My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This short novel left me with a lot of ambivalent feelings: on the one hand, it is quite spare and unflinching. The unadorned prose seeps melancholia. On the other hand, there is quite a distance between the reader and the text. This produces a curious lack of affect, with the novel ultimately being underwhelming.
Of course, that could be precisely the impact the author was aiming for. I did find myself mulling this book after I had finished it. Somehow it crept into my brain space, as certain books are wont to do – a thought, a reference, a comparison; anything can produce a touchstone for the reader. Whether or not this means it is a good or well-written book is, however, debatable.
All Days Are Night is the first novel by Peter Stamm I have read; a brief bio mentions him being a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. Stamm lives in Switzerland and writes in German; this was translated by Michael Hofmann.
I mention these facts because there is a definite European feel to the novel, a kind of Savoir-faire wrapped up in fatalism, like a mystery within an enigma. This curious duality is reflected in the title, from a William Shakespeare quote:
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
It is also one of those novels that not only start as one thing but then end up as something totally different, but one where those turns are quite unexpected.
It begins with Matthias and Gillian having a quarrel at a party, and then ending up in a car accident on the way home. Matthias, who remains a cipher throughout the novel, is killed, while Gillian’s face is disfigured. Okay, the reader thinks, I can see where this is going …
We then learn the reason for the argument: Gillian posed nude for an artist called Hubert. The second part of the book tells Hubert’s story, his estrangement from his wife and son and his disaffection with his own artistic integrity and capability.
Hubert and Gillian eventually meet up again at a mountain resort, where she is entertainment director. Both are changed people. I do not want to give the ending away, suffice it to say that it is heartbreaking and liberating at the same time. Ultimately we realise that the accident was merely the start of Gillian’s evolution as both a woman and a unique human being.
There is a lot here too about art and representation, and how we derive meaning from the world through imagery and sensory impressions. Hubert’s crisis of art is quite convincing.
Stamm also paints a believable portrait of Gillian as a television producer and writer, whose vocation very much relies on her beauty. When this is destroyed by the accident, it results in her own professional and existential crisis.
We really do get a glimpse into the souls of these two damaged and disparate people, and the forces – a lot of it beyond their control – that both attract them to, and repel them from, each other.
Worth reading if you like fiction that probes into the psycho-pathology of its characters, without pandering to its readers, and with no clear-cut resolutions to the complex questions it poses. Perhaps little joy to be had here, but a smorgasbord of thought.