Halfway through Peter Stamm's new novel, Seven Years, an extraordinary moment occurs. The narrator, Alex, is remembering being with Sonia, the young woman who had just agreed to marry him. "We stood next to each other in the bathroom and looked at ourselves in the mirror. Two beautiful people in a beautiful apartment, said Sonia, and laughed."
For Alex and Sonia, there's no question about it; they are beautiful. And, so accustomed have they become to this, they are far more alive in their self-images than in their own bodies. "I turned and kissed her," the passage continues, "and thought of the beautiful couple in the mirror kissing as well, and that excited me more than the actual kiss itself."
While I was reading these words, a song began to play in my head – "Baby, You're a Rich Man" by the Beatles. "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?" It's a painfully snide question, and the next line is, if possible, even nastier: "Now that you know who you are." The action of Seven Years is a gently atrocious playing out of the consequences of Alex's being one of the beautiful people, and thinking that he knows who he is.
In the novel's opening pages we are masterfully presented with a set of complex relationships. It is the recent past, perhaps 2008. Alex and Sonia, now middle-aged and estranged, are attending the opening night of an exhibition of paintings by a woman in her 60s, Antje. Antje's typical subjects, grotesque chimerical creatures, are among the very few things in the novel not to have satisfying proportions and gorgeous surfaces. These aesthetic qualities preoccupy both Alex and Sonia, who are architects.
However, Alex's main preoccupation is and has always been something quite different – something ugly. Not really a thing: a person. Ivona. A woman. But a woman that Alex treats, from the beginning, as if she were a thing, an emotional tool, another mirror in which to admire himself.
Seven Years is far from being merely another novelistic account of an affair. What helps it transcend this is one of the great characters of contemporary fiction. "Meet Ivona … She's from Poland … The woman put her glass down on the table, and next to it her tissues and her book, which was a romance novel with a brightly coloured cover showing a man and a woman on horseback … There was something stiff about her posture, but her whole appearance was somehow sagging and feeble. She seemed to have given up all hope of ever pleasing anyone, even herself."
Alex is remembering Munich, the summer of 1989, the time he first met Ivona. He seduces her not so much because he can as because "her ugliness and pokiness were a provocation to me". Alex knows he should be faithful to the blandly beautiful Sonia, but over the years he keeps returning to Ivona, an illegal immigrant who ends up working as a cleaner.
Architecture serves as a slightly overinsistent metaphor for relationships throughout the book: Sonia presents Alex with a scale model of the cold, formal house she'd like them one day to build and live in; this is an ideal the beautiful couple continue to strive towards, but it's Ivona's series of warm, grubby, dark, badly decorated flats that are the only places Alex ever feels truly at home.
For long periods of Alex's life, he doesn't visit Ivona, or even think about her. She, though, is a devout Catholic – and believes that Alex is destined to become her husband. In her devotion to him, and in her horrifying self-mortification, she is like Rose, the waitress who loves Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.
Brilliantly translated by Michael Hofmann, Peter Stamm's prose comes across as relentlessly undemonstrative. Yet it is booby-trapped throughout, with devastations waiting to happen – there's one here, in the plain word "project", hidden just behind the cliché "time stood still". "It wasn't pleasure that tied me to [Ivona], it was a feeling I hadn't had since childhood, a mixture of freedom and protectedness. It was as though time stood still when I was with her, which was precisely what gave those moments their weight. Sonia was a project. We wanted to build a house, we wanted to have a baby, we employed people, we bought a second car … we were never done."
How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? It feels, Stamm seems to suggest, like being a project – a project to only ever treat other people as projects. It feels, in other words, like a very modern kind of hell.