The Natural Way of Things
by Peter Stamm, recommended by Other Press
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Issue No. 14
EDITOR’S NOTE by Judith Gurewich
You could almost say that Peter Stamm and I grew up together. Ten years ago I read his novel Unformed Landscape in French, and it is the very book that gave me the yen and courage to become a publisher. I have stuck to my resolve — and to Peter — ever since. I have published all his work in English, with the exception of his first novel, Agnes.
Peter is one of those men who, like Flaubert, is blessed with a feminine sensitivity. “Kathrine c’est moi,” Stamm could have said about the thoughtful and courageous heroine of Unformed Landscape. Like Flaubert, he doesn’t explore the inner lives of his characters. Instead he lets them breathe on the page, using the details of every day life to furnish their moods, their sorrows, their cravings. How they sit on a train or get off before they reach their destination, for example, says more about their inner turmoil than the words themselves.
America and England had somehow resisted Peter’s limpid prose, his lack of pretense, and his seemingly unambitious plots. But with the publication of Seven Years everything changed at once. It may not be a coincidence that in this novel, Stamm’s typical existential quest turns to the meaning of masculinity and the dark side of male desire. From the New York Times to the New York Review of Books to the New Yorker, to Harpers, to the Economist , the Guardian, the Sunday Times, Peter is now compared to Philip Roth, to Milan Kundera, to James Salter! To my dismay, my author has suddenly become a tough guy! Yet, at least in my view, in Seven Years, darkness in sex doesn’t amount to much. The enigma at the crux of the novel resolves itself simply by its own admission that it was merely a decoy for postmodern confusion, and the story ends with the hero smiling at his own absurdity.
But now comes We’re Flying, a collection of stories that shows Stamm at his literary best. Here, violence is no longer biting its own tail. It has been transformed into a positive force. Take the story published here, the “The Natural Way of Things”: an ordinary couple on vacation in Italy. The husband is rather passive and the wife slightly dyspeptic, and we learn that having children would be a nuisance in their busy lives. They seem a bit bored with each other. We have no idea, by the way, why Stamm is writing about all this until the unexpected climax comes tumbling down, leaving you in shock. But what makes this story truly outstanding is the invisible thread that holds it together, as if the characters discover along with the readers the dramatic events that will bring a whole new spin on their lives (I don’t exclude the reader here). To tell you the truth, this is the reason why I haven’t published Agnes, the only novel that slightly exposes the way it was constructed. I am not ready to let Peter’s secret out yet.
Publisher, Other Press
The Natural Way of Things
by Peter Stamm, Recommended by Other Press
I’M NOT SAYING THEY TRICKED US, said Alice, but they didn’t tell us the truth. That’s what always happens, said Niklaus with a sigh, and he put a finger in the pages of the tour guide he had been browsing, it’s always different from what you imagine. You mean, it’s always different from the way the travel agents describe it, said Alice, and it’s always worse. Whatever, said Niklaus. They had had this conversation at least five times since they got here. Alice had expected the rental to be bigger, better equipped, and with a better-kept garden. She expected life to be different, thought Niklaus, that’s the problem, no sagging sofas or grimy ovens. And the oven is filthy, said Alice. Five minutes to the beach!, she said with a sarcastic laugh. You hardly ever use the oven, said Niklaus. And as for whether it’s five or eight minutes to the beach, what difference does it make, we’re on vacation. Of course it wasn’t just about the five minutes. It was about Alice feeling cheated, duped, and about Niklaus being passive and not sticking up for her. You let them get away with anything, she said. He changed the subject. What do you think about driving to Siena?
Originally, Siena was an Etruscan settlement, said Niklaus. Under the Romans its name was changed to Sena. The high point of its development was in the thirteenth century. That was when the university was founded, and the town hall built.
Trying to avoid the hordes of tourists, they had gone down little alleyways, and had gotten lost. Niklaus was reluctant to take out the little map in the guidebook, even though it was obvious to anyone that they were tourists. When he finally did, they had long since left the historical district, and were standing on a busy traffic street that wasn’t featured on the map. Normal life, he said. Makes an interesting change, don’t you think? But Alice had seen everything she wanted to see, the Palazzo Publico, the Art Museum, the Campo, and the Cathedral. Normal life was something she could see at home. Now her feet were hurting, and the rain could begin again at any moment. You don’t have a clue where we are, do you? I think, said Niklaus, turning the map round in his hands, we must be somewhere around here. Alice hailed a taxi. It didn’t even slow down.
