Peter Stamm’s debut novel Agnes, translated from German by Michael Hofmann, has a captivating opening: “Agnes is dead. Killed by a story.” The book’s jacket copy promises a metafictional story, one with slippages of meaning and shifting narratives, where lines continuously blur between fiction and lived experience. However, there’s very little of that in Agnes.
What we have is the story told by an unnamed man, a Swiss writer who is in the US — Chicago, to be exact — to research the subject of luxury trains for his nonfiction book, who meets a much younger American graduate student named Agnes and begins a relationship with her based on factors that are not immediately clear to the reader. There’s no heat or intellectual charge to their conversations. Even the narrator seems ambivalent about his attraction to her: “I couldn’t claim it was love at first sight, but she interested me and took up my thoughts.”
As for why Agnes is drawn to him, we are never sure: we only see Agnes through his eyes. She’s a virgin when they first have sex; soon after this fact is revealed in the narrative, he tells her that he could almost be her father because of their age difference.
This paternal instinct is curious, off-putting, and as one reads towards the end, reveals itself to be a factor that perhaps gives us some clue about the narrator’s sense of self. He moves through the world without leaving a mark because he would prefer to remain uninvolved. He likes having his coffee in a particular cafe where none of the waitstaff talk to him. He’s impassive and remote, and because the story is told from his point of view, the narrative is emotionally-cold and distant.
This is an interesting experiment on Stamm’s part. The narrator, like Stamm, is Swiss and a fiction writer (although a “failed” fiction writer, unlike Stamm). But does Stamm write like the narrator or does the narrator write like Stamm? The novel doesn’t let the reader in. The narrator, telling his story, keeps his reader at a distance. Stamm, writing a novel about an emotionally-cold narrator who writes a story about his relationship, keeps his reader at a distance. When the narrator starts writing the story of his love affair with Agnes, the reader gets an idea of why the narrator is as he is: he’s invested more in his writing than in his relationships. That might also explain why, after publishing a book of short stories, the narrator couldn’t complete the novel he was working on: imaginative writing requires taking risks, intellectually, emotionally, morally.
Because of the narrator’s reticence, the reader looks for clues, hints, and meaning in the conversations. The conversations he has with Agnes can be baffling, even irritating. Sometimes Agnes says things and the narrator doesn’t follow up with a question or a comment. This would be fine if the reader had a sense of what the narrator was thinking, but often he doesn’t follow up with any thought of his own. It becomes difficult for the reader to be invested in someone so self-contained.
There’s no pleasure to be found in the language, either. Stamm’s language in Hofmann’s translation is plain, laconic, and terse. There’s a reason for this bare-bones language and distance on the narrator’s part: the narrator’s emotional life is lived in the story he’s writing. The narrator is thus meant to be untrustworthy; or, at the very least, not wholly reliable. As such, Agnes on the whole would have been greatly improved if there were more passages from the narrator’s story incorporated into the book’s narrative to better emphasise this slipperiness.
Indeed, this is the biggest problem in this brief but ambitious novella: the execution of the story doesn’t live up to the questions that it raises. There’s something dangerous at play in the narrator’s withholding, but the overly-dispassionate language minimises this danger to the point of weakening the book. “Do you know that freezing’s supposed to be a good way to die?” Agnes asks at one point, and the narrator doesn’t reveal any of his thoughts either to Agnes or to the reader. But chillingly, he is hoarding this piece of information to use in his story.
While his relationship with Agnes indicates a subtle shift within himself, he sees Agnes as his own creation, which goes some way towards explaining why he was drawn to her in the first place: “Now Agnes was my creation. I felt the new freedom lend wings to my imagination. I planned a future for her, the way a father would plan his daughter’s.” However, faced with the possibility of having a child with Agnes, he’s terrified and retreats into himself. Fully in control of his writing, he shares what he writes with Agnes and considers her feedback, but after she endures a miscarriage and he’s unable to extend himself in empathy, they separate for a short while and he starts to live his life inside the story.
On the one hand, this indicates the danger of a single-minded narrative. But it’s also about how writing can be parasitical, eating up a person’s resources and life experiences, enabling a writer who is seduced by his own writing to think that words are all there is. He refuses the possibility of being an actual father to an actual baby, but is content with orchestrating the Agnes of his creation into various situations on paper. This brings up an important factor: the role of the writer. Agnes used to be a reader but she tried to stop.“I didn’t want books to have me in their power,” she says. “It’s like poison.” How does the poison work on the writer, the person who crafts the narrative? This is an example of how stories can hold their creators in their power.
The narrator-writer spends the first half of the book without considering anything about himself. He simply accepts himself as he is. But after the event that separates him from Agnes, he considers the comments of past girlfriends who have accused him of being egotistic. This is the more interesting aspect of Agnes, as it raises the question of freedom and independence, which the narrator appears to consider a vital part of being human:
If I go and see Agnes now, I thought, that’ll be it forever. It’s hard to explain; although I loved her and had been happy with her, it was only when she wasn’t there that I felt I was free. And my freedom had always mattered to me more than my happiness. Maybe that was what my girlfriends meant when they talked about my egoism.
Much earlier on in the book, as his relationship with Agnes intensifies, the narrator admits this: “My love for Agnes had changed, and it was different now from anything I’d experienced before. I felt an almost physical dependency on her; when she wasn’t there I had a dismaying sensation of not being complete.” Stamm withholds any self-awareness on the narrator’s part as he gradually starts pulling back from the relationship and becomes more devoted to the story he’s writing about the relationship, instead. This withholding frustrates a reader’s expectations and perhaps even robs it of some pleasure, but one assumes Stamm does this so that the reader is able to understand the narrator’s motivations better when he later proclaims freedom to be the most important thing to him. The narrator is not totally obtuse; he’s aware that he has been accused of “egoism” by his past lovers. It’s just that he’s chosen not to center that knowledge of himself in his self-reckoning.
In this sense, Stamm allows us to see that the narrator’s passivity in confronting his own self is a form of egoism and thus prevents him from risking himself for the sake of love. As such, although there’s no overt misogyny in his interaction with women (he even does his share of the reproductive labour when he and Agnes live together), he only feels free when he is in control: of the story, of Agnes, of the relationship. The narrator might be aghast if someone were to suggest that he wants to “own” Agnes, but this is a bleak psychological tale of a man who feels free when his social relations take on the form of property relations. In other words, it’s a common enough story about men valuing freedom for themselves but not so much for others.
This would have been a more memorable, disturbing book if Stamm was more judicious about what the narrator chose to withhold from the reader, instead of making the character so dispassionate and aloof that the story is practically devoid of energy. As such, Agnes has so much promise but like the narrator, it barely leaves a mark.