Tournament of Books 2015

The New Republic Online
Thursday, September 8th, 2005


Unformed Landscape

by Peter Stamm


A review by Harold Braswell

There are few types of novels so prone to cliché as the novel of self-discovery. Many of these treat the self as it were a static, unchanging, and almost utilitarian essence that, once discovered under a few token layers of repression, could be as easily identified and mastered as a garage door opener. When located, it opens the portal to a life of familial peace and societal acceptance. The problem with this approach is that the self is actually complex, fragmentary, ever-changing, and never entirely comprehensible or controllable. One does not just discover it, but rather fearfully avoids, warily considers, and, hopefully, painfully confronts it in a process that is lifelong, without any finality (except that of death), and certainly without any guarantee of a happy ending. All of this is obvious. The insidious problem with a phony treatment of self-discovery is that it is so prevalent that it is probably the first barrier that one has to overcome in order to arrive at an honest understanding of self. Therefore, a good novel of self-discovery should actually be a sort of anti-novel of self-discovery, one that recounts the protagonist's overcoming this simplistic idea of self-discovery and coming to a more honest, complex encounter with him or herself.

Swiss author Peter Stamm's sensitive and unnerving novel is just such a rare success. Taking place in a small port village in northeastern Norway, Unformed Landscape -- which has been translated by Michael Hofmann and published in an attractive edition by Handsel Books -- is the story of a young Norwegian woman's first journey below the Arctic Circle. Though its setting could not be more different from anything most American readers have ever experienced firsthand, it is an uncommonly intimate work, one that will remind the reader of his or her own lived experience with a greater intensity than many of the books that are published right here at home.

This intimacy comes from Stamm's well-realized portrayal of the novel's protagonist, Kathrine. In her late twenties, Kathrine begins the novel in Narvik, a fishing village located on the Finnmark Plateau, a freezing expanse of land -- described as a "snowscape" in Hofmann's poetic translation -- that dominates the lives of all who live there. She has lived in Narvik her whole life, never even venturing below the Artic Circle. Though still young, she has already been married and divorced and is responsible for the product of that marriage, a strange boy named Randy with whom she does not have much of a relationship. Kathrine is multiethnic, half-Norweigian and half-Sami, a group who were the original inhabitants of the Finnmark but were subsequently colonized and exploited by the Norwegians. Almost certainly the victim of prejudice, her Sami father worked his whole life in sweatshop conditions at the fish factory, eventually turning to alcoholism and dying young. Kathrine's Norwegian mother now lives alone and from time to time takes care of Randy. Together, Kathrine's parents are depressing symbols of the stagnation that can be found in small-town life anywhere: Though they had always planned to leave Narvik, they were, in the end, dragged down by bad luck, poverty, and the passage of time.

Unformed Landscape is narrated in the third person limited, from Kathrine's perspective. It is a subtle and convincing portrayal, particularly because Kathrine's primary quality as a narrator is her ambiguity and restraint. She lacks any tendency to dramatize whatsoever. The tone of her narration is flat and cool and there is a distance to her interior monologue. For example, her father's death: "Kathrine's father died, one morning he didn't wake up. He wasn't even very old." This distance translates into apathy regarding her present situation as well as her future. She is short on money and needs to make several changes in her and her son's lives, yet does nothing. She had always planned on leaving the village but now feels too lost and directionless to do anything at all.

Kathrine's aimlessness changes when she meets Thomas. Though only slightly older than her, Thomas seems to have everything she lacks. He is wealthy, has a prestigious position at the local fish factory, boasts of famous friends and exotic travels, and has what seems to be a healthy relationship with his family. More than anything, though, Thomas has direction in life; he is following a clear, simple path of social prestige. Drenched in her own problems, Kathrine lets herself be seduced by Thomas's straightforward vision of life. She recognizes the childish quality of the initial appeal that spurs her to date Thomas: "Maybe, like the little boy [her son Randy, who gets along better with Thomas than with her], she was dreaming of a family, a big house, and a life free from worries." But, with time, she warms up to him, coming to believe that she might follow Thomas's path with him to reach an ideal vision of married life. A few months after they begin dating they are married.

