Some brief thoughts on Peter Stamm’s To The Back of Beyond (trans. Michael Hofmann)

The sky is darkening.  The children are asleep.  I suppose there are birds making noises, and lights from other houses.  Thomas and Astrid share a glass of wine.  Astrid goes inside for some reason or another.  Thomas stands up and just – walks away.  He leaves.  Astrid returns to find her husband gone.  Vanished.

And so begins a couple of decades of Astrid waiting about while Thomas wanders Europe.

It’s a pretty interesting premise, I suppose, though not enough is done with it, and the ending is both exceptionally rushed and entirely unearned.  It’s a real shame.

The bulk of this slim novel is concerned with the back and forth of Astrid and Thomas in the initial days and then weeks of his disappearance.  She deals with the children, his job, the police, and he just – he just walks around a bit and drinks a beer or two and eats food.  Astrid is bewildered by it all, and isn’t really able to answer any questions.  The smallness of her emotions are understandable, as she’s been completely blindsided by it all.

But then there’s Thomas.  We spend half the book with him, but we don’t know him at all.  He’s empty.  He doesn’t come across as empathetic in his reasoning for leaving (he doesn’t have any) or interesting in the deadness of his emotions (that is too grand a description).  Instead, he’s just an ordinary guy who decided to leave his entire family.  He’d be despicable if it was worth casting a moral judgement.

Which is something the book doesn’t do, neither through Astrid nor the narration itself.  Thomas’ absence simply is, and that’s the whole book.

There is a very fine part of the book near the end where it seems that Thomas is dead and the narration is playing interesting time games to build dread and anticipation.  This was quite effective, which made Stamm’s reluctance to commit to this all the more galling.  He couldn’t stick the landing, and instead, after a fine twenty pages or so of build-up, the novel deflates and skips through years and nation states and the raising of children and burying of dogs.

It’s a waste.  All of it.  Exploring the social structure which allows a man to leave his family is interesting, or at least it could be, except it doesn’t occur here.  Everyone is so very passive, and stoic without being stoic against anything.  They just – mill about their lives.

Not for me.  But the premise – yes.  That was interesting.  The unwritten books dealing with that concept are no doubt fascinating.  But they clearly aren’t Stamm’s to write.

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I Remember – #988

I remember Noah Antweiler and his Spoony videos, and also spending a lazy evening watching videos chronicling his downfall and disappearance.  And then going back to rewatch his videos (particularly the one on FFVIII) – they do not hold up.

-6 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

The first 50 books – 2019

As of 13 June 2019 I have read 50 books for the year.

Let’s take a look at some statistics

  • 12/50 or 24% were written by women
  • 35/50 or 70% were translations
  • 7/50 or 14% were by Nobel Prize winning writers
  • 6/50 or 12% were fantasy novels

And the breakdown of books 41 – 50 are as follows:

  • 5/10 were written by women
  • 6/10 were translations
  • 3/10 were by Nobel Prize winning authors
  • 1/10 were fantasy
  • 3/10 were by small presses

I am pleased with the progress I made with the last 10 books, particularly as it relates to books written by women.  I did consciously try to read more books written by women, and in this I was helped by completing Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which I still think is very strong, though perhaps would have been stronger with just the first book.  It really was a revelation, whereas the other two were variations on the theme.

I made significant progress with Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, but didn’t manage to finish it in time!  It should appear somewhere in the 51 – 60 range.  So far I think it is a strong book, and I like it, but I haven’t quite yet come to the understanding as to why she won the Nobel.  I can’t wait to find out, though!  And I know she both translated Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and considers it a key work in her own life, and that alone is enough to make me very curious and very interested in where she might take The Piano Teacher.

I recently – foolishly? – purchased all of the remaining books from Open Letter‘s back catalogue.  I now own everything they have ever published, and thank Anthony Blake for his assistance there.  It was really quite something receiving two enormous boxes of books!  Anyway, my intention is to spend some time focused on Open Letter’s books with a view to hopefully discovering a new writer I love forever and hold dear.

An interesting aside about Open Letter.  I have enjoyed a number of the books they have published.  And I have found at least one author (Sergio Chejfec) who I really admire.  But I haven’t yet found an author I love.  Dalkey Archive and New Directions have authors I love, but Open Letter?  Not yet.  Another challenge!

A month or so ago I was very much interested in reconnecting with fantasy, but that’s dropped off a bit recently.  I’ve been reading a lot, and having a good time with, and haven’t needed the kickstart that fantasy often provides.  And that is a common pendulum swing for me.  I’ll use fantasy books to get me going and then I’ll shift to more literary writers.  That said, I remain open to literary fantasy, and even epic fantasy, too, I just haven’t been reading it as much.

I’m making my way through Murakami’s 1Q84.  I read another 100 or so pages over the last few weeks.  Why?  Well.  I don’t know.  I suppose to see it through to the end?  I want to understand what it was that made Murakami think that this idea was worth spending 1,200 pages on.  So far, at about page 600, I can’t see it.  But there’s a lot more to go.  I look back at what I’ve read so far and – well, nothing has really happened.  Sure, I have daydreamed a lot about returning to Japan, but that is simply because I am reading Japanese names, and not due to any powers of description or emotion that Murakami might posses.  He is a singularly colourless writer, and when his ideas don’t quite connect (such as the woefully uninteresting Little People), then there’s just not much to his writing.

We’ll see, I suppose.

I Remember – #986

I remember Eloise and I sending one another recipes and screenshots/videos of the food we made, food that would invariably be forgotten by the time it came to eat such things for ourselves, because of seasonal drift.  I would send her summery recipes when it was cold in London, and so on and so forth.

-3 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #985

I remember becoming interested in the Brandon Sanderson method of success with fantasy writing, which meant: office hours for writing, strict production and word count above all other metrics, plotting and planning to the utmost.  But, oh, his books!  Tired, cliched, absent of any kind of sophistication of thought or feeling, juvenile in terms of relationships, and ultimately they all read as though they are video games come to life.

-2 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.