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Unformed Landscape
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Peter Stamm sets Unformed Landscape in the remotest area of Norway, in a village that can only be reached by boat, where most people either fish or work for the fish factory. It is near the borders with Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Stamm describes the political borders, covered by snow and darkness, as irrelevant and ignored. "The real borders were between day and night, between summer and winter, between the people."

The central character is Katherine, a young woman who works for the customs service; she spends much of her time inspecting Russian boats for illegal cigarettes and vodka. She is only twenty-two at the beginning of the story, but she is already divorced from the father of her son, a boy who is never referred to by name until half way through the novel. She likes her job because she meets many people who have seen the outside world; Katherine has been to Hammerfest twice, but she has never been south of the Arctic Circle. The best day of her life was the day she rode in a helicopter to make a raid on a Russian trawler; she enjoyed seeing the fjords from the air. She has very few options in her life. She is agrees to marry Thomas because it might improve her situation; this proves to be a bad decision.

I do not want to reveal too much, to spoil the mystery of the story, which covers six years of Katherine's life. It takes most of the novel for the reader to come to know the quiet woman, whose past is revealed very slowly by the author.

Reading Unformed Landscape feels a lot like watching a Scandinavian film; I was surprised to learn the author is Swiss. He probably has seen many European films; he has one of his characters watch Truffaut's Belle du Jour. I suspect anyone who enjoys Ingmar Bergen films will enjoy this novel.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Painfully spare account of a year or two in the life of a young civil servant, an introspective woman not physically described but surely comely, and spare as well, who had not much ventured from her seaside village somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. One unloving spouse, then another, still in her twenties, a beautiful child not yet unhappy, a Protestant minister who hanged himself in the terminal one long dark night, a Dad who toiled for nothing and withered to nothing, a fine suitor lost at sea off a trawler, infrequent sex brief as the light and cold as the thin clear air, all resolved with more great sadness. A beautiful human evocation of the bleakness of the north and, as someone noted, recalling Camus's hopeless landscapes of the Sud.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
... thought Kathrine."

Christian, the man she's come all the way from the Arctic to France in hopes of loving, is of a similar mind: "The less you make yourself at home," he says, "the easier it is to leave." Elsewhere, in Aarhus, Denmark, Kathrine observes that the world is all just houses and people, "bigger and noisier" but nothing really that she hadn't seen at home. "There's not a lot of room in a person," she feels. "Ungefähre Landschaft" is the story of Kathrine's running away from and returning to ... to what? Kathrine was, as my own Nordic family would say, 'behind the door when enchantment was passed out.' Enchantment is what she seeks, and enchantment is what she has no ability to feel. Her emotional life is as bleak as the snowbound darkness of the village where she lives, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. After two failed marriages and a child she has no attachment to, Kathrine simply goes 'AWOL' from her past.

This English translation of this bleakly moving novella, by Michael Hofmann, is likely to be excellent. Hofmann is a poet as well as an extraordinary translator of Kafka, Joseph Roth, and his own father Gert Hofmann. I discovered the Swiss author Peter Stamm by looking for other books Hofmann had chosen to translate but then ordering the German language edition. I have no doubt that "Unformed Landscape" will be adequately translated, partly because of Hofmann's skill and partly because Peter Stamm's writing style is as terse and sparse as the thoughts of the characters he portrays. Several critics have tried to suggest that "Ungefähre Landschaft" ends as a testament to Kathrine's bravery for seeking the "light" that is so scanty in her Nordic fringeland, or that she comes back to a life made richer by her encounters with the sensory South. I'm not sure I buy that interpretation; my impression is that she comes back simply disenchanted with her own longing for enchantment, so that she can live as people live: "It was fall, then winter, then it was summer again. It got dark and then it got light."

Kathrine's story is not a tale of yesterday. She works as a customs inspector. She has a computer and e-mail, and of course TV and cinema. Though she's never in her 28 years traveled below the Arctic Circle before, she has images in mind of Stockholm, Paris, and even of Africa. In other worlds, her isolation isn't what her elders had known. She is both interconnected and insulated, as "we" all are in the modern world, where the boundaries of peoples are rendered as inconsequential by electronics as the boundaries of Norway, Sweden, Russia by the all-equalizing snow. And how is one to be surprised, enchanted, when almost nothing is as brightly colored as the images we've seen of it electronically? This is a novella of the Age of Cinema; it reads virtually as a scenario for a powerful film about a young woman's longings. The language is extremely chary of description, as if the author knew that no words could be pictorial enough for people who could visualize his narrative through a camera. But it's true, isn't it? We no longer need word-pictures of the Arctic, or the flat fields of France seen through the windows of a train, or the bunkrooms of a seaman's hostel, since we've seen all those on the silver screen? Actually, I think this novella would make a stunning film; it almost films itself. One has to wonder if words can possibly compete with cinematography any more....

