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from the November 2008 issue

Peter Stamm’s “On a Day Like This”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

When Andreas, the narrator of Peter Stamm's On a Day Like This, first arrives in Paris from Switzerland to teach school, he sees Chet Baker play. "He sat slumped on a barstool with his trumpet jammed between his legs," he tells Delphine, a colleague half his age, shortly after they become involved. "I can still hear his voice," Andreas continues. "His performance was like an echo of an echo."

Andrea has come to Paris thinking of Fabienne, a classmate whose one kiss has transformed over time into the decisive moment he did not seize that defines the failure of his life. His years teaching in Paris merely serve time, as it were; he has no great ambitions or interests. He does not marry and sees several women a week for sex (one of them tells him "he used her like a prostitute"). He is callous, indifferent, careless, self-absorbed; a child of early Houellebecq, the Camus of Meursault, but without their bite.

In middle age, he undergoes a routine physical which, he thinks, suggests the possibility of cancer, but he chooses not to wait for the diagnosis. He quits his job, sells his apartment, buys a car and leaves for Switzerland with Delphine in search of Fabienne. He knows Fabienne has married Manuel, a classmate and his closest friend from those days, but his hint of mortality leads him to put aside old hurts in his quest for Fabienne.

We can never be certain whether any experience or moment is a threshold or a limit. Andreas convinces himself that if he had acted upon a kiss that is now only a distant memory, his life would not have been meaningless. He sees the cancer he does not even know is cancer to be a threshold moment he can seize upon to undo the dis-ease of his life.

When he confesses to Fabienne, she tells him his version of what happened is not hers. She wanted Manuel from the beginning and even though, she acknowledges, their marriage has had rough patches, what she has with Manuel "isn't a story. It's reality." They return to the lake where they shared that kiss, make love, and she says goodbye. ("A dying man caressing his coffin," Baudelaire writes in "Hymn of Beauty.") When Andreas leaves, he goes in search of Delphine, who has left him in his quest for Fabienne, finds her, and they kiss. His embrace of Delphine is the echo of an echo of Chet Baker's music before his death: holding on, however Andreas can, to what is lost but not gone.

What might have been is the dream we cannot relinquish. If only. If we had. If, ifs. Andreas finds he is more alive than at any time in his life (not an uncommon feeling when one first faces mortality). However, for Stamm to put Andreas in Delphine's arms at the end of the book is the lie his book holds out for middle-aged men. We can't go home again, even though we insist we can.

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case, and has written on film and art as well as literature.

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