On the way back, Alice moaned about the tourists choking the old town, just to buy a few ugly souvenirs. They had no idea of the treasures in the museums or the beauty of the architecture. If you don’t know something, how can you have any feeling for it, she said. You don’t know what they’re looking for, said Niklaus. I expect they’ll derive some good from it, otherwise why would they all have come here. They come because they come, said Alice. And when they return home, they’ll go on about the toilets being dirty or clean. And the food expensive or cheap. That’s what life is reduced to for them, eating and excreting. She laughed bitterly. I know, you’re right, said Niklaus. He was sorry he’d suggested the outing.
The next day it rained buckets. Alice and Niklaus read all morning. When the rain eased up around noon, they went to the beach, but it was full of noisy families and games of beach volleyball. They hadn’t been there long when it started raining again. Alice handed Niklaus his umbrella, and put up her own. They watched the bathers hurriedly packing their things, and racing past them laughing to take shelter under the awning of the beach restaurant. Serves them right, said Alice. Her mood seemed to have brightened slightly.
On the way back they shopped for groceries at a little store on the main strip. When they were out on the street afterwards, Alice made fun of the other customers who had addressed the storekeeper in loud German and seemed perplexed that he didn’t understand. They could at least learn pane and prosciutto and hello and thank you.
Outside the cottage next to theirs was a shiny black SUV with tinted windows and Stuttgart plates. The trunk stood open. On the road were suitcases and bags, a kid’s bike and a tricycle. A man emerged from the house and walked toward them. Alice greeted him in Italian. The man didn’t reply. Perhaps he didn’t hear you, said Niklaus as they crossed the garden into their own house. Alice shrugged her shoulders. I only hope the kids make as little noise.
Inside it felt humid, and there was a smell of old furniture and cold cigarette smoke. There should be a law against smoking in vacation villas, said Alice. If the chimney worked, then we could at least have a fire. They got the quilts out of the bedroom, and spent the afternoon on the sofa reading.
Over the next few days, they didn’t really get to see much of their new neighbors. The weather had cleared, and when Alice and Niklaus had their breakfast on the terrace in front of the house, the SUV was already gone, and they didn’t see it until they came from dinner at the end of the day, and there were lights on next door. Alice and Niklaus hadn’t so much as laid eyes on the woman and children. Maybe they don’t exist, suggested Niklaus. Once, they spent all day in the hills, touring wine estates, and bought a lot of wine and olive oil. When they returned at around five o’clock, the black Hummer again wasn’t there, but an attractive young woman was lying in a deckchair in the garden. She had on a skimpy flowered bikini, and was doing Sudoku puzzles. Buona sera, said Alice, but the woman didn’t respond any more than her husband had a few days earlier. After Niklaus and Alice had freshened up, they went out into the garden too, to read before dinner. No sooner had they sat down than their neighbors’ car pulled up, and the man and two small children got out, and went into the garden. Niklaus saw the man bend over the woman in the deckchair and give her a kiss, before vanishing inside. The children didn’t greet their mother, they had been quarrelling as they stepped out of the car, and were still bickering over something or other. The mother seemed to have no intention of intervening. She lay on her deckchair, puzzling over her numbers. Once, with an angry hissing tone and in broadest Swabian, she said, cut it out, the pair of you, but she didn’t even look up, and the quarrel went on as heatedly as before.
Alice lowered her newspaper and looked up at the sky. Niklaus pretended to be engrossed in his book. After a while, she threw it down, and went inside. Niklaus waited a moment, and followed her. He found her sitting at the living room table, staring into space. He sat down opposite her, but she avoided his gaze. She was breathing fast, and suddenly she fell into a furious sobbing. Niklaus went around the table, and stood behind her. He thought of laying his hand on her shoulder, or stroking her hair, but in the end he only said, just imagine if they were our children.
Alice had never wanted children. When Niklaus found that out, his first reaction had been relief, and he saw that it was only convention in him that had assumed he would one day start a family. On the occasions they had talked about it, it had been to assure each other that they had come to the right decision. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me, said Alice with a complacent expression, but I find children boring and annoying. Perhaps I have a wrong gene somewhere. They both worked hard and enjoyed their work, Alice in customer service at a bank, and Niklaus as an engineer. If they had had children, one of them would have had to sacrifice his career, and that was something neither of them was prepared to do. They travelled to exotic countries, had been on a trekking holiday in Nepal, and a cruise in the Antarctic. They often went to concerts and plays, and they went out a lot. All that would have been impossible with children. But sometimes Niklaus wondered if having a family might entail not just a loss of freedom, but perhaps a certain gain as well, perhaps he and Alice might have been more independent of each other, without the exclusivity of love and irritation.
