Publication Date: Apr 17, 2005
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Unformed Landscape begins in a small village on a fjord in the Finnmark, on the northeastern coast of Norway, where the borders between Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia lie covered in snow and darkness, where the real borders are between day and night, summer and winter, and between people. Here, a sensitive young woman like Kathrine finds few outlets for her desires. Half Norwegian, half Sami (an indigenous people), Kathrine works for the customs office inspecting the fishing boats arriving regularly in the harbor. She is in her late 20s, has a son from an early marriage, and has drifted into a second loveless marriage to a man whose cold and dominating conventionality forms a bold stroke through the unformed landscape of her life. After she makes a discovery about her husband that deeply wounds her, Kathrine cuts loose from her moorings and her confusion and sets off in search of herself.
Her journey begins aboard a ship headed south, taking her below the Arctic Circle for the first time in her life. Kathrine makes her way to France and has the bittersweet experience of a love affair that flares and dies quickly, her starved senses rewarded by the shimmering beauty of Paris. Through a series of poignant encounters, Kathrine is led to the richer life she was meant to have and is brave enough to claim.
Using simple words strung together in a melodic alphabet, Peter Stamm introduces us, through a series of intimate sketches, to the heart of an unforgettable woman. Her story speaks eloquently about solitude, the fragility of love, lost illusions, and self-discovery.
Excerpt from Unformed Landscape
“If Albert Camus had lived in an age when people in remote Norwegian fishing villages had e-mail, he might have written a novel like this.” —New Yorker
“Hofmann’s translation of Stamm’s clipped German flows smoothly yet as powerfully as the waters that surround Kathrine’s restrictive life and carry her far away but closer to herself than ever.” —Booklist
“As the title of his novel Unformed Landscape and his collection of short stories Strange Gardens and Other Stories imply, Swiss author Peter Stamm’s characters are deeply affected by their surroundings. The Norwegian fishing village where Katharine, the central character in Unformed Landscapes, resides is a gray place, enlivened only by her increasingly complicated affairs and fantasies of life elsewhere. Like the landscapes of his novels, Stamm’s prose is spare and graceful.” —The New Republic online
1. Katherine already has one failed marriage behind her when she accepts Thomas’ marriage proposal, despite the fact that she does not love him. Why does she agree to marry him? Why does Katherine seem to fall into marriage without giving it much thought?
2. What role does the setting of isolated, coastal Finnmark play in Katherine’s identity and heritage?
3. Stamm introduces a motif of technology, such as the internet homepage that Christian shows Katherine and Katherine’s incessant email checks. Can technology fill a void of isolation or does it just widen the gap between two people?
4. Compare and contrast Helge, Thomas, Christian and Morten. What attracts Katherine to each of them?
5. Katherine’s second husband Thomas lives in a fictive world where he fabricates stories of grand achievement. When Katherine finds him sitting alone in his family’s hut after claiming he was on his nightly jog, she wishes he had been cheating on her instead. What do you think of her reaction? Why do you think Thomas is unable to communicate with his wife?
6. Why does Katherine force a physical relationship with Christian? Does she seek comfort out of necessity or true affection? Did you expect such careless treatment from him?
7. Maternal love does not come naturally to Katherine. What was your reaction to Katherine’s revelation that she views Randy in the irredeemable image of his incapable father Helge? What accounts for Katherine’s shift in her view of Randy upon her return from the Norwegian ski trip?
8. Examine Katherine’s ski trip to Norway with her new friends. Why do you think Linn takes an interest in Katherine? What does Stamm show the reader about the nature of female friendship?
9. What does the title Unformed Landscape refer to? What would you re-name the second chapter of Katherine’s life after reading the ending?
10. Social clashing exists with the juxtaposition of Katherine’s family and Thomas’s family. Discuss the scenes in which the two families collide, culminating with Randy’s birthday party.
11. In what ways does the sea becomes a character of its own, providing both sorrow and connection in Katherine’s life?
12. Stamm style is a fluid, sparse progressions of words. For instance, the narrator states, “Katherine had married Helge, she had had a child, she had divorced Helge.” What effect does this diction have on the overall story? What does the language reflect?