May 14, 2012

"Sweet Dreams"

By Peter Stamm
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
~5800 words

A young couple's routine in the first months of living together.

The third-person perspective cleaves to the main character, Lara, who comes across as a touch insecure in her relationship with her boyfriend:
Sometimes she asked herself if Simon had the sort of dreams that she had. It made her suspicious when he said, "Let's just wait and see—que sera sera. We're still young." In fact, he still felt as strange to her as this apartment, which was only slowly turning into home. She never knew exactly what he wanted; he didn't talk about himself much. It was only when he was with his friends that he seemed perfectly natural and relaxed.
At the beginning of the story we find Lara debating whether to buy Simon a corkscrew in the shape of a girl. Later she can't sit still when he leaves to buy a bottle of wine to inaugurate the corkscrew, and she goes searching for him in the pub on the ground floor of their apartment building. When they return to the apartment she pulls his clothes off and makes love to him on the kitchen floor.

Unfortunately, these details are pretty much the highlight of this story. The rest is filled with mind-numbing banalities including shopping trips to IKEA, sensationalistic headlines from the free newspaper, the geography of the Black Sea, and the content of late-night phone sex ads. Perhaps the point is to show the triviality of Lara's daily routine and consequently of her relationship with Simon—in ironic contrast to the title (?)—but the result is that a story about insignificance becomes insignificant in the mind of the reader.

The biggest disappointment, however, is the ending, which attempts to pull a rabbit out of a hat in the form of a hackneyed metafictional conceit: it turns out that the story is being written, or will be written, by a character in the story, a mysterious man Lara spies on a bus as she is talking to Simon. The man turns out to be a writer who, coincidentally, appears on a late-night talk show as Lara is channel surfing and explains that he has been inspired to write his story by his fleeting encounter with Lara and Simon on the bus. Except not really, apparently:
The writer shook his head. He wouldn't be painting a portrait of these two individuals. They had given him an idea for something, but they had nothing to do with the people he'd write about in his story. In actual fact, they weren't a couple at all, he said. They'd got off a two different stops and kissed goodbye on the cheek.
Or something.

Finally, and to make matters worse, Michael Hofmann's translation does Peter Stamm no favors. Since when does one unpick a price tag or dry oneself off on (rather than with) a towel? Are Lara's knees really scraped open after kneeling on the kitchen floor, or just scraped up? And then there are sentences such as this one, which seems to forget that German has a fondness for commas and coordinating conjunctions where English might prefer a period or semicolon:
"I wish you'd gone already," Lara said, and she poked her head around the door, and he kissed her and tried to push the door open, but she held it steady.
It's nice to see new blood in TNY's pages, but "Sweet Dreams" has very little to recommend it.


Reader poll: I found "Sweet Dreams" to be ___.

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