Archive for the ‘Peter Stamm’ Category

To the Back of Beyond

May 20, 2018

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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Unformed Landscape

November 25, 2016

unformed-landscape

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.”

german-lit-month2

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.

2012 Catch-up – Seven Years

February 8, 2013

seven years

No sooner had I tracked down Peter Stamm’s Seven Years in January as one of those books I had meant to read last year but had never got round to, than there was his name (which I had previously been quite unfamiliar with) on the short list for the Man Booker International Prize. Not only do I discover that he has written a number of novels prior to Seven Years but that Michael Hofmann has done an admirable job of making him available in English. Even this novel was originally published in America in 2010.

Seven Years is, I suppose, a novel about love, but one in which its main characters seem unusually unacquainted with the emotion. Its narrator, Alex, spends the novel torn between two women: fellow architect Sonia, whom he marries, and Polish illegal immigrant, Ivona. On the surface there doesn’t seem much of a choice. Ivona is described as follows:

“She was probably our own age, but she was completely unattractive. Her face was puffy and she wore her midlength hair loose…Her clothing looked cheap and worn.”

As Alex points out:

“Sonia was the absolute opposite of Ivona. She was lovely and smart and talkative and charming and sure of herself.”

Yet despite this Alex finds himself attracted to Ivona, a girl he only meets as one of his friends invites her to join them as a cruel joke. He is not won over by her personality, which is difficult to decipher in her long silences, nor her sexuality, as she refuses to sleep with him or even let him undress her initially. For this very reason, however, Alex finds himself desiring her:

“I hadn’t been so excited in ages, maybe because I so completely didn’t care what Ivona thought about me.”

After their first meeting, Alex has no intention of ever seeing her again, yet within a few days he is searching her out. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the novel: more than once Alex decides that it is over, only to be drawn back to her, sometimes years later. It becomes clear that the only character capable of love is Ivona, who loves Alex so unselfishly that she allows him to use her whenever he wants.

Meanwhile Alex creates a separate life where he is married to Sonia and they start up their own firm of architects. Professionally the relationship is based on a compromise: Sonia does not leave to work abroad and Alex puts design to one side to run the company. This compromise infects their whole relationship where their marriage seems more a partnership than a love story. Alex first considers a relationship with Sonia when he photographs her sleeping, suggesting the superficiality of his feelings.

Alex and Sonia’s selfishness can be seen most clearly when Ivona falls pregnant. Sonia has not been able to conceive and so they decide to adopt the baby:

“I felt bad about taking the child from Ivona, but I was firmly convinced it was the best for all concerned.”

It’s difficult to know whether the ‘all’ in this sentence includes Ivona. Their daughter, Sophie, is never told about her mother.

The cleverness of this novel is that Alex and Sonia are clearly ordinary, likeable people, but their treatment of Ivona (in which Sonia is complicit as she knows about the affair when accepting Sophie) is monstrous. Stamm doesn’t labour this point but lets it seep into the novel. By the end, when their marriage finally falls apart, and Alex says, “I wasn’t happy exactly, but for the first time in a long while, I felt very light and alert, as though I’d come round after a long period of unconsciousness,” I saw it not as liberation for him but as a further self-absorbed delusion.