Monday, July 3, 2017

What happens if you just walk away from your life?

Am I the only husband who has thought once or twice about walking away from his wife and children? Just taking off and leaving one life behind for an entirely unplanned, unstructured, utterly free new life? That's what Thomas (no last name), a middle-aged, middle-class Swiss accountant does one evening.

He and his wife Astrid have just returned from a vacation in Spain to their small town in Switzerland. They are sharing an evening glass of wine in their garden when a squabble between the children draws Astrid into the house. After she settles Konrad and Ella, rather than return to the garden she goes to bed exhausted after the drive home. And Thomas walks away, leaving his wine unfinished.

So begins Peter Stamm's short novel To the Back of Beyond, his fifth. It is of a piece of his earlier work. The Financial Times wrote of an earlier novel, "Stamm eschews middlebrow concerns of plot and resolution . . . his narrative is centered on the ruptures in his main characters' lives and their consequences . . ." Stamm never gives the reader a neat, pat explanation why Thomas leaves. We can infer possible reasons from what he does, but different readers will make different inferences.

Astrid's first reaction is to lie to the children, lie to Thomas's secretary. When it seems he won't turn up after a day or two, she goes to the police.

The book has no chapters as such, but the narrative switches point of view as first we follow Thomas's peregrination, then Astrid's with almost no access to their thoughts. "Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes . . ." Is about as close as we get to his inner life.

Rather, we watch them do things and move through the landscape, often with precise and lovely descriptions smoothly translated by Michael Hoffmann: "Ahead of him grew his shadow as cast by the streetlamp behind, then it merged into the life of the one following, which cast a fresh shadow behind him, which in turn grew shorter, overtook him, and hurried ahead of him, growing all the while, a sort of ghostly relay of specters accompanying him out of the neighborhood, across the circular road, and into the business district that sprawled away from the village out into the flat land."

If "plot" is what happens to characters in a story, To the Back of Beyond clearly has a plot (pace Financial Times). Astrid does try to find Thomas. The police are as helpful as they can be, although as one sympathetic officer tells her, "An adult has the right to disappear." (Some readers, I know, will be put off by the novel's lack of quotation marks; others like myself will have no trouble following the dialogue.)

Among the novel's strengths are the questions it provokes in the reader: Is the life we're living the one we want? What motivates us to obey our routines? Can one person ever truly know another? In a sense the questions are unanswerable, but Stamm's To the Back of Beyond makes a fascinating stab at addressing them, at least for this very ordinary, but extraordinary, Swiss couple.

4 comments:

  1. I'm sure almost everyone has thought of just walking away, but who actually does it? Sounds like an interesting book. Glad I'm not Astrid, though.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great review Wally, I'm intrigued.

    ReplyDelete
  3. First of all I want to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question in which I'd like to
    ask if you don't mind. I was curious to find out how you center
    yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I've had trouble
    clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how
    to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Appreciate it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A couple ideas: (1) Always stop at the end of the writing day when you know what comes next. (2) Walk for 10 or 15 minutes before you start thinking about what comes next. (3) Don't worry about how to begin. Type anything that comes to mind knowing you can always clean it up later. (4) Don't try to advance the story, but make notes about the characters, the setting, the action to come. Just keep writing.

      Delete