No question that everything is bleak for Peter Stamm’s main character, an attractive TV personality named Gillian, soon after the story begins. She barely survives a horrendous automobile accident that kills her husband, who is driving. Her beauty vanishes instantly. Her nose and much of her face are gone and will need to be reconstructed. The plastic surgeons assure her that they can restore her looks to what they were before, though—with months and months of reconstruction to endure—Gillian is pretty certain that what they’ve told her is not possible. Looking at anyone else is difficult. “Every intact face reminded Gillian of the destruction of her own.” Her natural inclination is to withdraw from life, hide away so no one will have to look at her. “She would never look the way she had before the accident.”
And talk about guilt, not just because her husband, Matthias, is dead. “Her life before the accident had been one long performance. Her job, the studio, the designer clothes, the trips to cities, the meals in good restaurants, the visits to her parents and to Matthias’s mother. It must have been a lie if it was so easy to destroy with a moment’s inattention, a false move. The accident was bound to happen sooner or later, whether in the form of a sudden catastrophe or a gradual unraveling, it was coming.” Worse, shortly before the night of the accident, Matthias had discovered photos of Gillian, naked, and assumed that she was involved with another man. There had been no affair, but Matthias got so drunk that he should not have been driving the two of them home. How do you pick up the pieces after such horror as this?
Out of the hospital, finally, Gillian turns against her own body—after all, isn’t it possible to say that it was her beauty that resulted in such payback? “For days she had worn the same pajamas, she didn’t wash or shower, and she lived entirely on junk food. She watched her body change as she put on weight and developed spots on her back and her chin. For the first time in years she was aware of her body odor.”
Abruptly—discombobulating the reader—All Days Are Night shifts to the artist, named Hubert, who took the photos of Gillian, a man she had actually tried to seduce though he had refused her offer. He seems to be a bit of a schmuck or maybe I should say tease. After all, he led Gillian to believe that he was interested in her—before the accident. He’s known for his paintings of
women who are naked. And the process he pursues includes identifying ordinary women in everyday situations, and—if they are comfortable with his request—he begins by taking many, many photographs of them. Then, when they are accustomed to him, he asks them to pose naked, which is what he did with Gillian. But the other women also had their pictures painted, and he is notorious for seducing them. When he doesn’t make that demand of Gillian, she is obviously rebuffed. Nor is there any painting of her—just the photographs.
What we slowly discover—after the accident—is that when she was rebuffed by Hubert, she began pursuing him big time but even then he did not have intercourse with her. The irony is that the photos exist; he gave them to her; and her husband discovered them and drew his own conclusions about what had occurred. Gillian even states—fairly late in the story—“If my husband hadn’t seen these shots of yours, the accident would never have happened.”
Hubert, we discover, is blocked as an artist. He can’t paint. His situation, although not nearly as traumatic as Gillian’s, implies that he, too, has paid a price for something that he has done. The novel is re-energized by their parallel situations. What’s left is for Stamm to draw them back together.
Peter Stamm, who is Swiss, is widely regarded as a writer in Europe. His work has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, which tells us the serious attention he has received. However, Michael Hofmann, a translator I have always respected, has let us down here. I found the prose distracting—way too many run-on sentences and others that made little sense. Perhaps that is faithful to the original German but I often found myself jolted by the strange sentences that took my attention away from the story. Too bad, because there are more than enough haunting scenes in All Days Are Night to provoke us to consider our own bad decisions.
Peter Stamm: All Days Are Night
Trans. By Michael Hofmann
Other Press, 182 pp., $22
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.