Tales of what might have been

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The Swiss novelist Peter Stamm has built an international reputation as an author of subtle, psychologically astute novels. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, he pilots his protagonists inwards, towards an iceberg of emotion, identifying – and ultimately shattering – the frozen feelings that lie under the surface of even the best-ordered lives. At what cost, he asks, do we repress our desires and instincts? At what cost do we lie to ourselves?

The protagonist of The Archive of Feelings (Das Archiv der Gefühle) is an unnamed archivist. Having lost his job at a newspaper, he lives in his late mother’s house, where he occupies his days tending to his private archive of quirky ephemera (sample entry: “The Sounds of Water”). The conceit may sound Borgesian, yet the tone is anything but; more obsessive-compulsive than exuberant and playful, Stamm’s narrator asserts control for fear of having none. Defiantly analogue in a digital age, he prefers to collect life’s clippings rather than to live it.

The archivist’s emotional clock, it gradually becomes clear, was stopped forty years ago by his unrequited feelings for his classmate Franziska. Having gone on to become the pop star Fabienne, Franziska has hovered over all his subsequent attempts at relationships, an unattainable, unrealistic icon of what his life might have been. The plot, such as it is, intersperses the archivist’s reduced current life with reminiscences of their (almost) relationship forty years earlier: tales of meaningful near-misses punctuate the narrative. For all his apparent attempts at control it is in his imagination that the narrator comes most alive, as when Franziska suddenly appears next to him walking through the Swiss valleys, only to disappear as quickly as she came. Real emotion cannot compete with its archived avatar.

The pathos of the past conditional, the saddest of all tenses, thus comes to dominate the narrator’s story. What might have been, had he been bolder? Could he have lived a happier, fuller existence? His whole way of life – curating his archive, living in his parents’ untouched house – is designed “to oppose the passing of time, not to permit oneself to be washed away with the flood of change”. Franziska, before she became Fabienne, embodies the narrator’s prelapsarian sense of the immortality of youth: “Time seemed to be so abundant back then, it was as though there was no time”. Veering between flat, affectless narration and moments of sudden lyricism, Stamm’s prose (ably translated by Michael Hofmann) mirrors this sense of two competing timelines.

As the narrative progresses and Franziska reappears in the archivist’s present life, the boundaries between existence and imagination begin to blur. Memories of past relationships fade, to be replaced by half-remembered, half-hearted imitations of emotion, forever overshadowed by the one that got away. In truth it is not clear that Franziska was ever a serious prospect for the protagonist, and at times he is lucid enough to acknowledge as much: “There may be a pattern here or there, but that’s an illusion, just like the shape one can make out in the clouds, and which says more about our fear of formlessness than about the condition of the world”. In both philosophical and emotional terms Stamm’s narrator is an idealist, always disappointed by the messy, intractable reality of human relations.

By the end of the story his private friend Franziska has morphed into the public figure Fabienne. While it is increasingly hard to know whether the narrator is merely imagining what he relates, the change in name suggests that their relationship has shifted and that the present has finally overtaken the past. Fabienne’s closing question – “Are you leading a good, self-determined life?” – brings the story’s emotional development to its climax. If the implicit answer is that he has not been, the bitter truth is that his aloofness was self-imposed.

Perhaps, though, Stamm’s protagonist, like all his protagonists, simply lived the life he could. The self-pity of the past conditional lures us into thinking that things might have been otherwise, when very often they could not have been. Fiction can offer counterfactual narratives, but it can also teach us to counter narratives with facts. “What people ‘could have done’ is mainly what they’ve in fact done”, writes Henry James in his story “The Middle Years” (1893). The midlife crisis – on which The Archive of Feelings offers a subtle variation – pivots on this sense of thwarted possibility, but it can also allow us to realize that, for better or worse, we create our own possibilities. In the words of Mary Garth in George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “Might, could, would – they are contemptible auxiliaries”. Perhaps, as we grow older, we should archive those auxiliaries.

Ben Hutchinson is German Editor at the TLS. His most recent book, On Purpose: Ten lessons on the meaning of life, was published this year

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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