... but Peter Stamm, by the very unadorned bluntness of his language, makes a case for the emotive power of words. Without squandering sentences describing his Kathrine's outer appearance, Peter Stamm shows us her inner being. You won't easily forget her, though you couldn't find her in a crowd.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
[The author of the book is PETER STAMM, not Michael Hofmann, as listed above. Hofmann is, however, the excellent translator.] The landscape of the title, in the far North of Norway, is not the true subject of this bracingly sparse novella, which is more devoted to the inner landscape of the heart. Peter Stamm's setting is landscape as a state of mind: "The fjeld looked like a drawing made of a few scribbled lines. Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, up here they all looked alike. The borders were covered by snow, the snow joined everything up, and the darkness covered it over. The real borders were between day and night, between summer and winter, between the people."

Kathrine is a woman in her twenties, half Norwegian, half Sami (Lapp), who works as a customs inspector on this remote coast. Stamm describes her past history and her present life in this vast but abbreviated landscape in equally terse language: "Kathrine had married Helge, she had had a child, she had divorced Helge. She went to the lighthouse, she stayed there overnight, and she came back the next day." Her life is centered around her small village, the fish packing factory, the Fishermen's Refuge, the Elvekrog village bar, and the church, not that Kathrine has much time for that. She does her job, leaving the child with her mother. She sees a few male friends. She will get married again without fanfare, but this marriage will turn out no better than the first. She has never ventured below the Arctic Circle.

Until one day she takes the Hurtigruten coastal steamer and heads South. It is a journey of self-discovery, and she sees places that she had only read about. More importantly, she sees herself in those places, the same self, but different too. The reader has already learned not to expect epiphany from this novella; its transformations are internal and almost invisible, but real nonetheless. The last lines of the book are as dry as the opening, but they hint at renaissance: "It was fall, then winter. It was summer. It got dark, and then it got light again."

The NEW YORKER review printed on the cover compares Stamm to a Northern internet-age Camus. It is a just comparison in the clarity of his writing and surgical objectivity. But there is no alienation. As he has shown in his most recent novel, SEVEN YEARS (also fluently translated by Michael Hofmann), Stamm is a master at showing those changes in the heart that take place beneath the surface, tottering steps towards self-realization. He creates characters for whom we care. I liked SEVEN YEARS, but loved this novella, ten years earlier and a good deal shorter. There is nothing to set the blood coursing so well as a bracing cold shower!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
With the above quote, I have done my best to pin down UNFORMED LANDSCAPE, but it is one of the more elusive novels I have read in some time as well as one of the best.

The "unformed landscape", at least in one sense (in addition to vast, bleak, and snowy Finnmark where much of the novel is set), is the life of Kathrine near the beginning of the novel. She is twenty-eight, half Sami and half Norwegian, and she has never been below the Arctic Circle. She is basically kind and good-natured, but she also is inclined to surrender to impulses, which accounts for her unfortunate first marriage and her son. When Thomas came along and started talking about marriage, "it hadn't even crossed Kathrine's mind. His life represented a bold stroke through the unformed landscape of her life." But she gave in, married him, and came to regret it. At a more general and unarticulated level, she is existentially dissatisfied with her life and herself. One third of the way into the novel, she bolts. She leaves her hometown, her job, her second husband, her son, and her mother and she heads south, with the half-baked intention of tracking down an internet friend who lives in Denmark and is working in France. At the precise mid-point of the novel, Kathrine is sitting in a cafe in France, and she wonders for a moment how her life might have been different if she'd been born there. "But I wasn't born here, she thought, so there's no point in even thinking about it. I am as I am, and that's it. For always."

To me, that represents Kathrine's epiphany. It is a lesson that is universal, but many of us, I sense, don't absorb it. Kathrine herself does not absorb it until novel's end, by which point the story of Kathrine's life has yielded to the cycles of time: "It was fall, then winter. It was summer. It got dark, and then it got light again."

The several excerpts I have quoted from the novel are representative of Stamm's prose throughout -- spare, crystalline, Nordic. The mood or atmosphere of the novel is also rather chilly. At another level, it is Zen in its feel. It is an extraordinary novel.

