine decades in his profession: so many days, so many customers, so much hair. Any reportage would have turned him into a sort of freak, and that was the last thing he was or wanted to be.
When I sat in his ancient barber’s chair, I would often think of the Hemingway story called ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,’ about the old waiter telling his young and impatient colleague not to send the drunken regular home, but to let him have another drink. ‘Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the cafe.’ Later, he tries to explain to himself what it is that makes the place, the cafe, so important. ‘It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music.’ There then follows the famous riff on nothing: ‘It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it, and never felt it but he knew it all was already nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.’ Now Herr S. has closed his salon, and the only thing I can do is write about him, so that the clean, well-lighted place isn’t completely lost to me.
Translating Peter Stamm
Everything of Peter Stamm’s that has appeared in English – certainly, all the books of his that have come out in English – has been in my English. This has the feeling of a contented, faintly-worried boast (no translation being entirely without guilt). Peter is not hard to translate – he doesn’t write in Swiss dialect, he doesn’t use the glutinous, agglomerative syntax of German, his books are not buried in historical periods or in the specialist vocabularies of orchestral music or the law. Until lately, he didn’t even write about Switzerland, but set his books all over. He is in fact a distinctly Anglo-Saxon type of writer: limpid, efficient, swift. His stories move quickly and end suddenly.
His stars are the stars of the Anglo-Saxon world, Hemingway (as here), Chekhov, Carver, others. (In the German-speaking world this gains him readers but many suspicious reviewers and few prizes: where is the difficulty, they want the difficulty.) From the six novels and two (in the original, four) books of his stories I’ve translated over the past twenty years I owe him the memory and the feeling of many stories, many people, many places: Paris, the French Atlantic coast, New York City, Estonia, Barcelona, Norway north of the Arctic Circle, Munich, Stockholm; cities, islands, mountain villages; young people, old people; young men and girls, empty-nesters; latterly a kind of ghostly alternate reality in the story ‘Summer Folk,’ the novels To the Back of Beyond and the forthcoming Gentle Indifference of the World. What I feel towards him is an utter trustingness. Whatever he brings me will be fine. A feeling of having been promised.
Peter is kind enough to reciprocate. He trusts me back. I think of my trust as anticipatory, given in advance, his as retrospective. Whatever I do, it will have been all right. He knows this from experience. There will be reasons for it. It will have been given thought, and it will work in English, and it will be the best I can do. The style of the books is simple, but simple, as Peter’s admirer and defender, the translator or sometime translator and now thinker-about-translation Tim Parks concedes, isn’t the same as easy. It comes with its own difficulties. How to be absolutely natural. How not to come over as simple-minded, artless. There are always things to be learned, problems to be overcome.
The British variant of English seems to me to need at least an occasional minimum of showing off. (In his piece about his hairdresser, for example, I have ‘onerous’ and I have ‘riff’.) I give perhaps surprising amounts of thought to naturalness and clarity of surface on the one hand, on the other to a kind of Nordic sourness, lack of illusion, abruptness, suddenness and uncompromisingness of bad outcome. Blankness. Sometimes I run pairs of sentences together so that they aren’t too curt; I’ve thought a lot about polysyndeton and run-on sentences (what captious American grammarians are pleased to call comma-splice sentences). I’ve worked quite deliberately with pairs of prepositions to – as I thought – make an impression of pain. Sometimes, this has even been noticed. By my lights, it’s not fancy, and I would never inflict such a thing on Peter’s writing. If anything, it’s a little like what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’. Monosyllables at work.
Peter Stamm was born in 1963, in Weinfelden, Switzerland. He is the author of the novels Agnes, On A Day Like This, Unformed Landscape, Seven Years and the collection In Strange Gardens and Other Stories, as well as numerous short stories and radio plays. He lives outside of Zurich.
Michael Hofmann has translated books by Ernst Jünger, Franz Kafka, Wolfgang Koeppen and many others. His Selected Poems was published by Faber in March 2008.