Woman in Search of a Life: Peter Stamm’s Unformed Landscape

Kathrine is a customs official in the dark icy regions up near the Russian border, where the sun can be gone for months at a time.

Night lay over the landscape. The village was locked in darkness…When it snowed, when it did nothing but snow, the road was closed (2,3)

Although the landscape is remarkable, she is lonely and bored.

Kathrine went back to the village across the day-wide empty snowscape, past fjords and mountains, over smooth plains and gentle slopes. The fjeld looked like a drawing made of a few scribbled lines, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, up here they all looked alike. (6)

She has contact with Russian seamen who are part of the fishing industry and it is her job to search their ships for smuggled vodka or drugs. On one occasion she and her colleagues catch a Russian who has smuggled ten thousand Ecstasy tablets over the border, but usually it is just a couple of bottles of vodka. Occasionally she makes friends with a captain or one of the other officers. We sense she is an attractive girl, but at twenty-five she feels trapped. The author conveys a bit too well the repetitive and narrow nature of her life. She has had one hasty marriage, which produced her son, whose father soon went off. Then she marries Thomas, who seems kind and willing to be a father to her son. She is a withdrawn mother, and at first happy for Thomas and his family to take over the son. She doesn’t use the child’s name until late in the book when she has walked away from her isolated life.

Perhaps Kathrine would have continued to live this uneventful life if she had not found out things about her husband Thomas that made her lose all respect for him. She leaves her home, stays in the inn and plans to leave for ever.

She travels as far as France and even gets to Paris, but she copes on her travels by calling on the kindness of some of the seafaring men she has met through her work. Previously they have just been friends but sometimes now she tries to push some of the relationships further by sleeping with the men. One reviewer has likened her character to that of the women in Jean Rhys’ writing, but she is a more practical and much less desperate character. We never feel that she will fall to the depths of those lost women. But still it seems true, as we have observed elsewhere, women in bad straits will very often look for rescue from a man. This comes for Kathrine, but only when she returns home, and then from a quarter she has overlooked before.

I liked Kathrine’s courage and clear-sightedness, and there is some brilliant writing about landscape. But I found this book at times lapsing into ways of writing one tries to avoid. Here are a few examples:

Kathrine felt disappointed. So many years she had been dreaming of a trip to the South (p 60)

Kathrine had never been inside a Catholic church before. She was impressed by the many candles, by the beautiful Virgin Mary, and the statues everywhere (p 84)

and the ending, where years of life are telescoped into a few lines:

They lived in Tromso, in Molde, in Oslo. On his holidays, Randy went up to stay with his grandmother in the village. He came back. It was fall, then winter. It was summer. It got dark, and then it got light again (p161)

The book  has been described as having a cinéma verité effect. We see the images, the landscape and the characters from outside; maybe that’s why the prose sometimes seems a bit wooden.

Unformed Landscape gives a fascinating glimpse into a life and culture very remote from everyday life in English or American cities. The prose is simple and often poetic and vivid. Peter Stamm, who is Swiss but writes in German, has received a great deal of praise for the plainness and sensitivity of his writing. Michael Hofmann is a poet, author and prize-winning translator.
I’m not sure why I didn’t like it more, but I may have missed something. Here’s a more informed view of Peter Stamm written by German speaker Tony of Tony’s Reading List:



9 thoughts on “Woman in Search of a Life: Peter Stamm’s Unformed Landscape

  1. Maybe there have been one too many sad tails of failed relationships and desperate lives. I did find Moscow severe in some ways. The people were struggling and never smiled. In fact I think they find people who smile shallow in character, hence their serious outlook.

        1. Re your comment about never smiling: there was an interview in the paper here with a couple where the wife is Russian and the husband American. He said he had found it hard to learn to read her emotions from her face. She said, “If there’s something to smile about, I’ll smile”.

  2. Interesting review. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Stamm’s work but have yet to try any of his books for myself. Maybe I’ll read him for German Lit Month later this year – I’m sure I’ve got a collection of his stories tucked away somewhere.

    1. You might also read Summer Lies, a short story collection by Bernhard Schlink which I have just very much enjoyed. Although the English publication date was 2012, so you well may have read it.

    1. I did find it a bit plodding, but according to Tony cited above who reads him in German, the pared down style is designed to show the inner world of his characters. I prefer Thomas Bernhard who has a strange repetitive style but full of life and anger.

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