Having read Peter Stamm’s last three books to be published in English (Seven Years, We’re Flying and All Days Are Night) the time had come to delve into his back catalogue (Stamm has been well served over the years by his translator Michael Hofmann). Fellow Stamm fan Tony Malone recommended Unformed Landscape as a good place to start, and German Literature Month seemed a good time to read it.
Unformed Landscape is a relatively short novel in which a lot seems to happen. The novel opens one particular Saturday with Kathrine heading out across country on her skis:
“Finally, after perhaps an hour, she moved away from that last landmark at a sharp angle, and glided out into the limitless white of the fjeld.”
The “limitless white”, as we shall discover, is the first hint of the unformed landscape of her life. Stamm, however, moves quickly from this particular morning to more general summary of Kathrine’s life:
“Kathrine had married Helge, she had had a child, she had divorced Helge.”
Soon the two methods of narration are transposed:
“After work she went to her mother’s. The three of them would eat supper together, later Kathrine would pick up the child and go home. Eventually, the child learned to walk, and she didn’t have to carry him anymore. That was in summer. Then the days grew shorter, autumn came, the first snow, and then winter.”
This sense of time passing quickly suggests Kathrine feels her life slipping away. She looks to others to change that, for example a visiting Dane, Christian, who is installing new machinery at the fish factory: “Kathrine waited for him to kiss her, but he didn’t kiss her.” Alexander, a Russian ship’s captain she befriends in her job at customs, tells her:
“You expect too much from other people. You’re responsible for your own life.”
Kathrine, however, still looks to others to change her life, marrying again. Her attraction to Thomas is perhaps best summed up in the sentence, “His life was going somewhere.” That marriage, too, falls apart – his controlling family accuse her of infidelity (by sending a letter to everyone she knows) and Thomas moves out of the flat they were sharing while waiting to move into his family home. Typical of the way the story is told, we learn of this before we hear much about the marriage itself. Clearly Thomas has attempted, and Kathrine has allowed him, to imprint himself upon her life, as can be seen from the furniture in their flat:
“He had been generous, and bought expensive, new things. He hadn’t liked her furniture, he had mocked her collection of books…And every time they tidied up…she noticed that something disappeared, until there was hardly anything left.”
It is at this point that Kathrine decides to become responsible for her own life, leaving her village, her job and her son, and setting out to find Christian in Aarhus. This may be the first time she has seized control of her destiny in such a way, but this does not man she has transformed into a different person overnight; the haphazard still plays a large part in her life. She stays with the sea captain who took her across the Arctic Circle for a few days, and when she reaches Aarhus Christian is not there; neither is she entirely clear why she wishes to see him, except that he represents a chance of escape she didn’t take.
The novel questions how far Kathrine can take control of her own life. She represents the many people who remain largely where they were born, not because they choose to stay there but because they do not choose to move away. She is aware she is not entirely happy, and is not afraid to walk away from that unhappiness, but is less certain about where to walk towards. She searches for the (male) catalyst which will transform her life only to be disappointed, but not disheartened.
This makes Unformed Landscape an unusual novel: Kathrine is neither powerless in face of its plot, nor the power behind it. Like most people, her life is a confused combination of choices and chance. It is this that gives the novel both its depth and its resonance; her very ordinariness makes her extraordinary. It is certainly the best of Stamm’s novels that I have read so far.