Alice had grown up as an only child, while Niklaus’s siblings had no children themselves, so he and Alice knew practically only other adults. When friends of theirs came to have children, they usually lost contact soon after. If families came to visit, Niklaus and Alice were usually tense and impatient, and reacted clumsily to the clumsy efforts of the children to make friends. Then Niklaus would feel ashamed of himself. He had never regretted not having children, but sometimes he regretted that he had never even felt the desire to have any.
From now on, the Stuttgarters were often in their garden. Half the time, the children would be squabbling, and the rest of the time, they contrived to be just as noisy. The older of the two was a girl of about six. Every so often, for no evident reason, she liked to issue a piercing scream. Her brother was maybe half her age. He was capable of keeping himself amused for fully a quarter of an hour at a time by bashing two objects together. He would only stop when his father yelled at him. Then the mother would yell at her husband, and he would shout loudly back. The coarse dialect didn’t exactly improve matters. At other times Niklaus would see through the shrubbery between the two properties how the man sat in the grass beside the woman in her deckchair, and rubbed her with tanning lotion. She would have her bikini top off, and he was kneading away at her breasts, seemingly unconcerned whether anyone could see him. Eventually the two of them would disappear, and a quarter of an hour later, Niklaus would hear one or other of the children banging on the front door, calling for his parents.
Alice could stand the noise for ten minutes at most. A few days later, the mere sight of the neighbors in their garden made her turn on her heel. They took their meals indoors now, when they didn’t go to the local trattoria. Niklaus would propose trips, but Alice turned them all down. She was at war, and had to guard the terrain. Why don’t you say anything?, she said. Niklaus looked blank, and shrugged his shoulders. What can I say? If they were playing music outside, or making noise at night, then I could do something. I can’t tell them not to talk. Children can’t help being noisy. A rotten upbringing isn’t punishable. Common is what they are, said Alice, and Niklaus nodded thoughtfully.
When Niklaus was sitting alone on the terrace, he would catch himself repeatedly looking across to the neighbors’ garden. The woman lay out on her deckchair all day long, doing her puzzles. She had taken to sunning herself topless. She had small firm breasts that reminded Niklaus of those of the Polynesian women in Gauguin’s paintings. He felt a desperate desire to go over and touch them.
Sometimes the man would take the children to the beach, and Niklaus would prowl restlessly around the property, imagining how he might get into conversation with the woman. He would make some casual remark, and she would ask him where he was from. Oh, Switzerland, we only ever drive through it. Then she would realize the laundry was still in the machine. She put on her top, and he followed her inside, where it was cool and quiet. She looked him long in the eye. Well, what about it, she said, and took him by the hand.
When Niklaus turned round, he saw Alice standing at the window. She seemed to be observing him. He went inside. Alice hadn’t stirred, she was still standing by the window, as though he were still outside. He laid one hand on her shoulder; she tried to shrug it off, but he wouldn’t let her, and spun her around to face him, and kissed her. It took a while before Alice responded, and after a bit she freed herself, and said with a sarcastic laugh that the laundry must be finished. Niklaus followed her into the little room off the kitchen where the washing-machine stood, and watched as she took out their clothes, giving each individual item a shake. He followed her into the garden, and helped her hang up the wet clothes. She kept the underthings separate, and draped them indoors on a little rack, as she did at home. I have the feeling nothing gets properly dry here, she said. Her voice sounded softer than usual. That’ll be on account of the high humidity, said Niklaus. And they don’t get properly clean either, said Alice. This time she didn’t resist when Niklaus kissed her.
They lay side by side in silence. Alice had covered herself with a sheet, even though it was hot. Her expression kept changing, switching between the most diverse feelings, surprise, mockery, tenderness, grief. She seemed unable to decide on any one of them. Niklaus tucked his hand under the sheet and stroked her breasts, which were satin-soft and had grown fuller over time. They hadn’t slept together in ages, in fact he couldn’t remember the last time. If you think, he began, and stopped. Alice turned to him quickly, smiled affectionately, and looked away again. He wanted to talk about what had just happened, wanted to use the intimacy of the half-hour to influence the day ahead of them, but in the end he just asked Alice what she felt like doing. Should we go away somewhere? She said she was hungry, but to Niklaus it was as though she had said, that felt so good. We still are a couple. I’m glad. We could have something to eat in town, he suggested. No, said Alice, I feel faint, I need something right away. She took a deep breath and stood up. For a moment she remained standing by the bed, looking down at Niklaus. He liked lying in front of her like that, naked and relaxed and vulnerable. Alice often made comments about his weight, and he knew she went for slimly built men, but she was looking at him with devotion. I’ll just have a quick shower, she said. Niklaus got up too. He heard cries from outside. He went over to the window, and saw the Stuttgarters evidently on their way to the beach, weighed down with bags and inflatable toys and a cooler. All four of them had on colored clogs and ridiculous sunglasses, the mother had put on a skimpy beach dress, and the father was in shorts and a T-shirt with BABEWATCH on it in big letters.
