There we sat in silence beneath the big wide tall trees behind the station building, breathing, each in our uneven rhythm, as if we’d all been running, but none of us the same distance. Then I said, Vigdis, I guess it’s up to you whether we should say anything about this to Mummy, about what just happened. It was quiet in the back seat, all three of them sat there looking out the windows. Vigdis sat in the middle, but it was Tine who said, no, and then Tine said, no, too, and Vigdis didn’t say anything.
Early 1990s, Oslo, Norway and Arvid Jansen is thirty-eight years old. From a later vantage point, a decade or more down the road, thirty-eight is young, but when you stand there it feels ominous, as if one is hurtling helplessly into middle age. And, at this moment, Arvid has found himself alone in the world. His wife has left him, taking their three daughters with her, and it is less than two years since his parents and two younger brothers perished in a tragic ferry accident. In Per Petterson’s most recent release in English translation, Men in My Situation, the Norwegian author places his frequent “stunt double” into a set of circumstances that will test his emotional awareness and resolve, and, as the title perhaps implies, as a man of his background, era and disposition, his resources may well be limited.
Petterson is a writer who has claimed that he is unable to detail a plot in advance; he begins with an image or a sentence and, as a result, a measure of uncertainty lingers in the finished product, a sense that the protagonist or narrator is not sure where he or she will end up. One has to give the story the time it needs. Grief and longing are also common themes in his work, as are life transitions and family dynamics (the boat accident is drawn from Petterson’s own personal history and appears elsewhere in his ouevre). All of these ideas come together in Men in My Situation, an accomplished novel from a mature, confident author. This version of Arvid is bemused and hurt to find himself abandoned. His self-awareness is of the moment; he retells his tale as if in an effort to make sense of it all—his confusion, his numbness and his blind spots all make him familiar, complicated and real.
Arvid is a writer of some renown, sometimes even recognized on the street, but he is ever conscious of his working class background. His exposure to literature was self-directed and it is only in recent years that he has been able to give up his factory job to write full-time. But it makes him a bit of an outsider in literary circles. He and his ex-wife, Turid, met in their teens and, although she shares his background, she seems to have been able to find her place among an artistic crowd Arvid describes as the “colourful people”—a space he cannot penetrate. He senses that, seduced by her new friends, she simply grew away from him. But it hurts.
It was a cold autumn, the first after Turid. I felt cold all the time. I wrote almost nothing. I could wake up at night and not remember that her side of the bed was empty, a certain number of kilos permanently lifted from the mattress and her smell fainter with the passing days, and with the nights, weeks, and in the end completely dissolved and gone.
When, after about six months of weekend visits, his daughters announce that they no longer want to come to see him on a regular basis, he struggles to embrace the ambiguity of estranged fatherhood and a haphazard and unwelcome bachelorhood.
Alone now, Arvid does tend to spend a fair amount of time wandering aimlessly, often idly hoping to meet a woman to go home with, although he appears to be such a passive, lost soul that the women who are interested seem to drag him home as one might a stray puppy. And frequently he is a disappointing date. He attracts pity, but the rare instances suggesting real potential desire on his part generally frighten him off. He never calls back. Anchorless, he drifts without making an effort to either move on or make claims on the children he has been denied access to. As frustrating as this may be, the spiral of depression and grief he is caught in is real. Despondent, he falls short of anger which, properly directed, could be the motivating force he needs. Only his eldest daughter, Vigdis, appears to understand, but she herself has some uncertain medical or mental health concerns. And Arvid worries that she perhaps sees him all too clearly.
This is a slow moving novel, but it is beautifully realized through a narrator who has an appealing honesty and dry sense of humour. Long, winding paragraphs often extending for several pages, incorporate observations, memories, asides and dialogue without line breaks or quotation marks, echoing Arvid’s characteristic internalized processing. At the same time, great attention is paid to the urban and rural environments he travels through by bus, train or car, creating a vivid expansive sense of place and further highlighting his isolation within it:
On the way to the station along the wire fence and the railway line it began to blow and to snow again. I didn’t have a cap with me, but pulled one round of the scarf over my hair as a muffle against the snow, and the snow whirled around me in the wind and whirled over the closed-down factories by the Sagelva river, over the shopping centre up the road, over the hills beyond and over Øyeren lake and the river Glomma, over the forests toward Sweden. And I imagined I could see all this snow whirling over the treetops and then slowly falling and new snow coming, covering the timber roads, covering tracks of elk and roe deer, of hare and why not the wolf now moving in from the forests of Sweden after a hundred years of absence, all this seen as if from a soundless helicopter, and I caught myself longing back to the Sundays when my father and I went skiing deep into the woods on the red-marked tracks in Lillomarka, his back broad and muscular ahead of me in the blue sweater my mother had knitted, just him and me breathing sharply in the sharp winter air and the dry snow and the dry cracking of trees leaning against each other in the brittle cold, and at the same time the longing for all this made me so weary. It wasn’t going anywhere. My father was dead. There wasn’t any before. There was only now.
As the novel progresses, Arvid begins to fill in some of the relevant or unfinished pieces of his past and make an increasingly resigned alliance with his new circumstances. But there is something missing. Toward the end of the novel, the depth of his compounded grief begins to become apparent, both to Arvid and his audience. The loss of four family members twice over in the span of little more than a year, first his parents and brothers then his wife and daughters, one loss quite likely setting the groundwork for the other, is a significant trauma. He never labels it as such, nor is he likely to allow himself that full recognition, at least not yet. That would be entirely in keeping with men in his situation.
Men in My Situation by Per Petterson is translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey and published by Harvill Secker in the UK and Canada, Graywolf in the US.