you've got mail - peter terrin and peter stamm exchange letters
Unfortunately, it’s going to take a little longer before Belgian and foreign authors can get together at Passa Porta. In the meantime, we’ve invited several European writers to exchange letters.
For this first episode, we brought Flemish author Peter Terrin into contact with one of his favourite foreign colleagues, the Swiss author Peter Stamm, whom he read a lot and once saw perform at Passa Porta, but never had the chance to talk to. The beginning of a correspondence about the longing for invisibility, about the personal and the common, and about artistic responsibility. To be continued...
Herzele, 29 October 2020
Every other week my son asks me what superpower I would choose. He is ten. He’s not really asking out of interest, but rather because he himself has chosen – with conviction! – yet another superpower, yet another new world has taken shape in his mind in which he is a different kind of superhero. A revelation he wishes to share with me. I don’t get the chance to answer his question. ‘I know, Dad, that you want to be invisible’, he says. ‘But I choose telekinesis.'
Suspicion. When did open suspicion become our basic mindset? Lately I have been concentrating on photography, my mistress – literature is my wife. I believe that we are both writers who observe attentively, and in fact I have looked with great interest at the portraits you have posted on your Facebook page. Not selfies, but self-portraits taken in the many hotel rooms you have visited on your promotional tours – strange scenes, not devoid of subtle humour and possible self-mockery.
But to return to suspicion. I have no preconceived goal in my photography, no plan, I let myself be surprised like a child, often by the aesthetics of the banal. In recent weeks I have been walking through remote villages and rural suburbs. Streets where only the residents come. I use a Leica film camera, an inconspicuous device with a short lens, and yet I only have to slow my pace down a couple of times and press the shutter for a front door to open somewhere and for someone to rush at me crossly, sometimes aggressively to ask me what I’m doing. Apparently, hardly anyone today can conceive that I’m not up to no good. Amazed and sometimes apologetic, people come to the conclusion that I’m ‘just’ a photographer, a man with good intentions.
As a writer, too, I would like to be invisible. To let my books do the talking. To not have to explain anything anymore.
It strikes me that the characters in your novels and stories often feel the need to disappear. They go on a journey, without much preparation, some of them looking for something, though they don’t know exactly what. By disappearing, others hope to preserve what’s there, to arrest time. It is remarkable that we wrote such a novel almost simultaneously, you with Weit über das Land (To the Back of Beyond), me with Patricia.
To disappear in the story, that’s what the writer wants. (Perhaps he also wants to extend this mercy to his characters.) But these days, the writer can no longer wrap his prose around him like a magic cloak. Gone are the days when his work used to form a shield he could disappear behind; rather, his work has become a magnifying glass through which everyone intends to discover something about the author. Fiction is regarded as autobiography, and the character is confused with the author.
To write is to balance on a slack rope. What was once – not so long ago, even – the most normal thing, now, not infrequently in a spasm of moral panic, gets condemned in the strongest possible terms. Words take on other meanings under the impact of complete polarization. Old masterpieces have to meet new standards, but fall short.
Will quotas be imposed on novelists like us – male, white, higher educated – in a few years’ time? An algorithm-driven obligation to dedicate a percentage of the pages of stories and novels to each minority? Flagrant discrimination, if not enough. Cultural appropriation, if too much?
I exaggerate. At least, I hope with all my heart that I am exaggerating. It goes without saying that we need to be aware of what is going on in society; after all, it is the world in which our characters move. Our intentions are good. But what, do you think, is our blind spot? And how great is the suspicion going to become? Do you think it is possible that, in the near future, readers will rush at us crossly or even aggressively and demand accountability for what we are writing today in all innocence?
I look forward to your answer.
Winterthur, 11 November 2020
We seem to share a number of eccentric features. I, too, have discussed favourite superheroes with my sons. That was on a trip to Iran, during long drives through the chronically clogged streets of Tehran in the company of the wonderful editor, Sameen (favourite superhero: Superwoman). I, too, could mention invisibility as one of my favourite superpowers, but in the end I always chose Ironman, even though – another long discussion we had – he’s not really a superhero. That’s precisely why I like him: he’s smart, he has a sense of self-irony, and he’s (almost) human like you and me.
The second thing we have in common is the Leica. I bought mine more than twenty-five years ago, when, as a journalist, I often travelled with photographers and had already been told a hundred times that this was the best camera. I had hardly bought it when they started making fun of me because I had a professional camera even though I was a complete amateur. I soon learned that a good camera doesn’t necessarily take good pictures. But above all I noticed that I couldn’t write and photograph at the same time. What I saw as a photographer I could no longer see as a writer, and vice versa. I also soon realized that my photographic talents were very limited, so I almost stopped photographing altogether, and now I only photograph for documentary purposes, without making any claim to quality. When I do research for a book, I still take photographs now and then, but I rarely look at them during the writing of the text and usually work with the images in my head.
My biggest problem when taking photos was always my shyness. The first rule that photographer friends taught me was, Get as close as possible. You’ve got to become part of the picture, even if you’re not visible in it. I had trouble with that indiscreet gaze. As a writer I also observe, but I’m not directly recognizable as an observer. And I don’t steal images, I transform what I’ve seen until no one is recognizable anymore, only the essence of the scene.