But Thomas does not want to share his path with Kathrine. He wants to use her as a utensil to help him along the way, to mold her into his own image of a wife. He does not listen to a word she says and, even more devastatingly, refuses to make love to her. "She had supposed that was love," she reflects, with customary self-deprecation. Just as Kathrine had dreamed about living in a house that would be a symbol of her inexperienced but basically good-natured ideas about love and family, Thomas too sees a house at the end of his path. His house, though, is a symbol of the dry family values needed to cement social prestige. His plan is for them to move into a large apartment in his parents' home; when the elderly couple dies, they will have the place all to themselves. Though, on the surface, it would seem to be the realization of the worry-free life that Kathrine had dreamed of, she begins to understand that the move would mean the consolidation of Thomas's domination over her.

One night, when Thomas is out of town, Kathrine has a tryst with a childhood friend. She goes home to Thomas the next morning, but is "astonished" by how easy she finds it to lie to him about what she had done. It is a disappointing revelation for Kathrine, one that makes her aware of just how effortless it is to continue living in deception. The ease with which she lies begins to make her wonder about whether Thomas might be lying to her about his life and his almost inhuman roster of accomplishments.

She investigates Thomas and quickly finds that nearly everything he has told her about himself is false. Eventually, she confronts him. After a brief fight, in which Thomas denies everything, Kathrine ends up walking out of her own house and going to the local fisherman's refuge where she spends a week reflecting on her self-alienation and watching helplessly as Thomas's parents slander her throughout the town. When Kathrine finally does return to her home, she finds that Thomas has removed almost all of her things and taken them to his parents' apartment, where he awaits her. Her life in shambles, panicked and agonized over the thought of confronting Thomas again, Kathrine writes a one-line goodbye note and sets off on the first boat out of the Arctic Circle that she can find.

There is a risk that all this might itself seem a little bit too simple. Perhaps Thomas might seem too evil to be a convincing character, coming across as nothing more than a symbol for the values of a condemnable society. Perhaps Kathrine's departure might seem too easily liberating, as if the sole act of leaving Thomas would solve all her problems for her. The result would be a sort of anti-societal novel of self-discovery, one in which the protagonist would discover herself by fleeing from the world, much like Ibsen's A Doll's House, another work that details a Norweigian woman's escape from an oppressive husband, but one in which -- as James Wood has noted in his essay "What Chekhov Meant by Life" -- Ibsen, in his zest to moralize, creates characters who are too neat, too knowable, and too easy to judge to be believable.

But if Stamm was thinking of A Doll's House when he wrote Unformed Landscape (and it is difficult to imagine that Ibsen's play did not occur to him) it was likely only as a model to avoid. If in Ibsen's work everything is logical and easy to explain, Thomas's and Kathrine's relationship in Unformed Landscape is considerably cloudier. In part, this is because Thomas himself is a much more complex character than Torvald. Indeed, the more Kathrine learns about him, the more she discovers the extent to which Thomas's lifestyle is not really one that he has chosen, but one that his parents have chosen for him. And one begins to sense that Thomas's own relation to the clear-cut path he has adopted in life is much more ambiguous than it had at first looked.

Kathrine's journey away from Thomas is a painful and completely unsentimental trip, as hellish, in its way, as her marriage. But while her marriage to Thomas was painful because it involved him imposing a phony vision of self on her (a vision of self that Kathrine submissively accepted for more time than she would like to admit), her journey away from him is painful because it forces her to confront the horrifying questions of the self that she had hoped to stave off by marrying Thomas in the first place: who she is, how she has gotten herself into this position, and what she is going to do next. As a result, there is a change in Kathrine's narrative voice, which is no longer passive and restrained, but depressively introspective. She sees the world through shame-tinted glasses, finding, in her every encounter, some reflection of her own worthlessness as a person. This worthlessness has various roots: Thomas's deception, her failed first marriage and unwanted child, the memory of her father (who, the reader discovers, means more to her than it seemed), and her own lowly, provincial background.

