Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Troy: Fall of a City. Photo: BBC
Show Hide image

In Troy: Fall of a City, all the men look as if they’re in a Calvin Klein ad

Rachel Cooke reviews Troy and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

In Troy: Fall of a City (BBC One, 9.10pm, 17 February) pretty much all the men look as if they’re appearing in a new Calvin Klein ad. The exception is King Priam (David Threlfall) who, perhaps to suggest his wisdom, favours a kind of gap year uniform: long beads, mirror-work blouses and, if his hair hasn’t been washed for a few days, a head scarf.

Muscly and sweaty and always having hot sex – usually in beds with the Homeric version of high-thread-count sheets, over which some lackey cast rose petals during turn-down service – these Trojan guys really are a ton of fun: as good at conversation as at bringing Spartan queens to orgasm.

Take Paris (Louis Hunter), a character particularly suggestive of the strong whiff of Obsession. Dispatched by his father Priam to the court of King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his gorgeous, pouting wife, Helen (Bella Dayne, who is going to launch a thousand ships dressed in a high-necked feathered ensemble that brings to mind John Galliano in his pomp), he was certainly ready with the important questions. “How did you two get together?” he enquired, in the same tone you or I might ask friends about Tinder or Guardian Soulmates.

The BBC has begged journalists writing about Troy: Fall of a City to avoid spoilers; apparently, we must think of those coming to these myths “for the first time”. But I’m going to take a chance and assume that New Statesman readers are already well aware that Paris’s diplomatic mission to Sparta is soon to end in disaster, his having pinched Helen right from under Menelaus’s nose. I mean, even I know a bit about the Trojan War, and I went to a comprehensive school where the six embattled souls who wanted to learn Latin had to do so on a landing in their own time (like Menelaus, they knew all about public humiliation). Though in any case, surely Cassandra’s (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) weird hissy fits pretty much give the game away. Paris has only to lift his chiton (that’s a kind of tunic – and yes, I did have to Google it) for his sister to begin shaking like a leaf.

Troy’s writer David Farr (The Night Manager) has said that in this series he is keen to explore the other side of Paris and Helen; he regards their story as one of passion and the breaking of conventions, seeing Helen as a bolter rather than as the victim of an
abduction. I guess this is fair enough: there are several versions of this narrative on which to draw. But if only he had not made it all seem so tediously 21st century.

Helen’s marital unhappiness, for instance, is signalled by her fondness for smoking the ancient Greek equivalent of Valium, as if she was a housewife rather than a queen; and when Paris begs her to leave Menelaus, he speaks not of love or even of desire, but of her freedom, her right to fulfilment. The dialogue is so richly silted with self-help banalities, we might as well be watching a Meghan and Harry biopic as a drama inspired by the greatest of all epic poems. There’s also something exceedingly creepy about its retro, soft-porny direction (by Owen Harris); every time Helen takes a shower, you half expect her to whip out a Flake.

In the opening episode of the shot-in-real-time documentary series 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4, 9pm, 19 February) the perpetrator of the crime – a man was being blackmailed for having visited a prostitute – turned out not only to be a copper, but (get this!) one of the officers on the surveillance team watching the spot where £1,000 had been left as bait. Naturally, this made for astonishing viewing; as DC Gareth Suffling was arrested, I thought at first a mistake had been made. But the real fascination of it for me lay in the fact that as a televisual coup, it was born less of serendipity than of the good and wholly transparent relationship forged between the producers and Bedfordshire Police (the series has been running since 2014). What it proved, quite brilliantly, is that hard-won trust and patience – neither of which are very fashionable qualities in journalism these days – can in the end deliver better results than what we might call a hit and run. Bide your time, programme makers, and the big reveal will be yours. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia