It’s Getting Dark
by Peter Stamm
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Other Press, 2021
Reviewed by Nicole Yurcaba
Rarely does a short story collection exist where, from beginning to end, each and every story possesses the ability to capture readers’ attentions. However, not every short story collection is Peter Stamm’s It’s Getting Dark. With its breathtaking prose translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, It’s Getting Dark transports readers into the existences of numerous individuals facing their own existential crises. There’s Peter, the solitary artist staying at an artist’s residency whose reflections about a past affair reveal its consequences through a series of uncanny connections. There’s Sabrina, the unlikely beauty who follows the same path as a sculpture of her likeness into a life she didn’t realize she could have. There’s Adrian, unemployed and struggling in his relationship, who manipulates his girlfriend’s email account after discovering her electronic flirtations with a man named Dietrich.
In other stories, readers face the deepest grief and unspoken love and devotion as vast and mysterious as the Earth’s oceans. Fusing psychology and emotion, Stamm’s fiction at first reads simply, but as readers find themselves swimming headlong into poetic descriptions and visceral confessions, they realize that the stories housed in Stamm’s collection are tiny icebergs–only a tiny portion of their true message lies tangible surface; to discover the rest, readers must look closer at humanity’s workings, but also at themselves.
“Marcia from Vermont,” with its isolated Vermont, Christmastime setting opens the collection. At first, when the story’s main character, Peter, begins reflecting about his past, readers might feel the story is about to transform into a modern-day A Christmas Carol. However, the only ghosts Peter encounters during his isolated stay at a Vermont artist’s residency are those of his memory, a place where fact, fiction, and perception blur and twist, sending Peter into a frantic examination of not only himself, but also others’ lives that he possibly ruined.
In “Nahtigal,” readers encounter David, a young man worn thin by the day-to-day drudgery of his office job. As David begins plotting a bank robbery, readers travel the inner workings of a man about to commit a crime–the research he invests, the home life he is about to abandon, the thoughts and memories that might just keep him from making the worst, most irrevocable decision of his life. This examination of human psychology and the motives behind decisions continues in “Dietrich’s Knee,” where readers meet Adrian, an unemployed young man fraying at his edges. When Adrian’s girlfriend leaves her laptop at home one day and calls home to ask Adrian to email her some files, Adrian’s snooping reveals a flirtatious email from “Dietrich’s Knee” to Adrian’s beloved Sabine. Instead of confronting Sabine about the emails outright, Adrian forms a scheme of his own: creating an email account and disguising himself as Dietrich– a move that has surprising consequences for both Adrian and Sabine.
In other stories, like “It’s Getting Dark” and “My Blood For You,” Stamm’s writing continues its simplicity and clinical examinations, yet it is anything but sterile. “It’s Getting Dark” blooms with Emersonian descriptions of the Swiss countryside, but as readers traverse the steep hillsides and lush fields where the narrator’s brother disappeared, they travel further and further into her grief and her devotion, as well as the convoluted memories of her childhood. The descriptions remind readers of Nature’s overall power and that “The landscape isn’t to blame, it has no memory, no past it’s always just what it is in the moment, what it always has been.” The story embraces the Transcendentalist ideal of immersing oneself in Nature in order to heal: “It’s my path, my fate, my brother I must find. It’s my cry that is swallowed in the fog, my joy or lament, my ecstasy.”
Similarly, “My Blood For You” challenges modern conventions and definitions of devotion as young Bianca recalls to a coworker the days she spent caring for Herr Bruno, whose world shattered after he learned that he could not donate blood because of the medication he took. For weeks, Bianca takes care of not only Herr Bruno, but also his aging mother who lives with him. Again, the simplicity of Stamm’s writing and the intimate, poetic descriptions create a powerful emotional journey for readers, and Bianca leaves readers pondering the true nature and definition of love: “If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that in love it’s not experience that counts but devotion.”
The stories carefully, literally, and figuratively balance the light and the dark in Stamm’s collection. Memory fails and blurs, reshapes with each retelling and recollection, and the actions of Stamm’s characters reinforce to readers that relationships are some of life’s most fragile threads. Yet, just when it seems that those threads are about to tear, break, loosen, through action and inaction, Stamm’s characters bend and twist their worlds, worlds that remind readers of the fragility and intricacy of their own. It’s Getting Dark is a philosophical examination of everyday mundanity that so often leaves people empty, and yet Stamm’s portrayal of seemingly banal occurrences remind readers that all around them, and inside them, lies importance, significance, and most of all, freewill.