‘Seven Years’ is a story told in the first person by an architect called Alex. The story flits between two time periods – the present when Alex is married to Sonia and has a daughter called Sophie, and the past when Alex was still a student at university. Alex describes how his architectural career evolved since those times. He also describes how he fell in love with the two women in his life, his wife Sonia and a Polish woman, Ivona. Alex and Sonia have been friends since childhood and their relationship evolves more or less naturally with some hiccups. But Alex himself doesn’t understand how he got attracted to Ivona, because by his own estimate, she is poor, unsophisticated, is an illegal immigrant, is too religious, is silent most of the time, is not educated or talented in any way. Sonia’s friend Antje is visiting and the past part of the story is mostly told by Alex to Antje with Sonia not present when the storytelling is in progress.
‘Seven Years’ can be called a story of a love triangle. It can also be called a novel on architecture. In between the triangle love story, Alex describes his thoughts on architecture in some beautiful passages. Peter Stamm’s spare prose is perfect as always. Most of the characters in the book were complex with flaws and that made the story very interesting and real. My favourite character in the book was Ivona – she is complex and flawed in her own way, but has a childlike simplicity too which probably makes her the character who finds the most happiness, inspite of the difficult situation she is in.
I couldn’t resist comparing ‘Seven Years’ with ‘Unformed Landscape’. I discovered that they were written nearly a decade apart and so the author and his writing style and the topics he would have been interested in would have evolved in that period. Giving allowance to such things, I feel that though ‘Seven Years’ was good, ‘Unformed Landscape’ was brilliant. Because I remember when I finished reading ‘Unformed Landscape’, I refused to let go off the book and carried it around for a couple of days, browsing it and reading my favourite passages again and again and refusing to pick up another book. That rarely happens to me. It is still there on the top of my book pile waiting to be re-read. I didn’t feel the same way about ‘Seven Years’. Of course, the problem is mostly with me, because after reading ‘Unformed Landscape’ I was expecting a similar book in ‘Seven Years’. But ‘Seven Years’ is not like that. It is a good book. It is worth a read. But in my opinion ‘Unformed Landscape’ is better – more dazzling, more brilliant and more beautiful.
I loved the cover of the edition of ‘Seven Years’ I read. It had two parts – a translucent dust jacket which had the title and the author’s and translator’s names. The cover image was on the actual cover which was visible through the translucent dust cover. Both of them together created a beautiful effect. This is probably not a new idea for cover designers, but this is new to me. I loved it.
If you like complex love stories with an architectural backdrop, you will love ‘Seven Years’. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
I thought about my new blueprint. It must be possible to create space that would allow feelings, that would enable and communicate the sort of freedom and openness I was thinking of. I envisaged lofty transparent halls, open staircases, the play of light and shade. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was awake or dreaming, but all at once I saw everything before me, clear and distinct.
I had reckoned I would get sick of Ivona sooner or later, and get rid of her, but even though the sex with her interested me less and less, and sometimes we didn’t sleep together at all and just talked, I couldn’t shake her off. It wasn’t pleasure that tied me to her, it was a feeling I hadn’t had since childhood, a mixture of freedom and protectedness. It was as though time stood still when I was with her, which was precisely what gave those moments their weight. Sonia was a project. We wanted to build a house, we wanted to have a baby, we employed people, we bought a second car. No sooner had we reached one goal than the next loomed into sight, we were never done. Ivona on the other hand seemed to have no ambition. She had no plans, her life was simple and regular. She got up in the morning, had breakfast, went to work. If it was a good or a bad day depended on certain little things, the weather, some kind words in the bakery or in one of the houses where she cleaned, a call from a friend with whom she had a drink after work or went to the movies. When I was with her, I participated in her life for an hour and forgot everything, the pressure of time, my ambition, the problems on the building sites. Even sex became completely different. I didn’t have to make Ivona pregnant, I didn’t even have to make her come. She took me without expectations and without claims.
Sometimes I fished out my old papers, projects I had worked on in college, competition entries from the time we started the business. Most of it looked alarmingly banal to me. But in the drawings I still sensed something of my mood in those years, my determination to go new ways. Nothing was sacred to me then, and nothing seemed impossible. For all the limitations of the work, there was a kind of truthfulness in it, a freshness that our current designs no longer had. I could understand architects like Boullée, who eventually turned into draftsmen pure and simple, without ever craving to see one of their designs realized. It was only in the fictive world of plans and sketches that you were free to do everything the way you wanted. I started drawing in the evenings, usually oversize interiors, empty halls with dramatic light effects, sacral buildings, labyrinths, and subterranean complexes.
You can find Tony’s review of the book here.
Have you read Peter Stamm’s ‘Seven Years’? What do you think about it?