Here is a double treat for aficionados of Peter Stamm's small canvases of precision as he maps the imprecision of human emotion. Two collections of short stories are published together in Michael Hofmann's taut translations. Stamm's mood pictures capture, claustrophobically, his characters' internal worlds, and his commitment to "making literature out of ordinary people's lives".
Not a believer in happy endings, the Swiss writer prefers to talk of rare moments of happiness. His story of teenage angst, "Men and Boys", notes that a common human state is "a mixture of happiness and unhappiness". There are moments, however, of intense joy. In one of two stories about flagging religion, "Children of God", a sense of wonder enters the former Communist community. Innocent young Mandy is pregnant; an immaculate conception, she believes. Michael, the newcomer minister, finds his sensuality awakened by this apparent angel.
Eroticism, sometimes towards the forbidden or as a memory, has its part in the everyday. Sex is a reassuring act in "Sweet Dreams". A young couple are embarking on possible forever-ness. Visits to Ikea and home-making have an untarnished gilt. Lara fears nonetheless for her modest hopes – achieving orgasm keeps those demons at bay. For a middle-aged couple on holiday in "The Natural Way of Things", sex is an affirmation of being alive when tragedy strikes the family vacationing next door.
Loneliness in myriad forms ricochets through the pages. In "The Letter", a recent widow "didn't want anyone to see how unhappy she felt". There are couples who have run out of words; and the poignancy of what-ifs, from Heidi, who almost enrolled at art school in Vienna, to Albert, who almost emigrated to Canada.
Some lyrical lines are devoted to the mountains, forests and lakes that anchor this collection in Switzerland. Notable also are musings on creating art: in "Go Out into the Fields", the artist explains, "You work out of a passionate indifference… You try to capture… the inexact feeling, as exactly as you can." Therein lies Stamm's mastery in these uncomfortable, truthful stories: paradoxically, a pleasure to read.