To the Back of Beyond

Peter Stamm’s To the Back of Beyond (not a literal translation of Weit uber das Land but an astute appropriation of the common English phrase denoting a distant but vague destination by Stamm’s usual translator Michael Hofmann) tells the story of Thomas and Astrid, a married couple with two children (Konrad and Ella) who are separated when Thomas leaves one night. Rather than focus on Astrid or on Thomas, Stamm details the experience of both in alternating sections, revealing that his interest lies not in Thomas’ desertion or in Astrid’s survival but in the relationship itself .

Thomas’ walkout is a surprise to both of them: they have just returned from a family holiday and there is no tension or animosity in the relationship. His departure is occasioned by “less a thought than a vision”, that is a vision of the next day, the day after their return. Even as he leaves, having made no preparations, he has no clear sense of what he is doing:

“Even though he was stone cold sober, he had a sense of moving like a drunk, slowly and self-consciously.”

Despite this, he has an unconscious desire not simply to leave but to disappear:

“I’ll be safer in the woods, Thomas thought, I need to get off this road. He still wasn’t being sought, presumably Astrid wouldn’t have remarked his disappearance yet, but he didn’t want to run into anyone who would remember him later.”

Meanwhile Astrid is initially uncertain of Thomas’ whereabouts:

“Astrid tried to think whether Thomas had said anything about some apportionment or something, but by then the children were getting up, and she needed to see they didn’t forget anything.”

Even when Thomas does not appear for lunch, as is his usual routine, Astrid is convinced “There was bound to be some perfectly ordinary explanation for his absence.” When he does not return that night, however, she becomes concerned, but her first instinct is to cover for him, lying to her children and Thomas’ office:

“She was surprised at the way Konrad, at the way everyone, seemed to accept her crude lies without a murmur. She seemed to be the only one who actually registered the fact that Thomas had disappeared.”

In the novel’s middle section Astrid attempts to find Thomas, both on her own and with the help of the police; his use of their credit card in a shop selling outdoor clothes and equipment allows her to get close to him but he has already headed into the mountains. Here, Stamm uses elements of the thriller, ending one section with Thomas falling (“For a moment he had the sensation of flying”) and the next with the police appearing at Astrid’s door to tell her, “We’ve found him.” In fact, the police have found evidence suggesting Thomas has fallen to his death.

There is an element of flatness to Stamm’s writing, and his characters; that is, we struggle to see much more than what is there at that point, at that page. Though he reveals characters’ feelings of the moment the reader generally has little access to any thoughts regarding past and future. Appropriately, Thomas has no plans for the future, and Astrid cannot make any. Yet the lack of a past can make Thomas’ motives seem obscure. There is no suggestion he no longer loves Astrid, saying at one point that “their love seemed as strong now as in the first months of their relationship.” If anything, he is rejecting routine:

“What as it all for? In the course of their daily exertions, there was never a moment when they could ask themselves such questions: maybe they were scared of them, or they had understood that such questions were impossible to answer and hence should not be asked at all.”

In his vision of the next day which drives him to leave Thomas mentions that, by the time he got home for lunch, “the newspapers and the wineglasses would have been whisked away.” Stamm returns to this later when Astrid leaves the newspaper and half-empty wine glass:

“She left them both outside, as though that were way of keeping time from moving forward.”

Her routine, too, has been disrupted, a disruption that by the novel’s end we are encouraged to see differently, not as a rejection but as an affirmation. Though To the Back of Beyond is about separation, it is, above all, a love story, Stamm, as so often, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, and back again.

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2 Responses to “To the Back of Beyond”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I like the sound of this, particularly the way the focus alternates between the two characters. It reminds me of another novel I heard about some time ago, the name of which escapes me right now! Oh, well…

    I have a collection of Stamm’s stories on my kindle which I keep forgetting about too. I think it’s called We’re Flying. Have you read it by any chance?

    • 1streading Says:

      I have – Stamm isn’t for everyone but I like his work and I’ve read most of what’s available in English. If you get round to reading it I’d be interested to hear what you think as people do seem to have different responses.

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