It’s difficult to tell with the Swiss author Peter Stamm. On first glance, his work can seem incredibly dull. His sentences crawl evenly along, resisting overt animation or drama. People do things, sometimes they reflect on them. A murder is described in the same deadpan manner as a whistling kettle. Every few pages, the reader is inclined to wonder if some crucial moment has passed by, never fully sure whether anything of significance has happened or not.
Take, for example, this slice of middle-class domesticity from the opening of Stamm’s sixth novel, To the Back of Beyond:
Thomas folded up the newspaper and laid it on the garden seat. He picked up his glass, thinking he would finish it, then hesitated, rolled the wine around a few times, and set it down next to Astrid’s empty glass, without having touched a drop. It was less a thought than a vision: the empty bench at dawn, the newspaper on it, sodden with dew, and their two glasses, the half-full one containing a few drowned fruit flies. The morning sun was shining through the glasses, leaving a reddish stain on the pale gray wood. Then the children emerged from the house and joined the straggle of other children on their way to school or kindergarten. A little later, Thomas left for work.
I retraced my way to this paragraph immediately after finishing the book. Knowing how it ends, I wanted to figure out how it had begun, and this is the closest we get. Clearly, there’s something at work in the grammar. It happens a number of times in the book: we expect the future tense but are jolted into the past, making something supposed or imagined appear concrete, absolutely real.
Thomas’s ‘vision’ is of the coming morning. He and his family have returned from a relaxing holiday in Spain. His kids will be dispatched to school and he will leave the house for work (he’s an accountant, as Stamm was before taking up writing full time). But something happens in that moment with the wine glass. Thomas unlatches the garden gate and heads to the edge of his little village. When he reaches the quiet, unlit woods, he keeps on walking.
Contemporary literature boasts a fair number of men who for whatever reason decide to up sticks and get lost. Men have been doing this in the real world since time immemorial, so it’s hardly surprising to find their departures paralleled in fiction. But whether it be Joshua Ferris’s otherwise healthy and successful lawyer in The Unnamed or the protagonist of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, what unites them in such works is the sense that we have entered the realm of parable or moral story. The urge to walk is existential, analogous with the drive towards death, or maybe the artistic impulse, a wandering born of despair.
To the Back of Beyond sets Thomas’s journey through the Swiss countryside alongside Astrid’s attempts to track him down. The descriptions of the landscape are strangely uplifting: Thomas sees every facet of his local environment anew, transformed into places of shelter, vulnerability, nourishment. Lovely, textured words like ‘scree’, ‘grike’, ‘moraine’ and ‘cairn’ only further the dissociative effect (the translator, Michael Hofmann, has made a bold but worthwhile choice to include Norse and Gaelic-derived words most commonly used to describe specific parts of rural Britain). ‘It was as though he had no past and no future,’ we’re told. ‘He felt suddenly present as never before.’
Astrid, meanwhile, isn’t exactly feeling the liberating effect of her spouse’s disappearance, but nor does she quite panic. ‘An adult has the right to disappear,’ a local police officer informs her, eliminating any likelihood of a manhunt. At first, she expects him to return, perhaps ‘unsettled by the knowledge that there was nothing natural or inevitable about their normal lives’. We expect the same, not least due to the regular reminders of how in love the couple are, twenty-five years into their marriage. ‘All the time he was walking, he felt oblivious of himself, and whenever he thought of Astrid and the kids, he was with them.’
No explicit reason is given for Thomas’s disappearance, though there are plenty of suggestions. He seems himself to have been part of a ‘quiet consensus’ in that he ‘functioned in the way that was expected of him, without it ever having been discussed’. When Astrid needs a piece of clothing for the police tracker dog, she can’t think where to find one. His clothes from their holiday have already been laundered, pressed and folded away; so extreme is their commitment to routine that all traces of the messy, perspiring human who wore them have been erased.
Yet the fact of Thomas’s departure isn’t what makes this short novel so moving. His fate is revealed two-thirds in, and yet the narrative spins on like a haunting thought experiment as the couple grow distant in ways beyond geography. ‘No one seemed to understand that her relationship with Thomas wasn’t over just because he wasn’t around anymore,’ Astrid thinks. It may sound unlikely, but in many ways this is an optimistic, even romantic book. It praises the rejuvenating power of nature, examines how identity is formed in collaboration with those around us and somehow manages to see the good in long-term relationships, even as it presents a lengthy list of reasons why a person might choose to exit one. Stamm’s cool, atonal style suits this sort of subject. It makes the moral at the centre of the fable that bit deeper – it makes it real.