The loneliness of the Norwegian writer: Bergeners by Tomas Espedal

During the day he knows nothing but dreams.

During the day he knows only the lethargy the white, billowing curtain and the humming fan give him as a kind of comfort.

At night he’s wakeful.

At night he knows only the loneliness that lies down beside him in the bed and keeps him awake.

It was not until I finished Bergeners, that I stopped to take a closer look at the biography of its author, Tomas Espedal. I had sensed we were close in age, this introspective Norwegian writer and I. The eponymous narrator of this novel is in his early fifties during the period that frames this wandering meditation which opens in Paris during the dying days of a serious love affair and closes two years later, in Berlin, where he is still carrying  a lingering, immersive heartache and loneliness that won’t abate. So deeply did I connect with the protagonist’s emotional exile, even though my own life and shades of loneliness take on different hues, I could not help but wonder how closely our timelines align. Rather closely, as it turns out, we are only a year apart.

There is, throughout this work, a certain vulnerability that permeates the narrator’s musings. He bemoans his losses; he knows well that he is wallowing. Yet, in contrast to Knausgaard, the friend and fellow countryman whose name is synonymous with intense navel gazing, Espedal’s autobiographical fiction is spectral. He is there and not there. More spare and varied in style, the narrative has an erratic quality, shifting in perspective from first person to second, third and back again, incorporating stories, poetry, fragments and a fair share of modest, self-deprecating humour. And for all the deeply personal emotional moments, the heart of this novel is occupied by Bergen and its residents. The narrator does travel, for work or pleasure, but at this mid-point in his life, suddenly abandoned by both his grown daughter and his girlfriend, he seems intent on staying put, on burrowing himself into the familiar haunts and securites of his family home and community.

Espedal has a sober affection for his native city that comes through in his wonderful observations, character studies, and anecdotes. He argues that the city is difficult to live in, that the persistent rain and dampness enforces a confinement that creates an urban existence conducted almost entirely indoors, or perhaps, in vehicles travelling from place to place. As such, he claims that one could “empty the city of all its inhabitants and fill it up with entirely new people, but the city would remain the same.” However he captures its interior and exterior spaces, and the characters who occupy them, so memorably:

Eerland O. Nødtvedt smokes like an athlete. He’s dressed in a white shirt, a light brown cashmere sweater, the jacket of a green-check suit and light trousers. Good shoes. At night, he plays pieces he’s composed himself on a pump organ which he got from Yngve Pedersen. During the day he writes poetry. In a small one-roomed flat in Lodin Leppsgate, he writes poetry that is bigger than the city he lives in but maybe not as big as the room he inhabits.

The central part of Bergeners reads like a series of entries in a scrapbook—portraits and sketches of a place that contains all that is rooted and central to his existence, except that now, as he walks its streets, plumbing his memories, it is absence rather than nostalgia that weighs on him, pushing him to retreat further into his small house. His narrative, as the book progresses, is freighted with a loneliness no words will write away.

That first evening I sat alone in the living room, both my daughter and my girlfriend had moved out of the house, almost simultaneously, and gone to Oslo, I sat with my head in my hands feeling sorry for myself. I wept, repeating out loud (there was no one who could hear me after all): How could both leave me like this? I, who’ve done my best for you all these years, I said, who’ve given you all my love and nearly all my time, and you just move out  and leave me sitting here all alone like this.

How can you, at the age of almost fifty, adapt to an empty house?

How can you adapt to your own loneliness, what can you fill it with?

On a trip to Albania, Tomas meets a German writer who, at one point, asks him what he writes about. He answers: “Monotony.” That is not quite accurate, but he does have a gift for capturing the ordinary and seeing in it the universal and the exceptional.  His loneliness is not unique, but it is caught in the prism of middle-age. His characters are often eccentric, settled into their habits, their singular lives. However, for our protagonist, the attempt to redefine himself without the two women who meant most to him is an uneasy process. He has lost his anchor and does not know where he belongs. He tries to adapt to his newly defined life, but finds that Bergen, which he knows so intimately, cannot assuage his restlessness. He tries to escape, but finds foreign locales too alien to his own nature:

You can’t anticipate growing old here
age was not formed in you as a child
and now it’s too late
to grow old

Bergeners is my first encounter with Tomas Espedal. There is something very attractive about his autobiographical fiction, a form that can be too claustrophobic at times. The varying perspectives, the passing portraits of people and places, the fragmentary fugues, brief stories and snatches of poetry that are worked into this wandering meditation make for an unusual and absorbing read.

Longlisted for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award, Bergeners is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

24 thoughts on “The loneliness of the Norwegian writer: Bergeners by Tomas Espedal”

      1. K depresses me. I’ve only read the first one and that was more than enough, and now I think of people wading through its successors at the expense of so many other wonderful books, so many hours of reading time gone forever… It’s narcissism gone mad, IMO.

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    1. I don’t think Espedal would mind. They are friends and I believe they have been known to appear in one another’s work. Their books are similar in intent but completely different in style and approach.

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    2. Thanks for this book review. Unfortunately, the novel “Bergeners” does not appear in German until autumn. I first got to know Espedal through the novel “Tramp”, then I read “Against Art” and “Against Nature”. Recently published in German his first works “Biografi, Dagbok, Brev / Biography, Diary, Letters.” In these texts you will find the beginnings and themes of Tomas Espedal.

      I think you can love both Espedal and Knausgaard at the same time – like me. No doubt – and Knausgaard has already said that himself – Espedal is the greater stylist.

      Here’s a meeting of the two at the Louisana Museum in Copenhagen / Denmark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEDXfSzlWMo

      And here is a short video about Espedal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL-e-C7Wd9E

      More author videos can be found here: http://channel.louisiana.dk/topics/literature

      Greetings from East Germany
      Mike

      (Translated with google translator)

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      1. Thank you for your comment and for the links. I recently watched them myself. And I do know people who love both Knausgaard and Espedal, but my instincts align much more closely with the spare, mixed form the latter employs. I will definitely read more.

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  1. I thought this book was wonderful, and you capture the reasons why perfectly in your review. It reminds me of looking into an artist’s sketchbook, filled with hurried sketches and half finished ideas – the skeletons on which he/she will hang their work. I definitely need to read more Espedal.

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    1. I bought this at Seagull’s store in Calcutta. It seems to me they had all of his other translated titles on hand. I kind of wish I’d bought at least one more but, well, one can only carry so much home!

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  2. I thought this book was wonderful, and you capture the reasons why perfectly in your review. It reminds me of looking into an artist’s sketchbook, filled with hurried sketches and half finished ideas – the skeletons on which he/she will hang their work. I definitely need to read more Espedal.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘He bemoans his losses; he knows well that he is wallowing.’ – and yet, he makes a fine book of that! Wallowing in style. A thing to learn, for me. Thanks for the review Joe. Makes a good book to pick up next.

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