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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


To the Back of Beyond

Peter Stamm

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To purchase To the Back of Beyond

Title: To the Back of Beyond
Author: Peter Stamm
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 140 pages
Original in: German
Availability: To the Back of Beyond - US
To the Back of Beyond - UK
To the Back of Beyond - Canada
Weit über das Land - Deutschland
  • German title: Weit über das Land
  • Translated by Michael Hofmann

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Our Assessment:

B : has its charms, but doesn't quite come off

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 15/9/2017 Luke Brown
FAZ . 23/6/2016 Rose-Maria Gropp
The Guardian A 19/8/2017 Tim Parks
Harper's . 10/2017 Christine Smallwood
Literary Review . 8/2017 Philip Maugham
NZZ . 25/2/2016 Philipp Theisohn
New Statesman . 12/8/2017 Neel Mukherjee
The Observer . 13/8/2017 Anthony Cummins
The Spectator . 19/8/2017 Alex Clark
Sunday Times . 24/9/2017 David Mills
Die Welt . 27/2/2016 Martin Ebel
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2017 Felix Haas
Die Zeit A 17/3/2016 Tomasz Kurianowicz

  From the Reviews:
  • "To the Back of Beyond is the story of a midlife crisis. (...) In Michael Hoffmanís translation, Stammís prose has a hypnotic quality. (...) His realism is pressed into the service of metaphysics: the idea that others are most alive in our imagination. This is either romantic and consoling, or existentially bleak, depending on your taste. If the rigours of the unsettling form that Stamm has devised limit his freedom to dramatise his characters, this high-wire act between sentimentality and nihilism is nevertheless an ingenious and beautiful creation. " - Luke Brown, Financial Times

  • "Das Ganze ist von Anfang bis Ende im Imperfekt erzählt, der klassisch unvollendeten Vergangenheit. Das macht in Peter Stamms aktuellem Roman Weit über das Land Sinn, weil gar nichts perfekt feststeht." - Rose-Maria Gropp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(I)tís clear that only Stamm could have dreamed up such a plot, and only he could have pulled it off. It is his genius and his burden. Everything is so thoughtfully put together, so gently and subtly observed, that the question of whether Thomas and Astrid will ever be reunited, if such a thing is even possible, gathers an extraordinary pathos and draws us towards this haunting novelís final twist." - Tim Parks, The Guardian

  • "Michael Hoffmanís translation from the German is cool and precise." - Christine Smallwood, Harper's

  • "Jenseits dieses Privatismus verliert die Sprache all ihre Widerhaken, verfangen die Worte nicht mehr. Die Welt, die Thomas durchquert, besitzt infolgedessen keine Geheimnisse und kein Gedächtnis. Sie ist glatt. (...) Allerdings fragt man sich dann eben doch, wie mit einer Literatur umzugehen ist, die auch in der Krise, im Geröll, ja noch im Seitensprung vor allem ordentlich bleiben möchte, die keine doppelten Böden einzieht und sich nie verrechnet." - Philipp Theisohn, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Stammís interest does not lie in the texture of lives that are usually depicted by novelists in lyrical -- or psychological -- realism, especially in the logical progression of events that generally provides the dynamo for plots. (...) There is very little context, social or economic, except what we can infer from light details. Stamm is not even interested in psychological interiority. He is more concerned about something that I can only call existential" - Neel Mukherjee, New Statesman

  • "While itís never sentimental, -- apart, perhaps, from the faintly unsatisfactory ending -- thereís some exceptionally moving writing" - Anthony Cummins, The Observer

  • "Stammís detached style barely even flirts with the idea of suspense. Even though we donít know how Thomasís departure will play out, and even though weíd like to find out, the narrative quietly and repeatedly insists that its chief purpose is elsewhere." - Alex Clark, The Spectator

  • "Der eigentliche Clou des Romans liegt darin, dass sich die auslösende Fantasie, „was wäre, wenn ich einfach wegginge“, noch weiter ausfächert. Dabei bringt Stamm das Kunststück zustande, mit Varianten zu spielen, ohne sich entscheiden zu müssen, was wirklich passiert (in der Romanfiktion) und was Fantasie ist (der Romanfiguren)." - Martin Ebel, Die Welt

  • "Stamm moves quietly. However, among abundant descriptions of alpine nature, we find very little explicit introspection. In chapters spanning only about two to four pages, we alternatingly follow both Thomasís and Astridís searches. These two voices are carried by a simplicity of language, which makes it easy to miss what the author is doing." - Felix Haas, World Literature Today

