The text on Magdalena and my life had lead nowhere. I had spoken to her about it adding that too few things happened in our existence to turn into literature. Why write all that I said, we are already living it. In truth I was afraid Magdalena would become foreign to me, that the fictional character could irrevocably replace the real character…..actually I didn’t like to see her on stage, maybe because I didn’t want to see that she could be completely different, that our love wasn’t the only possibility that she carried within her.***
As this book opens the narrator, an old man, is haunted by a young woman, Magdalena. In this mysterious book by Peter Stamm read for German lit month VIII the narrator begins by inviting an unknown young woman whose name is Magdalena but who is known as Lena to a rendezvous in a cemetery in Stockholm. As the story moves on he confesses to Lena that twenty years earlier he had separated from the one great love of his life, Magdalena, an actress, and of his insecurity over their relationship, of the differences between who she had been and how he had imagined her illustrated by the opening quote. He finally leaves her in order to better concentrate on his literature, then writing and having published the only book he ever wrote which concerns their lives and their separation.
But who is Lena, she is an actress too, she resembles Magdalena and has acted in the same play by Strindberg as had Magdalena. We learn that he had first come across her partner, Chris, a young writer that resembles himself whilst visiting his home town, Chris worked in the same hotel he had worked in, went to the same university and finally had a partner called Magdalena. The narrator, after following Chris over a period of time and then confessing to Lena, tries to alter their lives so that they remain together:
I didn’t cheat on Magdalena, I repeated. And what does that change? says Lena. I thought that if you and Chris were to meet here, everything could end differently this time, I said. He would realise things, you would talk, go back to the hotel, everything would end well. And he wouldn’t write the book says Lena. That’s what you were counting on isn’t it? Her voice was still exasperated. I think we can sort things out ourselves. Or do you believe that you can put your life in order by wrecking our’s?***
Lena asks him the key question, had leaving Magdalena made him happy. A short intense book, but the opening chapter tells of the tragedy, of the ever young woman visiting the man who doesn’t recognise himself trapped in his old body.
First Published in German as “Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt” in 2018 by S. Fischer Verlag
Translated into French by Pierre Deshusses and published in 2018 by Christian Bourgois
*** My translation