In the afternoon Alice and Niklaus set out on a trip for the first time in almost a week. They were going to the nature reserve, not far from their village. They were most of the way there when Alice realized she had left the binoculars behind, so they turned back.
Only a few of the parking spots at the visitors’ center were taken. With this heat, everyone was at the beach, who but them would think of going birding. They followed a dusty gravel path, with bushes on one side and a narrow creek on the other, toward a wood. Niklaus felt tired from lunch, and he was sweating, but he was in good spirits, and was whistling away to himself. Alice didn’t speak much, not even to complain about the heat. When they reached the wood, it was barely any cooler than it had been out in the open. Niklaus kept stopping to consult a brochure of the reserve which he had found in their house. If we keep heading in this direction we should reach the sea in half an hour or so.
In fact, it was an hour later when they finally reached the sea. Alice kept herself to a few ironic remarks about Niklaus’s sense of direction. There were supposed to be nightingales in the park, but they didn’t see anything except a common buzzard and a few gray herons and moorhens in a pond.
There were lots of pieces of driftwood on the sand, limbs, sometimes whole trees, worn smooth by the wind and the waves and bleached silver by the sun. Alice took her shoes off, and paddled in her bare feet. Do you fancy a dip?, asked Niklaus. Alice looked at him questioningly. I’m sure there’s no one around.
They quickly got undressed and ran into the water. They were both excited, and kept glancing around at the shore. Imagine if someone steals our clothes, said Niklaus. Then we’ll have to stay in the woods, said Alice, and eat berries and hunt wild boar. And I’ll break into remote farmhouses at night, and steal eggs and the odd bottle of chianti, said Niklaus.
After their swim, they lay in the sun to dry, and then they brushed the sand off each other. Alice giggled when she saw Niklaus had an erection. Not that as well, she said. She left her hand on his thigh a moment, as though thinking about something, but then she got dressed.
It was getting dark as they returned to the visitors’ center, their car was the last one in the parking lot. Since they didn’t feel like cooking, they thought they would have a bite in town. It was midnight before they got back. Next door, the lights were still on.
The following day, Alice and Niklaus had breakfast outside. There was no sound from next door. They spent the entire morning reading. It was quiet. The SUV was out on the street, their neighbors had to be home, but they didn’t put in an appearance in the garden, not even in the afternoon. Maybe someone complained, said Alice, or maybe they’ve got food poisoning, and they’re all lying in bed with stomach aches. The silence didn’t seem quite real to her, she kept looking up from her book. Just be glad, said Niklaus. I never said they had to shut themselves away in the house, said Alice. Of course kids need to run around and let off steam. It’s just a matter of how they do it. At one point, a man in a suit showed up on the property, and went inside, a little later he went away again. Later on, another man came, but he didn’t stay long either.
I wish it was always this way, said Alice when things continued to be quiet the next day. They sat in the garden and played Scrabble. Alice had brought the dictionary from home so that they could look up any contentious words, but there were none. They both seemed a little distracted. Once, Niklaus saw someone walking past the windows next door, but he couldn’t quite make out who it was. I keep thinking about them, said Alice, it was almost as though they were less intrusive when they were noisy. At least I could tune it out.
In the late afternoon, they went down to the beach. They rubbed each other’s backs with sunscreen, and Niklaus felt as though Alice’s touch had changed since they had slept together, not more tender perhaps, but more aware. He too took his time about it, and noticed how Alice liked it when he pressed his fingertips against her spine and over her shoulder blades. It looks as though the vacation has turned out all right after all, she said. One week of rain, one week of fine weather, said Niklaus, I don’t think we can complain. Do we need anything? Bread and prosciutto, said Alice, we’ve still got some cheese. And something for tomorrow. I feel like cooking. Do you have money on you?
