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To the Back of Beyond destabilises everything in the most stable of lives

Peter Stamm's haunting new novel is simple, yet irreducible and mysterious.

The forensic study of heterosexual desire in Seven Years, the Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm’s first novel to be translated into English, announced a formidable European writer to the Anglophone world. Reading To The Back of Beyond, his third novel, one begins to discern recurring themes in his work: man-woman relationships, marriage, desire, infidelity, family, a particular bourgeois matrix of life that can become a trap despite it – or even, because of it – being the end-point of the individualist desire that lies at the foundation of capitalist societies.

The story of To The Back of Beyond is simple yet irreducible and mysterious. On the day Astrid and Thomas and their two children, Konrad and Ella, return home to their small town in Switzerland from summer holiday in Spain, Thomas opens the garden gate in the evening, while Astrid has gone inside to settle the children in bed, walks out onto the street and keeps walking. It’s not giving away a crucial plot-twist to mention that he will never return to the life he walks out of, nor is it an unwelcome divulgence to note that we will never be told the motives behind this act. The book will alternate, in short sections, between Thomas and Astrid, and while we will be let inside her head, we will be kept out of his almost entirely.

The Thomas strand of the narrative follows him walking into the valleys and mountains of Switzerland, avoiding populated towns to prevent being noticed by people who may be questioned later about a missing person. He sleeps outdoors while the weather is favourable, then takes to living in mountain huts, engaging in short-term casual employment, before moving on to another place.

Astrid’s story sees her going to the police eventually to report her missing husband and breaking the news to the children. She even drives along a route she thinks Thomas could conceivably have taken; the novel seems to hint that she arrives in some of the places he has passed through or briefly stayed at but just after his departure. The investigation ends on a baffling note and marks a kind of pivot in the text towards a shifting and elusive mixture of fantasy, reality, and interiority in Astrid’s world.

As the novel nears its end, Stamm does two skilful things with time: the first is to indicate effortlessly its passing in large segments, so that we move from the earlier calibration of time as hours and days through weeks and months to years and decades; the second, to loop back in time to give us the story of how Astrid and Thomas came to be together.

Stamm’s interest does not lie in the texture of lives that are usually depicted by novelists in lyrical- or psychological-realism, especially in the logical progression of events that generally provides the dynamo for plots. For example, almost all the problems related to childcare, money, and work that would arise from an earning parent’s inexplicable disappearance seem to have been airbrushed away and when they do make an appearance – to answer the reader’s incredulity at their absence, I feel – they are dealt with in the most perfunctory manner.

There is very little context, social or economic, except what we can infer from light details. Stamm is not even interested in psychological interiority. He is more concerned about something that I can only call existential, something that will be indicated merely through the most oblique of hints, such as during a moment of descent through the hills in Thomas’s wandering, when he “had the feeling that something had fallen away from him, a repression, a pain”. What has Thomas walked away from? What does his freedom entail? What are its costs? The novel invites these questions but will not supply answers, destabilising everything one takes for granted in the most stable and ordinary of lives; the effect can be dizzying.

The translation, by Michael Hofmann, a mighty critic and poet as well as one of the foremost translators from the German language, does an impeccable job in rendering the blanched austerity of Stamm’s style and its deliberate affectlessness. Hofmann himself writes a prose that is so densely packed, so impatient with the desire to fill his sentences with ideas, that it feels restless, fissile, alive (see his introduction to Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, or any essay in his collection Where Have You Been?). I often wonder if he becomes another person to let Stamm’s German speak through his English. 

Neel Mukherjee’s latest novel “A State of Freedom” (Vintage) is out now

To the Back of Beyond
Peter Stamm. Translated by Michael Hofmann
Granta, 160pp, £12.99

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”