Switzerland | 2013
Peter Stamm (Münsterlingen, 1963) is a Swiss writer. After living for a time in New York, Paris, and Scandinavia he settled down in 1990 as a writer and freelance journalist in Zurich. He has written prose (Seerücken, 2011), radio drama (Bildnis eines Knaben mit Peitsche, 1995), and plays (Die Töchter von Tauebnhain, 2004). He wrote articles for, among others, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Tages-Anzeiger, Die Weltwoche, and the satirical newspaper Nebelspalter. Since 1997 he has belonged to the editorial staff of the quarterly literary magazine Entwürfe für Literatur. Since 2003 Stamm has been a member of the group “Autorinnen und Autoren der Schweiz” (Authors of Switzerland). He lives in Winterthur.
My arrival in Santa Maddalena was forshadowing my whole stay. I had chosen the slow way to travel, taking a train from my home town in Switzerland to Milano, to Florence, to Sant’ Ellero. After a seven hour train ride through half of italy, Carlo picked me up and drove me over more and more obscure streets through the darkness. But when I entered the overgrown house I was welcomed by a round table full of chating people. Nilmini went around with the soup and I could hardly put down my luggage before I was part of the dinner party. It was the first of many lively meals full of interesting discussions and good food, at lunch often down at the pool house in the evenings in the house with candle light.
I had no idea what to expect when Beatrice had invited me half a year earlier to Santa Maddalena. I did some web research, saw some pictures and a short film made by german TV. I also found a friend who had been there. She told me on the phone that she had liked it a lot but could not really explain why. She had done some good writing there, she said, and that it was far from the village and that when she had gone for walks she had sometimes been afraid of the neighbours dogs. I wrote to Beatrice that I would love to come and we fixed a month, june, the best time to come, she told me.
It took two hours till on that first night I finally had the time to bring my stuff to the tower, where I would live for the next three weeks. I had brought the proofs of a new novel soon to be published and spent the first week between making some minor changes to the text – a work that needs more concentration than creativity – and driving with different people to Firenze, where the literary festival was taking place.
Five days after my arrival there was a big lunch in the park, a hundred people where walking through the park, eating and drinking and chating. I met Volker Schlöndorff who told me, that after the war he had spent some months in my village as one of many german kids who were sent to Switzerland. The party stretched long into the afternoon, slowly people left. Dinner was at a neigbours house, a little after party with music and dancing.
The next few days were marked by departures. Every day one of the other authors left, first Colm and Andy, then Michael, then Alba. The party was over, the proofs corrected and I felt I should think about some serious work. You can’t start a novel like any other work. It takes the right moment. If you decide too quickly what to write about and start too early, chances are great that after a few months you’ll realize that the story will never come to a good end. If you start too late you can end up with to many ideas and not beeing able to decide as in a restaurant with too big a menu.
I decided to write on a series of lectures for the University of Bamberg, where I had agreed to talk about my writing in 2014. I still had plenty of time but I rather wanted to write these texts now before starting a new novel, or else I would have been forced to interrupt the prose work some time in autumn or winter. I usually have a hard time to write this kind of theoretical work. To be hondest I’m not really good at analyzing my own work. Half of what I do is intuitive and hard to explain. But this time the beginning came easily:
This place could be from out of a novel: an old, carefully renovated farm in the hills east of Florence, on the walls blooming lavender and wisteria. In the garden that is surrounded by a high wall there are rosebushes, old olive trees, a bamboo grove that you have to cross on your way to the pool. In one corner of the garden there stands an old watchtower, in which I have my room. At nine in the morning, while I’m making coffee, Nadia brings fresh bread. Lunch will be at two thirty, down at the pool, as usual when it’s hot like today. Till then nobody will bother me. I sit under an arbour behind the tower, from time to time a lizard scurries by or one of the four dogs of Beatrice trudges along, throwing me a glance from the corner of it’s eye. From afar I hear a cockoo and there is a constant humming of bees and other insects.
In one week I wrote the first draft of all four lectures, a work that would have probably taken me a month if done at home. Each lecture was based on a day in Santa Maddalena mixed with memories from my childhood and youth, with thoughts and theories about creative writing and with some old texts, many of whom I had never published.
I never found out what it is that makes writing so easy in Santa Maddalena, but almost everybody seems to experience more or less the same. Maybe it’s the mix of a lot of time on your own and at the same time good company at lunchtime and in the evening. At the table we were talking about our writing, not in a theoretical, intellectual way but very close to the subject. We talked about the best Bond-movie, about bond girls and beauty in general, about other peoples books and our own, about choices we had made in our writing, things we had tried and abandoned.
It’s a strange thing: whenever writers get money from the state or some organization, it’s called stipends, grants, prizes, support, as if we all had some kind of strange sickness and society had to take care of us mainly out of pity. A writer friend of mine wanted to reduce his teaching to a part time job to have more time for writing. When the government finally agreed, they wrote in their letter of approval that he was granted his request because of „personal problems“. In Santa Maddalena you feel that writing is not a personal problem, that it’s perfectly ok to be a writer, that there are others like you with the same strange schedule, the same need for quiet. It’s ok not to talk in the morning or work late at night or read in every possible moment. Talking to other writers you could even start feeling that we are somehow usefull members of society.
Even after my fellow authors had left, talking about literature and art went on with Beatrice and Javier and sometimes writers and neighbours who just came by or stayed for a few days. I never have been to a house that was at the same time so private and still so welcoming as Santa Maddalena. Thank you for this, Beatrice, and thank you for three weeks of work and company.