Reading Lessons

Peter Stamm’s Seven Years

A novel of delusion, obsession, and redemption

By Will Boast | June 22, 2015



For pure pleasure, I read and re-read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book that most astonished me recently was Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. And for their utterly unique, authentic voices, I must also mention Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories and Natalia Ginzburg’s essays in A Place to Live. But the book that I’ve felt the strongest kinship with over the last several years is Seven Years, by the Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm. Published in translation in 2010, Seven Years is Stamm’s fourth novel, and like his other books, is distinguished by its spare, unflashy prose and streamlined narrative:

Alex, a handsome architect, begins dating his colleague Sonia. She is intelligent, cultured, ambitious, and beautiful, and they seem an inevitable, enviable match. But Alex also begins an affair with Ivona, an illegal Polish immigrant with whom he quickly becomes obsessed. On first glance, it’s the most shopworn of love triangles. Stamm, however, twists it with unrelenting, implacable force. Rarely have I put down a book and actually gasped. When the events of Seven Years all clicked into place—on that first, captivating read—I was stunned. I’ve read it several times since and always marvel at the way Alex’s narration, seemingly so direct and calm, is only the dark surface of a deep well of pain. Seven Years is a tremendously upsetting book. “It gets under your skin,” Zadie Smith has said, “and then it really fucks with you.”

Yet we never feel Stamm going for cheap effects or trying to prod or provoke us. His realism is so unadorned, so modestly presented, that it feels uncannily like real life. Seven Years shows us how delusion and obsession shake our lives and, crucially, how we might then pull ourselves out of the rubble of our transgressions.

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