Book review: Peter Stamm’s “Nacht ist der Tag”

No idea what’s wrong with bookshops these days. Not so long ago, they used to stock decent quantities of books in English, French, German, Spanish, and quite a few other languages.

Guess Amazon and similar webshops are to blame for this decline. Various bookshops stocking German novels, as well as bookshops dedicated to German literature, did not have the books I sought. Public libraries were no help either. It took a visit to a German library to find a copy of “Nacht ist der Tag” by Peter Stamm. The book, shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize, had been selected for a “meet the author” event.

The book’s title derives from a Shakespeare quotation. The English title of this novel is “All Days are Nights”. It’s main character is Gillian. During the first part of this novel, we have her point of view. She’s in hospital after a dreadful car accident. Her husband Matthias is dead.

This first part is a totally convincing description of how Gillian awakes, deals with her present situation, and her bruised and battered body. One cannot but help pondering, if Peter Stamm either went through a similar experience, or talked with people who dealt with a similar experience. There are the parents who are distant, helpless, cann’t cope. There is the coming to terms with operations and scars. There is the guilt and blame of the survivor. Gillian’s life before the accident, is told in flashbacks. This first part ends with Gillian back in her home.

The second part of the novel gives the point of view, history, experiences of Hubert. He ‘s an artist. He was working on an art project with Gillian, just before her accident. This change in point of view somewhat jars with the first part, which immersed the reader in Gillian’s story. Hubert is a less interesting character.

The biggest challenge to the reader is, however, the last part of this book. Not only point of view changes, but also place and time. It is a few years after the accident. Gillian calls herself Jill. She lives in her parents’ holiday-home and works in the local village.

Hubert and Gillian’s paths cross again. Predictably, they end up having an affair. But by the end of part three, it’s not clear if their relationship will work, or has foundered. Jill reverts to calling herself Gillian again. Regardless of what will happen, she knows she will live, she will cope. But the reader already knew this at the end of part one.

Somehow, the three parts of the book work like three short stories which accidentally ended up in one novel. The first part is the most impressive one. From then on, the book starts to disappoint. This did not bother critics and it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

However, my impression was, I had read better books on fictional characters coping with shattering life experiences or finding themselves again. This novel brought to mind “Bonjour Tristesse” by Françoise Sagan, or “Ordinary People” by Judith Guest – but these are far, far better reads.

“Nacht ist der Tag” by Peter Stamm, pp 252, S. Fisher, Frankfurt am Main, 2013 can be obtained through Amazon.
“Bonjour Tristesse” by Francoise Sagan is available through Amazon, as well as through Gibert-Joseph.
“Ordinary People” by Judith Guest is also available through Amazon

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