Category Archives: Stamm Peter

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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All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm

2014

Back to German Literature Month 2014 hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve mention already in my review of Silence that although I had a year to pick books to read for this event, I had no concrete plans other than to read something by Joseph Roth. As luck would have it, a blogging friend sent me an unwanted review copy of Swiss author Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night. I’d been meaning to read something by Peter Stamm, and since it’s German Literature Month, this was a perfect opportunity.

Titles can give a hint about content, and in the case of All Days Are Night–a book which landed on my doorstep, and a book I knew absolutely nothing about, I had the impression that I was going to read something about sad, lonely people. I was right.

All Days are nightAll Days Are Night is mainly the story of Gillian, a successful, beautiful television personality whose life, as she knew it, is wiped out in a moment by a drunk driving incident. Gillian survives with her face badly damaged while her husband Matthias, is killed. No one, except Gillian, knows the details of the fight or why Matthias was driving home from a party in a drunken rage, and when she wakes up from the accident in the hospital, moving back and forth in a semi-hallucinogenic, heavily medicated state,  she doesn’t initially remember what happened:

Gillian tries to concentrate. Everything depends on her reply. She wants to be herself, to get up, but she can’t. She can’t move her legs; it’s as though she has no legs. The radio stops, the nurse walks over to the window and draws the curtains. Gillian remembers; the rain, the low-pressure area. There must be a connection.

You should try and get some rest.

Rest from what? Something has happened. Gillian is hovering around it, the memory, she is moving closer and then getting farther away from it again. When she puts out her hand, the pictures disappear, and the blue water comes instead, the blue water and the empty space. But the other thing is there all the time, waiting for her. She knows there is a way out, and she will take it. Later.

After Gillian realizes what happened that night, she keeps the truth about the fight with Matthias to herself. She must go through a series of surgeries to repair her face, but her life in front of the cameras it is gone. Gradually the backstory about exactly what Matthias and Gillian were fighting about floats to the surface. She has a lot to feel guilty about….

That’s really as much of the plot as I’m willing to give away, but I will say that the second part of the book brings in artist Hubert to the central stage. Both Gillian and Hubert have breakdowns for different reasons, and the story follows the connections between these two characters and how they deal with their problems.

Veering away from the plot, I’ll focus on Hubert’s art–he’s known for his photos of naked women. That may sound salacious, and indeed many people try to make Hubert’s work sound salacious, but the photos are of women mostly performing everyday tasks … naked:

In the next tray were pictures of a small woman with wide hips and large, pendulous breasts. She had short blond hair and hairy armpits. Both her posture and her facial expression had something theatrical about them. She hung washing on a low rack in a tiny bathroom, baby things and men’s socks. She took a book from a shelf, hunkered down on the floor, and swept up with a small broom, maybe crumbs from biscuits she had given her child. The apartment was cluttered and untidy. In the last pictures, the woman looked close to tears.

She looks terribly lonely, said Gillian. Do you have any idea what you put these women through?

They agree to take part, said Hubert, switching the trays. Even in their nakedness they try not to reveal themselves. They hide behind their movements, their smiles, their way of exhibiting themselves.

Identity and authenticity are central themes in the book, and all of the main characters seem to be trying to find authenticity in their lives by various means. Gillian, with her badly damaged face, can no longer appear in front of the camera, so she loses her career, but even before the accident, she begins to feel that she’s “playing a part in a bad film” or “speaking lines from a script.” After the accident she looks in the mirror, sees a fragmented self and later realizes that her life “before the accident had been one long performance.”

It’s easy to see how an artist would constantly strive for authenticity, but in Hubert’s case, his drive is different. He feels like an “imposter” when he teaches, and when he asks his models to remove their clothes it’s as if in so doing, their nakedness will reveal an absolute truth–a tactic which fails, of course. Perhaps he’s driven to seek authenticity for another reason. His girlfriend (later in the book they’re married) is a seeker of some sort of deeper truth, but she’s hollow and superficial:

Astrid pursued her interest in energy and the body. Hubert wasn’t impressed by the esoteric life-help scene she started to move in. He passed occasional ironic remarks, to which she reacted so violently that he didn’t say anything the next time she registered for a weekend course in psychodrama or breathing therapy.

There’s also a terrific sense of emptiness and abandonment in this novel which is partly achieved through a complete absence of quotation marks (see the first and second quotes), but also Stamm’s spare style in this unpredictable, melancholy, yet ultimately optimistic story underscores a deep void which runs through the lives of his lonely, troubled characters.

Gillian clicked on “Gallery.” There were five pictures of unoccupied rooms: an office, a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. In all the pictures it was nighttime, and the rooms were dimly lit. Although not much could be seen, Gillian still had the sense that there was someone in all the rooms, hiding in a corner or else behind the onlooker.

Translated by Michael Hoffman. 182 pages.

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