The climax of Kathrine's trip is her visit to Christian, an enigmatic Dane on whom she has a mild crush. Christian, like many of the characters in Unformed Landscape, works in the fishing industry, and Kathrine first met him when he stopped in her village. He lives a traveling life, installing fishing equipment in factories all over the world; currently, Kathrine learns, he is stationed in Boulogne, France. Though nothing happened between Kathrine and Christian when they were together in Narvick, they have kept in touch via email. He is always friendly, but Kathrine knows almost nothing about him (this is also typical of her relations with many of the book's characters) and particularly nothing about his current relationship status. As a result, she arrives in Boulogne with more than a little trepidation. Magnified by her other concerns about her family, Thomas, and her future, her fears lead her to a nervous breakdown. Stamm's description of the incident is sensitive, but not sentimental, horrifying, but not over-the-top: "It was as though she was thinking twice over, as though a second stream of thoughts were following the first, that only occasionally left her with a picture and penetrated her consciousness, a dark, blurry picture where you couldn't make out much, a room, people who were doing things or had done something, some expectation or memory." This is, in a sense, an extreme description of Kathrine's narrative voice in Unformed Landscape, where her several streams of thought gradually increase in speed and intensity over the course of the novel, finally spinning into a whirlpool of anxiety, introspection, and shame.

The panic lessens a bit when Christian arrives, but during her time with him she has several more breakdowns. Yet there are also some indications that she is leaving her depression and moving onto a more assured vision of self. Although Christian has a girlfriend, he does not love her and implies that she is his mother's favorite, not his own. Furthermore, Kathrine actually learns something that, before, would be almost incomprehensible for her: globetrotting, outwardly successful Christian actually admires her, seeing in her all of the qualities -- responsibility, stability, and maturity -- that he himself lacks. His life is one long flight from responsibility, from the family and the future that await him at home and that he does not want to confront.

These revelations, as well as a few incredibly restrained signs of affection, give Kathrine and Christian's encounter a sort of clumsily romantic feel and much of their time together is spent in wincingly awkward flirtation, all of which, unbelievably, goes unconsummated. Then, finally, on the train home, she comes out and tells him that she wants to make love to him. Christian's response is odd, perhaps even a little humorous: He gets up, goes to the window of the train, and screams out into the wind. "Like a child," Kathrine thinks as she embraces him from behind, "he's like a child." This is just the sort of scene that, in another novel, or perhaps a Hollywood movie, might be the heroic climax: a character's call against the world. Here, though, it is the whining of a child who is just understanding that both the world and he are much more complex than he thought, and much too powerful for him to control. It is a scream that Kathrine -- were she a little bit more outwardly melodramatic -- might have made earlier in the novel; now, though, after Thomas and after her trip, she is beyond such immaturity. Kathrine and Christian do make love, but it is no surprise that he awakens the next day acting like a guilty child, pouting about how he wished that none of this had ever happened. "I always hoped things would be straightforward. That's all I ever wanted," he pleads to Kathrine as he leaves her for his girlfriend. Kathrine's answer to him is appropriately terse: "Welcome to the world."

The novel ends with Kathrine arriving back in Narvik and beginning to confront her past and to take control of her future, to turn her face to a not-always-attractive family, to fall in love (this time without the lies), and to demonstrate a brutal, ugly, and entirely unsentimental heroism, the type of heroism that comes not from screaming into the wind, but from dragging home your screaming child.

Unformed Landscape is the story of Kathrine's own welcome to the world. Like much else in this artfully under-dramatized novel, this entrance is so subdued that it is possible not to notice it. There certainly has been no revelation that has made everything clear. What there has been, rather, is a slow, barely perceptible, growing awareness that there will be no such revelations, that nothing -- not marriage, nor an enormous house, nor the act of leaving your oppressive husband -- will eliminate the complexity of life, the wily, twisting relationship between the self and the world. This might seem depressing, but there is also something affirming about it: the affirmation that comes from realizing that life is always a struggle, whose rewards are not the overcoming of difficulty, but the assumption of it.

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