Peter Stamm's latest novel, To the Back of Beyond, gets underway with one of the most extraordinary opening scenes in contemporary fiction. After returning from a relaxing family holiday, happily married Thomas drinks a glass of wine with his wife Astrid at their home in Switzerland. When she goes to check on their children, he stands up and, without saying goodbye, walks out and disappears for 20 years.This deeply enigmatic yet wholly entrancing novel – the sixth of Stamm's to appear in English – flits between Thomas's solo cross-country travels and Astrid's attempts to carry on a normal life.
Stamm gives no explanation for Thomas’s baffling departure in the book, and so I am doubtful that he will give one in person. When I meet him, I try my luck and ask anyway. Clearly anticipating this, Stamm smiles and shrugs. “Edmund Hillary was asked why he climbed Everest. His answer was because it was there. Maybe Thomas leaves because he can leave.”
'Switzerland’s greatest living writer'
Stamm is in London for an event at the British Library billed as “An evening with Switzerland’s greatest living writer” – a title he disputes, but accepts with good grace.
He is, arguably, Switzerland’s most interesting living writer. His novels, plays and short stories are sharp, focused psychological studies featuring characters who, either in relationships or alone, flounder in tricky situations and struggle to make sense of their impulses and instincts.
Today, Stamm enjoys not only commercial success, but also critical acclaim – one career highlight was ending up a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 – but it took him some time to make his mark.
Born in 1963, he grew up in Weinfelden, 60 kilometres from Zurich, and after leaving school followed in his parents’ footsteps and became an accountant. Eventually, he realised he wanted to do something more creative. Books, he says, were not a means of entertainment, rather “a way of understanding the world.” He went back to university to study psychology “for literary purposes”, lived in various cities abroad, and spent years of trial and error writing “bad” novels that were never published.
First published book at 35
Perseverance paid off. In 1998, Stamm's first novel, Agnes, appeared. "I was 35," he says, "not like Goethe who was in his 20s when [The Sorrows of Young] Werther came out. I still like the book. It's read in schools a lot, but my American publisher didn't want to do it for a long time. It's very dense, very structured. To her, it was more obvious than the other books. She felt you could tell how I worked."
Only Stamm knows how he really works. What he produces are tight, lean books of rare subtlety and great complexity. Like the writers who influenced him – Camus, Hemingway, Chekhov – there is little heart-on-sleeve drama and no lavish descriptions or artful metaphors. Each book is austere, but also astute. As clear as an Alpine stream yet containing hidden, even murky depths. Stamm admits to having experimented with several modes of writing before settling for one so distilled and devoid of narrative clutter.
'I was never a big storyteller'
“My style is more defined by what I couldn’t do rather than what I could do,” he reveals. “There is one story of mine in which a child is dying, but I couldn’t even manage to describe that. I just make my people go away and when they come back, the child has died.”
For him, style is bound up with personality. “I was never a big storyteller. At a party, I’m no good at telling stories. I make them very short,” he says. “I can’t tell a joke, I spoil it by telling it in two sentences and you have to tell it in 20. My way of writing is just the way I speak.”
Before writing, Stamm often begins with a single idea. To the Back of Beyond developed from an image he had of a man walking through the night and through the country. "I had this guy in my mind for a very long time and I always asked myself: why is he doing that? Is he running away from something? Is he a criminal? A refugee? They all seemed too banal to me, too easy. Then a friend of mine gave me Wakefield by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's a short story, and it's the same story: a guy walks away from his wife for no specific reason and then years later comes back, also for no specific reason."
Stamm doesn’t plot. Instead, he allows a narrative to unfold and take shape from these starting-point questions and ideas.
“I’ve often compared my books to living beings,” he says. “The first sentence is a seed and then it adapts to its surroundings. They don’t grow in an empty space. While I’m writing I try to take in things. I go places, read books, watch movies. Very often things cling to the story.”
Letting the reader decode
Stamm’s books are united by a similar means of composition and the same compelling, stripped-down style. But there is also a third unifying thread running through his work.
“There is the same theme in all my books,” he declares. “It’s about fiction and reality.”
In his novel All Days Are Night, Stamm writes that his artist, Hubert, is driven by "a kind of hunger for reality". The same could be said of his creator. Stamm's characters wrestle with day-to-day reality. Some, like Thomas in To the Back of Beyond, Kathrine in Unformed Landscape, or Andreas in On A Day Like This, have their fill and escape from it. In almost every case, Stamm presents actions and consequences and leaves it to the reader to decode emotions and determine why his characters behave in such a fashion.
Does he feel it isn’t his job to do so?
“I think that’s part of this reality thing,” he answers. “A book becomes much more real when you, the reader, have to create your own images and think about reasons why people behave the way they do. We get spoon-fed all the time by advertisements, by Hollywood movies, and we get fat and lazy. So I think it’s fine to frustrate readers a little bit and make them work for themselves.”
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Sometimes, we are frustrated because a crucial upshot is withheld from us. In the short story The Result, a man endures an agonising overnight wait for the findings of a medical test. Will he get the all-clear or suffer "a mean and nasty death"? The story ends before the doctor breaks the news.
“The result isn’t important,” says Stamm breezily. “It is to him, but it isn’t to me!”
And yet Stamm does, when pushed, finally offer something about Thomas’ vanishing act.
“I have only one theory,” he offers. “As you get older you know things won’t last. Thomas somehow wants to stop time. By leaving, his kids won’t grow up and leave home, and his wife won’t die. It’s a terrible solution, but the only way to avoid suffering is to be alone.”
Otherwise, explanation is simplification, and we must make do without Stamm rationalising his characters’ decisions. It’s the normal thing in life,” he says. “You see people behave in a specific way and have to explain to yourself why they do that. I don’t know why they do it and very often we ourselves don’t know why we behave in a specific way. But that’s what makes life interesting.”