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October 3, 2017

Book Notes - Peter Stamm "To the Back of Beyond"

To the Back of Beyond

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Peter Stamm's novel To the Back of Beyond is a brilliant examination of freedom and rejuvenation.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Stamm's superb descriptions of alpine nature and internal human conflict (Thomas, wandering through the Alps, often reflects on his wife and family fondly but doesn’t want to return home) are aided by Hofmann's excellent translation. Even when Thomas’s actions cause pain for those he has promised to love, his introspection makes his impulse to walk away from everything less condemnable. This is a moving work about freedom and wanting."

In his own words, here is Peter Stamm's Book Notes music playlist for his novel To the Back of Beyond:

I have a playlist on iTunes that's called "Arbeitsmusik," or "Working Music." It consists of a lot of Keith Jarret, some tango, and some classical music. But when I started to work on To the Back of Beyond, a story that is told from two different points of view by two interlaced voices, I immediately thought of the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach. So that was my main playlist writing the book.

Bach, "Great" Fugue in G minor, BWV 542

The working title of my book was "Fugue" at first, as I tried a play with different voices that come close to the beauty and perfect construction of Bach's fugues.

Thomas, one of my main protagonists, is wandering through the countryside for most of the book. So of course I thought about the German Romantic literature that has influenced me deeply. To me the greatest poet of the German language is Joseph von Eichendorff, and when I think of his poems, I always hear the music of Schubert and Schumann, for example:

Robert Schumann, "Mondnacht" or "Zwielicht" (Twylight)

I don't know why the Romantics started to interest me a few years ago, but perhaps it is because they lived in a time not so different from ours, a time of big technological changes and at the same time a strengthening of the irrational.

I usually have a hard time finding titles for my novels. Good places to hunt for titles are the Bible, Shakespeare and, in the case of this book, I turned again to Eichendorff. I found my title in the wonderful poem "Im Abendrot," that was used by Richard Strauss for the last of his "Four Last Songs".

Richard Strauss, "Im Abendrot"

Writing is all about moods. The music I listen to while I'm writing has no other duty than to put me in a certain mood (sorry, musicians). When I write I forget the music after a while and don't even realize when it stops. Music that puts me in the mood for my last book came from, among others, Dino Saluzzi, an Argentinian tango musician.

Dino Saluzzi, Andina

As Thomas is outside for most of the book, he does not listen to much music. At some point he completely stops hearing music as he sees it as a mere distraction from the really important things (Sorry again, musicians). But once when he is on an abandoned alp in autumn, he hears from afar the "Alpsegen," that is the nightly prayer that to this day the herders sing in the Alps at nightfall. You won't find that on CDs, but on YouTube there are some videos like this one from close to where I grew up:

To appreciate the beauty of this very special music, you probably have to be in the mountains and far from civilization.

Much of the music in the book is probably the music of nature, bird song, the sounds of rain and wind, water dripping and flowing, and the sounds of silence.

Peter Stamm and To the Back of Beyond links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Financial Times review
Guardian review
New Statesman review
Publishers Weekly review
Spectator review

Economist profile of the author
Granta interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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