Granta’s online editor Luke Neima in conversation with Peter Stamm about his book To the Back of Beyond, which has been translated from the German by Michael Hofmann. They discuss the drive of freedom, German Romanticism and narrational technique.

 

Luke Neima:

To the Back of Beyond is a novel about a man who disappears from his own life – one day he just decides to leave, he walks away from his wife and two children, and doesn’t come back. Where did the idea for this book come from?

 

Peter Stamm:

This book had a long genesis. In 2000 I made notes about a man who systematically erases his traces and tries to undo his life. But I didn’t get very far with the project. Four years ago I spent some time with Michael Cunningham in a writers’ retreat in Italy and he told me about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story ‘Wakefield’, which made me think about my old project again. But I had written stories about people who leave their families before, my second novel Unformed Landscape, for example.

 

Neima:

The narration moves between two voices – Thomas’s, the husband who wanders through the Swiss mountains, struggling to survive, and Astrid’s, who struggles to make sense of why he left, and to take care of their children. Can you tell me about the interplay between these two voices?

 

Stamm:

Wakefield leaves his wife and then watches her from a room in the neighbouring street. It was soon clear to me that this would not work in a novel of several hundred pages, so I let my two protagonists imagine instead of observe one another. And that led to a quite complex structure where we are never exactly sure what is imagination and what reality. Up to a point where things happen in the book that are physically impossible.

 

Neima:

What’s notable is how stoic they both are. Thomas’s departure seems at first to be the small decision to go for a walk, which spirals out into a series of larger decisions. At no point does he think definitively that he’s leaving – in fact, he thinks the opposite, that no matter how far he goes he still feels as close as always to his wife and his children. Astrid, for her part, seems most worried about how to represent Thomas’s disappearance to those around her, rather than about the departure itself. At one moment she tries to be angry with him, but finds she just can’t. Where does their calm come from?

 

Stamm:

A friend of mine said about the book that I had written a love story and I was quite happy with her observation. To me the book is a love story. Thomas and Astrid’s love does not die just because he leaves her and the kids. I think they both accept that there is no reason for his absence, so the question of guilt is never asked. Guilt, by the way, was never a theme that interested me. It’s obvious that Thomas should not have left his family, but that’s about all there is to say about the morality of the story. And Astrid knows that she could have been the one who left as well. To me To the Back of Beyond is also a book about death. When someone dies he leaves us and most of the time without his or her will. We might feel anger at a person who has died for a certain time, but this does not lead anywhere. And sometimes the person who has left us is more present in our thoughts after he or she has left than before.

 

Neima:

You imbue the environment that Thomas moves through with many human characteristics, in what Ruskin might call the pathetic fallacy. When Thomas is worried the flowers are anxious, when he’s tired the clouds are exhausted, one morning when he has pep, everything along the lakeshore seems festive. What’s the relationship between Thomas and the natural world in this book?

 

Stamm:

While I was writing the book I did revisit the German Romantic writers. They seem to influence my current work, I don’t really know why. Maybe their time was not so different from ours. Then industrialization was on the horizon, today it’s digitalization. Both are times of large change that create a certain nostalgia for the past and for the natural world.

Obviously I do not think that nature reflects our inner life, but the way we perceive the world is highly influenced by what we feel at a specific moment. A rainy afternoon can be extremely depressing when we are sad but also very beautiful when we are in love. The world I describe is not the world as it is but the world that Thomas perceives, and therefore it’s tainted by his states of mind.

 

Neima:

One of the large themes of the book is freedom, and what the nature of freedom is in the modern world. To all appearances, Thomas lives an idyllic life, and yet on reflection he finds the repetitive nature of it horrifying. Where does this horror come from? What is freedom for Thomas?

 

Stamm:

I don’t think that he feels horror about his former life, it’s rather a kind of astonishment. My theory is that he’s leaving his family because he can’t stand the fact that things will not go on like this forever. By leaving he stops time. In his mind things will be as they are then, forever.

To me freedom is a minor theme in the book. But I’m very happy that different people read the book differently. If to you freedom is the important theme of the book, maybe it’s an important theme in your life at the moment? And maybe the book made you think about that.

 

Neima:

Thomas feels lonely in the company of others, but not when he’s alone in the woods or wandering a mountain top. A village he comes across after a few weeks of living in the woods strikes him as an artificial world, the people actors. How does he come to feel this way?

 

Stamm:

That’s kind of my experience, that when I feel alone – which does not happen often – it’s mostly among other people and in interiors. When I’m outside on my own, I feel part of something bigger – why not just call it nature. Being outside also reduces your needs to very basic things like shelter, food, warmth. It’s not easy, but it’s a simple life, somehow.

 

Neima:

This book has a few parallels to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Was that a touchstone for you in the writing of the book? Is Thomas a European Harry Angstrom?

 

Stamm:

I have never read any of John Updike’s books, to be honest. Which is probably a mistake. But, as a T-shirt said, which I bought thirty years ago at the Gotham Book Mart – ‘So many books, so little time’.

Thinking of books that might have influenced To the Back of Beyond – they’re not the books that tell a similar story, but the ones that deal with the same themes. I think of George Perec’s A Man Asleep, maybe Camus’ The Stranger.

 

Neima:

You don’t give us very much of your characters’ interiority in the book – you show us what they do (Thomas especially), and leave the reader to work out what they’re thinking, to try to piece together a motive and a narrative with the flashes of backstory that build as the novel goes on. Why did you decide to tell the story with this kind of distance?

 

Stamm:

I want my readers to meet my characters as they would meet people in daily life. There also we have to figure out ourselves why people do things, who they are, what we can expect from them. Novelists usually cheat us by pretending they know what their protagonists think or why they do things. But that’s just not how real people are. How often can we explain why we do a specific thing? And even if we think we can, is it really true? If I watch what happens around me, I have a feeling that most things happen and are done for unclear reasons, and that most lives are made up of coincidences.

Why did we choose this or that profession? Why are we with this or that person? Why do we have kids? Why do we live in one place and not in another?

 

 

To the Back of Beyond is available now.

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