To The Back of Beyond: Peter Stamm

I’ve read a number of novels this year which explored the stress of married life: juggling bills, childcare, commuting, and Swiss author Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond slots into those earlier reads. This is the story of a seemingly happily married man who one day simply …. walks away.

To the back of Beyond

The book begins with married couple, Thomas and Astrid putting their children Konrad and Ella to bed. It’s mid-August and they’ve just returned from holiday. Astrid and Thomas are enjoying a glass of wine in the garden when Astrid goes to soothe Konrad. Thomas is left alone. He imagines the house was hot and stuffy in their absence, and then his thoughts turn to Astrid:

Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes She carried the dirty things down to the utility room in the basement and put the clean ones away in the closet in the bedroom; the kids’ things she folded neatly and left in a pile on the stairs to carry up tomorrow. She stopped for a moment at the foot of the steps and listened to a few quiet sounds from upstairs, the children getting comfortable in their newly made beds, in thoughts or dreams they were still at the beach, or maybe already back in school.

Thomas folds up his newspaper, walks out of the garden and out into the town. From there he slips into the woods and disappears from Astrid’s life.

Part of this short book follows Thomas while other sections follow Astrid as she tries to adjust to his absence, initially covering for him at work, until she can no longer hide the reality of Thomas’s absence.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to the book. The author very quickly establishes the idea of how life goes on in our absence: for example, the house still exists when Thomas and Astrid are on holiday, so when Thomas leaves, Astrid and his children carry on both in reality and in his imagination.

When Astrid realized that Thomas wasn’t lying beside her, she would suppose he was already up, even though she invariably got up first. She would go upstairs half asleep and wake the children and go downstairs again. Then minutes later, freshly showered and in her robe, she would emerge from the bathroom and call the children who were bound to be still in bed.

There’s a whole ‘Sliding Doors‘ membrane over this subtle tale: did Thomas really leave Astrid or is he imagining a life without her? When we know someone, a life, a routine well enough, we can predict that person’s day, is that what Thomas does? Does he play with the idea of leaving or does he actually go? When does a marriage condense down to a routine? There’s nothing more real than a routine; schedules and routine can so easily replace living. What’s real here and what is fantasy? But this is not just male fantasy (and what happens to Thomas could certainly be construed as male fantasy,) there’s also fantasy taking place in Astrid’s mind. But then again, is this just Thomas’s ego-centric wish-fulfillment of the faithful little woman longing for her absent husband’s return? This is for the reader to decide.

Review copy

Translated by Michael Hofmann

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18 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Stamm Peter

18 responses to “To The Back of Beyond: Peter Stamm

  1. I’m ashamed of myself. I bought Peter Stamm’s Seven Years when it was nominated for the BTBA back in 2012 and I still haven’t read it. I have moved it up the S pile, so that I can justify buying another when I’ve read it.

  2. Last year we read and reviewed Unformed Landscape by Peter Stamm. The protagonist is a young woman,a custom’s officer working in the freezing region up near the Russian border. In this case she is the one who walks away. She has a child but no ongoing partner. she is bored by her life of routine, and unfortunately that makes the text boring at times.I liked Kathrine’s courage and clear sightedness, but apart from a few brilliant passages about landscape I found this book at times lapsing into ways of writing one tries to steer clear of. A few examples below:

    Kathrine felt disappointed. So many years she had been dreaming of a trip to the South (p 60)

    Kathrine had never been inside a Catholic church before. She was impressed by the many candles, by the beautiful Virgin Mary, and the statues everywhere (p 84)

    To the Back of Beyond sounds more appealing.

  3. Like Lisa, I still need to get around to trying this author. There’s a collection of his stories on my kindle which I keep forgetting about as it’s often so much easier to pick a physical book from the shelves. One day I’ll get around to it.

    This one seems to raise some interesting questions about the nature of the relationship – lots to ponder.

    • I read the book, and got the whole ‘did this really happen’ vibe, but that seems to be the consensus. It was interesting. If we could only see into the future perhaps we’d behave more in the present…

  4. I’ve come across a couple of his short stories on podcasts a while back, and recall finding them interesting but with a tendency to lapse into banality, as someone earlier noted. I think it’s intentional, part of the texture of the narrative, but it can lead to a less engaging experience in reading. I’ve liked his work so far, though, and must try the longer fiction.

  5. Have read 2 by him, and really liked them. I will always be interested in his stuff. What you say about the reader doing the work to figure out what’s happening sounds typical and makes it appealing.

  6. As much as I ususally love his writing, I hated this and didn’t even review it. I found it obnoxious and artificial. I seem to remember Tony liked it a lot too. Yeah well, sometimes a book isn’t for us.

    • When it began, I took the book at face value–ie that the hubbie really left and had his little adventures blah blah. Didn’t like it. But then I started to see that it could have all been fantasy–esp as I hit the end (If you remember that part). So then I saw the book as a man sitting in his garden w a glass of wine and thinking about leaving, following that thought through the years. Then I liked it.

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