Dreamed (Nothing at All)
Photograph by Michał Bielecki
by Scott Manley Hadley
To The Back of Beyond,
by Peter Stamm, translated Michael Hofmann,
Granta, 160 pp.
To The Back of Beyond is the sixth novel from Peter Stamm, a Swiss novelist who was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. This short text is a pleasurable and immersive read, though it does pique a certain sense of readerly guilt, because at the story’s heart is a [middle aged white man’s] tale as old as time, that of a bored man running away from familial responsibility.
However, what Stamm’s text (communicated to English-language readers thanks to Michael Hoffman, the gifted and, excepting Jen Calleja, near-ubiquitous translator of German language literary fiction) manages to do is imbue this trad, butch, narrative of a man abandoning his wife and kids to a peripatetic life of casual Fuck and [insert the antonym of responsibility] with emotional and literary heft, manoeuvring this uncomplicated story from its potential position as yet-another-unneeded-Rabbit, Run-remake into a serious piece of literature. The methods used are as uncomplicated as the plot, but suit its tone and suit its purpose, that of reflecting, evoking and dramatising the reality of a splintering and underwhelming marriage.
To The Back of Beyond is a beguiling novel[la] with what initially appears to be a simple split-narrative structure. Thomas is a man of about 40 who walks out one summer evening from his Swiss home and tries to start again. He says no goodbyes, gives no warning, and while his wife, Astrid, is tending to their children, he slips out of the garden gate and heads into the rural idyll of the Swiss mountains. Straight away, embracing freedom (which is just another word for nothing left to lose), he begins sleeping rough, stealing food and relying on the kindness of strangers. Thomas uses his debit card a couple of times (once while visiting a brothel that he “happens upon”, and once when he stocks up on serious outdoor mountainware), but just as he begins leaving a Hansel and Gretel-like paper trail of visa receipts, he climbs up into some serious outdoor mountains then falls into a ravine. Let’s pause his narrative here.
While Thomas is having mountainous and quasi-erotic adventures (we never see what he actually exchanges money for in the brothel, but from other character’s discussion of the cash figures concerned, I’d presume either a discounted blowie or an angry hand-job), the reader sees Astrid search for him in increasing desperation. The text alternates focus chapter by chapter (lengths varying), and we see Astrid’s behaviour move from quiet denial of Thomas’s disappearance (i.e. covering up for him to his kids and his employers) to a more rigorous need to be reunited. Eventually, the police decide that investigating Thomas’ disappearance is unworthy of their time (he’s an adult, he can leave if he wants to), though not before Astrid has had a flirtatious – though seemingly chaste – encounter with the local bobby. Then, something unexpected happens, and these split narratives which had – until this point – been telling two sides of the same story – suddenly diverge, i.e. these split narratives split.
The reader is with Astrid as she is given the grim news that her husband’s body has been found by hunters in a ravine, and then weeks, months, years, decades, pass swiftly as she grieves, as she deals with the practicalities of death, as her children grow up, but as she eternally fails to move on, living in the same house, waiting for the return of the dead man. However, in the other parts of the book, the chapters that stick tight to Thomas’ narrative, he climbs out of the ravine and descends the mountain. Thomas finds some employment as a casual labourer (paid cash, we must presume), figures out how to find work, lodgings and fake documentation in a new city with ease and then spends a couple of decades moving around Europe, having brief romantic and sexual encounters, before slowly making his way back towards Switzerland and the novel’s confusingly satisfying conclusion.
The swiftness of Astrid’s later chapters reminded me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and possessed that similarly devastating tone evoked when we are forced to consider the briefness of existence. Limiting Astrid’s later life to a Penelope-esque wait for her [dead] husband’s return is one of the main ways, however, in which the book maintains its Run, Rabbit mentality, that male fantasy type bullshit that is usually deeply unappealing. Likewise, Thomas’ near-immediate discovery of a brothel once alone is a narrative device that harks back to a less nuanced time than the literary now. In spite of these missteps, Stamm’s treatment of his material evidences a rich understanding of human emotion, and To The Back of Beyond manages to be a beautiful piece about memory, loneliness, regret and ageing rather than a hackneyed mid-life-crisis novel. As Tim Parks wrote in his review for the Guardian: “only Stamm could have dreamed up such a plot, and only he could have pulled it off”, and though I fundamentally disagree with the assertion about the plot’s creation, I am fully on board with the idea that this is a text many writers could not have succeeded in writing well.
To The Back of Beyond is full of crisp nuggets such as: “He had read somewhere that a building wasn’t complete until it had collapsed into ruins. Perhaps the same was true for human beings.” Lines like this justify Thomas’ abandonment of his family, his pursuit of a different and more personally-satisfying existence. The following longer quotation – about the sublime beauty to be found whilst living solely in the moment – similarly maintains a narratorial tone that is fully in support of Thomas’ actions, and it is this where the novel should be critiqued:
But this last night he had dreamed nothing at all, and while he washed himself at the small basin in the passageway, he felt that outside of this one moment, the dusty smell, the running water, the distant sounds from the cowshed and the kitchen, the gloomy light, and the cold of the metal tap as he turned it off, nothing else existed.
Stamm evokes meditative solitude with beauty and idolisation. Last year, I walked 1,000km across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, and I can attest that there are fewer activities more pleasurable than moving with an aching body and an empty mind across hypnotic landscapes. However, to withdraw fully from society and from the people that care about one is selfish, and though we see the repercussions of Thomas’ selfishness on the increasingly unhappy Astrid, he never seems to exhibit any real contrition, only beginning to tire of his lifestyle when the effects of ageing become unignorable.
So, though I’d love to be able to criticise this book due to the gentle, unoriginal type of masculinity it is about and an example of, I am unable to do so with reckless abandon due to the text’s real literary value. In flashbacks, we see Astrid and Thomas meeting and falling in love and it is beautiful; Astrid’s grief we see and it is deeply affecting, deeply moving (“No one seemed to understand that her relationship with Thomas wasn’t over just because he wasn’t around anymore”). Through Stamm’s lucid writing (and Hofmann’s rich translation) we witness the passage of time and glorious landscapes, we slip into the minds of this dysfunctional couple with ease. To The Back of Beyond is an emotional novel that delivers much more than its premise implies, it is literarily intriguing and an unexpected pleasure to engage with.