‘There are no battles, and no murders and no defeats and no victories,’ wrote Virginia Woolf in 1932. This is, in one sense, completely untrue. Yet, Woolf was arguing against calculated drama in writing – ‘fields strewn with bones … solitary victors riding off on white horses wrapped in black cloaks to meet their death at the turn of the road’; pistol shots, vampires, paedophiles – I may have slightly amplified her examples. Against this sound and fury, we discern a quiet counter-tradition: Giorgio Morandi, painting bottles; Cézanne, creating luminescent portraits of fruit; Gabriel Orozco, with his superficially insignificant arrangements of realia; Bruno Schulz, contemplating the small details of his childhood. Proust, Hamsun, Céline. Woolf herself.
The Swiss author Peter Stamm applies the same principle to his work, seeking to describe ‘days going by and nothing changing’. This is, he suggests, ‘what most of our lives are’: ‘how … we deal with small things’. In Stamm’s early novel Agnes (1998), the shadowy protagonist has an affair