(Many thanks to Amazon reviewer Roger Brunyate for recommending UNFORMED LANDSCAPE to me.)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Kathrine, the heroine in UNFORMED LANDSCAPE, is yearning for the end of winter. "In summer, she drew the light into herself, in winter she had the feeling she wasn't alive, just half-alive, and dreaming." On this Saturday in April, when the slight twilight lifts the dark of winter, she is skiing some distance towards the lighthouse, and having left the last landmark of the village behind, she "glides out into the limitless white of the fjeld". The lighthouse keepers always welcome her, but "always told the same stories, talked uninterruptedly, and still they were as silent as the landscape." With short, deceptively uncomplicated, sentences Swiss author Peter Stamm creates an affecting visual rendering of the vast landscape of the north and the simple, yet hard lives of the inhabitants of this most northern region of Norway, far beyond the Arctic Circle. "The borders (between Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway) up here they look all alike. The borders were covered by snow, the snow joined up everything, and the darkness covered it over. The real borders were between day and night, between summer and winter, between the people." It is as much the "borders between summer and winter" as those "between the people" that Stamm explores with great sensitivity and depth in this brief, intense novel.

Kathrine, at twenty eight, has been going through life's routines without questioning. She works as a customs inspector at the harbour, boarding, primarily, Russian trawlers that regularly anchor there to unload their fish catch. With one failed marriage behind her and a child, she is marrying again. This time, with Thomas, she may be looking forward to a quieter and better life. Serious and successful in his work, Thomas comes from a wealthy family and he is good to her son. Kathrine should be happy. Yet, she is not and little by little doubts form in her mind about Thomas ideas of married life. "His life represented a bold stroke through the unformed landscape of her life." He is emptying their home from anything that she cares for, memories and, especially, her books. When a letter circulates in the village, written by Thomas' family, that insults and humiliates her, Kathrine leaves the house and, within a few days, the village. She travels south of the Arctic Circle, for the first time in her life, by ship and train all the way to France... Yet, the longer she travels the more she realizes that "[t]hings don't look any different on the other side", the towns there are more crowded, the people don't look any happier. Her initial resigned acceptance that she probably could not really restart her life elsewhere, slowly turns into a new recognition that "home" may be the place where she should rebuild her life. What would it take?

At some point, Kathrine realizes that "I am as I am, and that's it. For always". It is not said with resignation, it is the beginning for her to emerge from a darker inner place. In the German original, this thought is captured in its epigraph: "YOU BE LIKE YOU, ever", from a poem by Paul Celan. It is also, more or less directly, the advice Kathrine receives from her only real friends: two older and wiser ships captains and her childhood friend, Morten. They are not only excellent listeners, they are asking questions about her inner self. Nobody else does. With their help, she gradually learns to give some new shape or form to her inner "unformed" landscape.

Peter Stamm's story is not unusual nor the events dramatic, we may all know of somebody similar to Kathrine. What makes Stamm's novel different from anything that I can recall is the way he succeeds in getting into the young woman's mind, how he very gently brings out her gradual emotional growing. It reads at times like a prose proem describing the slow-motion opening of a flower bud. He does this in such an understated way that we find ourselves drawn to Kathrine and her story long before we become conscious how deeply she has affected our own thinking. [Friederike Knabe]
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on June 12, 2013
Format: Paperback
The best line of this novel by Peter Stamm concerns the protagonist, Kathrine, and her second marriage to Thomas, a man she did not love. He forms a "bold stroke through the unformed landscape of her life." This short novel (or novella) concerns Kathrine's attempt to discover who she is and what she wants. The style of writing, which seems minimalist or spare, did not appeal to me. I struggled to understand Kathrine's rationales, or to gain enough access to her thoughts to sympathize with her decisions. Seldom could I understand what she felt. Not knowing the color of her hair until half-way through the story, and struggling to picture what she looked like, did not help, either. Nonetheless, I respect Stamm's decision to keep to minimal details and information, thus making this character autonomous, private from not only from those she dislikes and distrusts, but those she does not know--in other words, her readers. I am glad to have read it, but I likely will only remember the story because I am recording this review of it.
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on June 17, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I read this book since I love anything about the North, especially Norway. The book was about as cold as the landscape. The writing was excellent, but characters and plot were very forgettable.
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on March 18, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is a very strange book. Have to read it again to engage in its dry and concise voice. I guess I wasn't in the right moment to read it.
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