A kind of double world
The Sweet Indifference of the World, Peter Stamm, trans. Michael Hofmann, Granta, 2020, 132 pp, £12.99 (hardback)
Christoph and Magdalena. Chris and Lena. Peter Stamm’s latest novel, The Sweet Indifference of the World, is a short, sophisticated tale for the post-truth era, in which four identities become irreparably intertwined. Our narrator, the middle-aged Christoph, invites a young woman named Lena to meet him in a Swedish cemetery: ‘I hadn’t left any number or address, only a time and a place and my first name: Please come to Skogskyrkogården tomorrow at two.’
Accepting the offer of a stranger, Lena meets Christoph, who shares with her his life story. He had fallen in love once, with an actress named Magdalena, some twenty years earlier. He describes his ex-lover in great detail: personality, appearance, professional ambition. The similarities between Lena and Magdalena are uncanny. Is it possible that Lena is a duplicate of Christoph’s former lover? Is she, two decades later, living out a doomed relationship with her version of Chris?
What follows is a series of looping, doppelgänger-like realities, where double egos slip past one other in sequence. In this meandering expedition, Christoph – a melancholy writer from Switzerland – questions his sense of self. He first met Magdalena at a hotel in the Alps. Soon after, she became the muse for his first successful novel, but the work put distance between them. After the break-up, he travels, lonely and depressed, to a book reading in his hometown (the only anonymous location in the book). It is here that Christoph glimpses his doppelgänger for the first time.
The storyline, from hereon in, is no small task. Loosely, we follow Christoph as he tries to convince Lena that history has repeated itself. Stamm flicks back to memories from Christoph and Magdalena’s original timeline and forth to the present. Eventually, the two begin to merge. Stamm’s circling narrative structure might easily have stagnated, turning and re-turning in on itself, but the author keeps plot moving apace. No scene is left untouched by duplicity nor the uncanny. His words are poised and images ghostly: ‘I can well remember my curious afternoons when I felt simultaneously very tired and strangely alert, that sense of having fallen out of time, and following my own irregular rhythm.’
Falling in and out of time, The Sweet Indifference is achingly metafictional – its layers are memories, our narrator tells us, folded like bed sheets – a haunting reminder of his break-up. Action meets consequence, authenticity artifice and living reliving. At an early juncture Christoph tells Lena: ‘I can’t tell you the end of the story . . . the only stories that have endings are the ones in books.’ Dense, dreamlike passages perpetuate the idea that Christoph, a now successful writer, never stopped telling the story that he started some twenty years ago. Perhaps his unimaginable reality is part of a plot development gone wild. Are we in on the charade?
Questions beget questions. Has Christoph, by turning his experiences into fiction, actually generated life? Has he created two new bodies through literary mimesis? It’s a Wilde-like idea, but one that offers its own ethical quandary. What responsibility does Christoph have as an author, not only of books, but of actions? Is Christoph’s doppelgänger an anthropomorphic manifestation of guilt after allowing his writing career to take precedence over Magdalena?
If everything you do happens twice over, and each decision you take affects not only you but someone else as well, who is helpless to do anything about it, then it’s better to think twice before you act.
Stamm offers his own theories through a scientific lens. In these moments, The Sweet Indifference takes inspiration from the mournful protagonist in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time (1992), a character who never recovers from the kidnapping of his three-year-old daughter. Christoph – on a similar trajectory to McEwan’s Stephen Lewis – moves into an apartment rented by a Physics student taking a semester abroad. Subsequently, he is introduced to the slippery world of Quantum Mechanics.
If he’s like you, and I’m like your Magdalena . . . then the whole world would be a kind of double world. And it’s not. No, I said, it’s not. There are distinctions, variations. Those are the mistakes, the asymmetries that make life possible in the first place. I once talked to a physicist who explained to me that the whole universe is based on a tiny mistake, a minute imbalance.
This development offers some sense of resolve for Christoph, tackling the discrepancies between timelines and their forking paths. But for Lena, and indeed, for readers, this short stab at scientific reasoning feels underdeveloped. Where McEwan tackled string theory, Schrödinger’s Cat and special relativity, Stamm’s brief sojourn into physics feels like duct tape over a puncture in the universe. Simultaneously, Stamm establishes the prospect of multiple chains and endless imitations. If one tiny mistake has occurred, perhaps it might it happen again. In this world, all characters may be subject to duplication at the hands of Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Christoph’s story isn’t special, and this is an idea he will have to face later on.
From Dostoyevsky’s The Double (1846) to Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985), characters have been confronting other versions of themselves for generations. Less than a year ago, the concept was revisited in Jordan Peele’s subversive horror film Us, which follows a young girl into a funhouse before she’s attacked and replaced by her double. There’s no ghostly realm in Peele’s tale, just a governmental body keen to control the lives of its population. The film tapped into an age of surveillance, anxiety and social unrest, and benefited from doing so, grossing $255.1 million against a budget of $20 million.
Like Peele’s sterile, bunker-like underworld, Stamm’s novel is set apart by its locations: libraries, museums and theatres. These are places with their own gravitational pull and stories to tell. Every setting is weighted like an anchor, rooting the narrative. A crescendo is reached after Christoph moves to Barcelona, a place supposedly untouched by his existential turmoil. This is a city he has never visited, so therefore, neither has Chris. But of course, there is no escape from the past – or the future – even if it’s far from home. Again, the story turns like water circling down the drain. What follows is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s not long until Christoph is driven into a state of despair with a Dorian Gray-like ferocity, terrified of his mirror-image and its threat to his memory. The book takes an extraordinary turn, salting the wounds of the digital age. Stamm refers to the rise of post-truths and deep fakes – the risks posed to history, democracy and truth-telling – as well as who we’ve become, online and as a virtual species. Our profiles can be hacked, harvested and manipulated in a matter of seconds. Each of our entire identities, like Christoph’s, could so easily be replaced by a younger, shinier model. Stamm draws attention to the virtual experiences of the worlds in which we exist; those we prioritise and choose (or perhaps neglect) to substantiate.
This is where the book offers a new, modern doppelgänger that sits sharply under the skin. It’s unnerving because it is deeply relatable – the idea that a version of ourselves can live on without our permission. And yet we’ve all grown complacent with our online identities and how they might be used, or perceived, in the future. Christoph, somewhere along the way, also becomes numb to his double. He accepts that there’s no way to know how many versions of himself there may be or what they may take from him. Stamm’s book suggests that being duplicitous – not ever really existing in the present moment – is simply part of the human experience today.
Stamm’s novel is succinct, unrelenting and magnetic. While not a revolutionary idea, the book gives pause to what truly defines us. In an age when our physical and psychological identities can be edited as easily as a webpage, The Sweet Indifference of the World is akin to this prism, scattering ideas of autonomy and destiny. There are no firm answers to be found here but a bold and brilliant spectrum of possibilities with sombre implications.
Words by Kate Simpson.
For more information and to buy The Sweet Indifference of the World by Peter Stamm, visit Granta Books.
Kate Simpson is an editor, journalist and poet based in York, UK. She is the Assistant Editor of Aesthetica Magazine and its affiliated awards, including the Aesthetica Art Prize, Creative Writing Award and BAFTA-Qualifying Short Film Festival. She has spoken for numerous events about publishing, journalism and the effects of the digital age on contemporary culture, including the Aesthetica Future Now Symposium and Frieze London. Her poems have appeared in political collections and newspapers such as The Morning Star. She also reads for Frontier Poetry, selecting works which have been judged by the likes of Ocean Vuong and Kaveh Akbar.
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