The shopkeeper, who usually greeted them boisterously, today merely nodded and mumbled something. Wonder what got into him, said Alice, filling up their basket. Olives?, she asked, holding up a jar of black olives. Niklaus nodded, and went over to the wine section, to look at the prices and compare them with what they had been quoted at the estates. When he turned, he saw Alice standing at the meat- and cheese-counter. The shopkeeper was jabbering away to her. Niklaus went outside, and read the headlines of the German newspapers on the rack. A moment later, Alice came out of the store, looking upset. She walked off, not turning to look for him. He caught up to her in a few quick strides, and asked what the matter was. That little boy is dead, she said. The father ran him over. He was reversing into the road, and didn’t see him behind him. They walked silently back to their vacation home. Niklaus put the shopping away. Alice stood leaning against the kitchen table, watching him. What shall we do?, she asked, when he had finished. There’s nothing we can do, said Niklaus, we don’t even know their names. We could ask them if they need anything, said Alice. It must have happened the day we spent at the nature reserve. The shopkeeper said the father’s cries could be heard all over town. I’m glad we weren’t here then, said Niklaus, and he felt rather cowardly. That evening, they ate standing up in the kitchen.
When Niklaus awoke, it was just getting light. He checked his watch, it was a few minutes past five. Alice was gone. He found her in the living-room. There was no light on, and she was by the window in her nightgown. When he came in, she quickly turned to him, and then looked away again. He came up behind her, and laid his hands on her shoulders. For a while they stood there in silence, and then Alice said, they’re leaving. Only now did Niklaus see that the back of the black SUV was open. Look, said Alice, and Niklaus saw the man from Stuttgart coming through the garden carrying a suitcase that seemed to be very heavy. Together they watched him come and go a few more times. Last of all, he carried the damaged tricycle to the car. He could find no room for it, and pulled out some of the already packed things, looked at everything in bewilderment, and packed everything back in. Then he went into the house.
Maybe that’s why I never wanted to have children, said Alice very quietly. Because I was afraid to lose them. We’re bound to lose each other some time anyway, said Niklaus. That’s not the same thing, said Alice, that’s in the natural way of things.
Niklaus went into the kitchen, to put on the coffee. Then he heard Alice calling him. He went to her, and put his arm round her bony shoulders. Now!, she breathed, as though something long-awaited was at last happening, and she pointed. The man had left the house again, he was supporting the woman who walked beside him with slumped shoulders and lowered head, leading their daughter by the hand. The woman was wearing a heavy wool sweater over her summer dress. The man walked her to the car, and helped her get in, as though she were handicapped or very old. The little girl stood quietly next to the rear door, until the father came around for her, and carefully strapped her into the child seat. Last of all, he got in himself. Through the window, they heard the engine start, then the headlights were switched on, and the car rolled very slowly away.
Niklaus heard the coffee machine spluttering in the kitchen, but he didn’t pay it any attention. He pulled off his pajama bottoms, and drew Alice to him by the hips. Urgently he raised her nightie, and reached a hand up between her legs. They made love standing up, more forcefully than a few days before. Alice didn’t say a word, he was hardly aware of her breathing.
Peter Stamm was born in 1963, in Weinfelden, Switzerland. He is the author of the novel Agnes, and numerous short stories and radio plays. His novels Unformed Landscape, On a Day Like This, and Seven Years, and the collection In Strange Gardens and Other Stories are available from Other Press. His prize-winning books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He lives outside of Zurich. His latest collection of short stories, We’re Flying, is now available from Other Press.
About the Guest Editor
Other Press is a New York-based independent publisher of novels, short stories, poetry, and essays from America and around the world that represent literature at its best, as well as nonfiction books on history, current events, popular culture, and memoir that explore how psychic, cultural, historical, and literary shifts inform our vision of the world, and of each other.
Co-founded in 1998 by current publisher Judith Gurewich, Other Press started out as a publisher of psychoanalytic and academic works. Over the course of the next five years, as her vision and the scope of the press evolved, Gurewich became convinced that the most meaningful and revealing “analysis” takes place in good fiction and creative non-fiction. Literature, by the nature of its calling, is continually forced to harbor elements of surprise, which grants it the power to transform its readers.
About Recommended Reading
Recommended Reading is the weekly fiction magazine of Electric Literature, publishing here every Wednesday morning. In addition to featuring our own recommendations of original, previously unpublished fiction, we invite established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommend great work from their pages, past and present. The Recommended Reading Commuter, which publishes every Monday, is our home for flash and graphic narrative, and poetry. For access to year-round submissions, join our membership program on Drip, and follow Recommended Reading on Medium to get every issue straight to your feed. Recommended Reading is supported by the Amazon Literary Partnership, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For other links from Electric Literature, follow us, or sign up for our eNewsletter.
Copyright 2008, 2011 by Peter Stamm. Reprinted by agreement with Other Press.
Originally published at recommendedreading.tumblr.com.