  • "In gewohnter Raffinesse porträtiert der Schweizer Schriftsteller den gescheiterten Versuch eines Mannes, eine unauffällige Rolle auf der Bühne der bürgerlichen Ordnung zu spielen. Stamm ist ein Meister der leisen Dramatik: Er spürt das Scheitern seiner Protagonisten mit einer ruhigen Sprache auf, die in feinen Beobachtungen die Schwere des Alltags trocken zu spiegeln versteht." - Tomasz Kurianowicz, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       To the Back of Beyond begins with Swiss couple Thomas and Astrid settling back in at home after returning from their summer vacation in Spain. Enjoying some wine on the bench if front of the house after they've put the children to bed, Astrid goes in to check on them and doesn't reëmerge that evening; Thomas imagines the scene the next morning, the family of four returning to their everyday routine -- and decides not to stick around to go through that again: he gets up and wanders off. And keeps wandering.
       On one of their last day's in Spain: "Let's just stay here, Thomas had said flippantly" -- but apparently he was more serious than Astrid originally thought. Just abandoning one's life, walking away from it all, is unrealistic -- but it's exactly what Thomas winds up doing. And though he wanders off fairly aimlessly, he does take precautions to avoid being seen or followed. From the first, it's pretty clear that Thomas wants to disappear. After a few days he does use his credit card to properly outfit himself -- he left home with essentially nothing, and certainly not the proper gear -- and briefly there's a trace of him, but he remains in the wind.
       The novel switches back and forth between Astrid and Thomas, with Astrid not even noticing Thomas disappeared until the next day -- not even sure if he came to bed that night. At first she covers for him, lying to the children and his employer, and she doesn't immediately contact the police. She does then make a connection with a helpful policeman, but there's only so much the authorities can do -- it's not illegal to simply walk out on one's life.
       Both sides of the story are told simply and straightforwardly, with elements of absurdity -- one of the first places Thomas chances into is a bordello -- but all fairly realistic: what one does when one hits the road with practically empty pockets, and what one does when one's husband appears to have simply walked out on his life. In a sense, both Thomas and Astrid go on with their lives -- except that they are doing so in drastically changed circumstances.
       Astrid: "was always surprised how complicated everything was in his head", but Thomas does seem to have cleared his head and found a certain freedom in walking away from it all:

He felt suddenly present as never before; it was as though he had no past and no future.
       It is a welcome limbo -- and, in the book's unusual turn, a long-lasting one. While the story is largely realistic, it eventually -- actually only a few days into Thomas' absence -- does take a radical turn, not exactly bifurcating but continuing with two overlapping realities (or fantasies). Indeed, at one point:
Among all the thoughts that filled Astrid's mind in the next few days, there was one that never let go of her: that this was not necessarily real, just one among many possibilities.
       Which, then, is also how she continues to live.
       Shortly after he wandered off, Thomas finds himself in a bucolic idyll -- but even here:
For a moment Thomas had the feeling that all was well. The only thing wrong and out of place in the harmonious scene was himself.
       He recalls his workplace interactions with customers:
They would talk about money, about accommodations and inventories and investments that needed to be made, but never about what really mattered. What was it all for ? In the course of their daily exertions, there was never a moment when they could ask themselves such questions
       Thomas doesn't get all philosophical on his journey. He doesn't try to answer the big questions. He tries to live, simply and very basically. Yet even as he feels himself out of place regardless where he is, there is a fundamental connection to Astrid (though not the children) -- and also, from the beginning;
He wondered how long she could manage to keep the illusion going before she collapsed.
       As it turns out, Astrid clings to nothing but the illusion. She collapses along the way, too -- maintaining a simple life, not even getting a job or in any other way moving on (unlike the children, who eventually do) -- but even as Thomas fades in some ways with time, he also remains a constant presence in her life:
No one seemed to understand that her relationship with Thomas wasn't over just because he wasn't around anymore.
       The novel reveals more about their courtship and relationship only very late on, the story long focused on the present, and the motions they go through as they move in their separate ways. Parts are revealing, though their relationship, their love, is as mysterious, shifting, and ineffable as most -- but that's also part of the point that Stamm is exploring: To the Back of Beyond is also a(n unusual) love- and relationship-novel, and even the story of two soulmates finding themselves and each other, and making peace with themselves -- albeit in a very roundabout way.
       To the Back of Beyond takes the liberties of fiction in presenting a story that is eventually balanced between the mystical and realistic; some readers will surely find this highly annoying, and it's a tough trick to pull off. Stamm doesn't quite manage -- and what he's aiming for, what he hopes, in his resolution to pull off, is almost too much for the story to bear (and yet, of course, the only possibility: it feels -- too much -- like Stamm forcing it to this).
       It's fascinating exercise, nevertheless, -- a fiction-thought-experiment -- and much is very well done. If Stamm flails some when he has to describe some of the elements of how Thomas manages life on the run, he's very good with interiority. The back and forth between the two lives, Thomas' and Astrid's, also works well -- in part because they are both similarly cocooned characters, minimally involved with others (even their children ...): Stamm makes them both true loners, their separation from the world around them, except at the most basic level, part of their essence.
       To the Back of Beyond is, weirdly, satisfying and not, a story that works -- in part because you can see what Stamm's getting at, and drawing his readers to -- and a novel that doesn't quite.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 September 2017

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To the Back of Beyond: Reviews: Peter Stamm: Other books by Peter Stamm under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Peter Stamm was born in 1963.

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© 2017-2020 the complete review

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