It’s true that a lot of people vanish in my books, and I, too, like the idea of vanishing. I’m happy to sit on a stage and read from my work, but the moment the audience applauds and the attention shifts from the text to me, I find the situation uncomfortable and awkward. At the same time, I feel I’m far more recognizable in my fictional work than in the occasional autobiographical text, where I avoid giving anything all too personal away. On the other hand, anyone who knows my novels and stories will be able to form a fairly accurate picture of me. Of course, I always deny this when reading from my work.
It is only right that we should accept responsibility for our books. At the same time, it shouldn’t be a question of how many people of colour we’ve described, how many women or queers (is that the right word? I’m not even sure), but of our humanity, our decency, our honesty. I’m happy to take responsibility for those qualities.
Many years ago, during a workshop on gender studies, I swapped the genders of literary characters, turning women into men and men into women, for example in Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities). The amazing thing is that no one noticed. Because whether we’re male or female, straight, gay or queer or something in-between, we are above all human beings, each of us quite unique and yet all somehow equal. That is after all the beauty of literature, that it shows us others, but also how much we have in common with them.
Have you ever written texts from the perspective of people who are totally different from you? If so, did you find difficult? Or did you perhaps take particular pleasure in it? What do you make of the accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’ levelled at anyone who, in their writing, moves too far away from their own person?
Kind regards from another country,
Herzele, 15 December 2020
‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ It is a famous quote from Robert Capa, the war photographer and co-founder of Magnum. The quote has by now become as weighty as the opening sentence of Anna Karenina about the unique way in which unhappy families are unhappy. These quotes have acquired the aura of an indisputable truth.
Capa’s saying can also be given a different, more nuanced reading. The distance to the subject is not something we always need to take literally, something expressed in metres. It is in fact rather insane to believe that you can transform a bad photograph into a good photograph simply by taking two steps forward. To me it’s more a question of the relation you have with what you photograph, of how ‘close’ you are to it, how close it is to your own life, to what you are engaged in and what you find important. I believe that things are no different in literature.
I see similarities between photography and literature on more levels. You create a new reality by means of abstraction and composition, a reality that can be unknown and strange, and at the same time familiar – as you nicely put it in your previous letter. For that matter I never feel that by taking a photograph I’m stealing a picture, rather that I’m giving something, adding something – something that I alone saw and recorded, something by definition personal, therefore.
So we create a fictional, parallel world on paper – true to life. When I was beginning to write, I read an interview with a famous Dutch writer. The protagonist of his new book was a lawyer. Wasn’t that difficult, he was asked, almost impossible? Had he not had to carry out a ton of research? No, he replied. I didn’t have to become a lawyer, I only needed a few details to create the illusion.
In my novel The Guard, I have one of the main characters torture his colleague in a sophisticated manner. The book is set in the heavily guarded basement of a luxury apartment building. It was inspired by the schizophrenic nature of the ‘war on terror’, the Iraq War and the abuses that took place in Abu Ghraib prison. Naturally I had never tortured anyone before, this perspective was totally foreign to me. Yet I wrote that particular scene with a certain pleasure, because I had found the right way, the only way in which that torture scene could take place in those circumstances. All the pieces fell together. The moment, the motivation, the method. The executioner and the victim. It was at once horrible and credible. I felt very satisfied, and later I read out the scene proudly during literary gatherings in libraries countrywide.
In my latest novel, Patricia, I tell the story of a woman who commits the unthinkable: she abandons her child. I felt rather anxious, I didn’t want women to see it as a typical book written by a man who thinks he knows what it means to be a woman. I simply couldn’t get in the way of the story, any hint of my presence would undermine the book. After a while I asked my wife, who read it and gave me her blessing. Then it dawned on me that the differences between men and women are sometimes smaller than those between men or those between women. I wrote on without any further inhibitions.
Lastly, the finest example of ‘cultural appropriation’ must surely be Michel Faber’s Under the Skin. A wonderful, deeply moving novel about an alien being called Isserley who, mutilated to assume a human form, carries out a special assignment on our planet. (Isserley, in her stillness and loneliness, is as close to my heart as your Kathrine in Ungefähre Landschaft). No matter how distant the character is from the writer, he inevitably writes the character towards him, don’t you think? He writes, to the full extent of his abilities, until it is close enough for a truthful portrait to emerge – mindful of Capa.
I wish you and your family a happy Christmas and a successful 2021!
PS: If you ever consider parting with your Leica, let me know.
Translations by Patrick Lennon
Peter Stamm (1963) is one of Switzerland's most prominent authors. He writes essays, short stories, novels and plays. After graduating as an accountant, Stamm practised this profession for a few years to study English literature, psychology and psychopathology at the University of Zurich. Soon after, he left the country and lived in New York, Paris and Scandinavia. Since 1990 he has devoted himself entirely to writing. Peter Stamm's works have been translated into more than thirty languages. His novel Seven Years was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. In 2016 he was a guest at Passa Porta for the first time.
Peter Terrin (1968) is a highly acclaimed Flemish author of theatre, stories and novels. In 2009 he published his debut novel The Guard (Literature Prize of the European Union 2010). The Irish Times proclaimed the book one of the best novels of the year. With Post Mortem (2012), a novel about the illusion of fiction, Terrin won the Dutch AKO Literature Prize. His most recent novel, Patricia (2018), was immediately praised when published. In February 2021 his sixth novel Al het blauw (All the blue) will be published by De Bezige Bij. Peter Terrin's work is translated into more than 15 languages, including English, French, Italian, Turkish, Hebrew and Japanese.
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