Some thoughts about two months of reading Norwegian literature

I started 2022 with a personal decision to focus on Norwegian fiction for at least January and February. There was no particular reason apart from a couple authors I wanted to visit or revisit and a general sense of Norwegian literature fitting nicely into a Canadian winter. Canada is a similarly northern country, albeit much larger, and I have often felt “at home” in the climate and landscape that emerges in much of what I’ve read from Norway. Of course, although I had a number of Norwegian books already on my shelves, this little project inspired the purchase of more, a trend that continued during the reading.

So, I have some thoughts about this experience. I read a total of seven novels or short story collections by five male and two female writers. This was the first issue. I had difficulty finding female authors of interest, although I have since become aware of a number I’d like to explore. My initial searches brought up a predominance of writers of noir and historical fiction—neither genres of particular interest. And then I inadvertently purchased a few titles that turned out to be Danish, not Norwegian, enough that I could probably do a month of reading female Danish authors. I will confess, though, that I was curious to read recent work by male authors my age or a little older, and in that respect, four of the novels I chose fit the bill.

I really enjoyed five of my selections, had a few minor issues with a sixth and was decidedly underwhelmed by a seventh. I decided not to review that title, as I felt there was little to gain by dissecting a novel I found so disappointing—I’m ready to accept that the problem is probably with me—but my response does deserve a few words here. The book is The Other Name: Septology I–II by Jon Fosse (translated by Damion Searls–Transit Books/Fitzcarraldo). I have yet to read anything but praise for this work which extends for seven parts over three volumes and I honestly expected it to be a book I would have liked. But, not so.

It’s the story of an aging artist, a widower, who is a misanthropic loner with a rather religious temperament. In the nearby city lives another artist with the same name, matching the same description, whose life has followed a very different course. He is drinking himself to death. Other characters in this small cast also echo one another in name and biographical details but live different lives. Or so it seems, because our narrator, Asle #1 as I thought of him, and no one around him, appears to notice the duplication beyond the name. The story unfolds in a ponderous leaden prose—a glacial stream of consciousness—ostensibly a single sentence, but one that reads more like “sentences” with an absence of full stops. Other punctuation occurs and any dialogue is off-set in the text. However, I could not help but feel that the author has given himself too much runway for the story he is trying to tell. It not only drags on, but his imagined memory episodes, like two sections where Asle watches (and listens to) a young couple (obviously himself and his late wife) in a park, made me irritated rather than impressed. The general narrative style and the potential metaphysical questions at play appeal to me, but the execution did not. I did finish it, if only to see if I caught the spark others have felt, but although the second part was an improvement, I can’t imagine going any further.

I could not help but wonder if The Other Name suffered in part from the fact that I picked it up, halfway through this project, after beginning with two books that I loved, my favourites overall as it turned out. Tomas Espedal’s The Year is a stream of consciousness novel in verse about aging and loss that is intelligent, humorous and sad, whereas The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik is likewise a deeply internalized narrative, dark and meditative that also deals with grief and matters of faith. These first two reads were so strong—that is, perfect for me at this moment—that I filled in the rest of my Espedal collection and bought Ørstavik’s earlier novella Love. It’s worth noting that I was not put off Fosse altogether either, but rather than looking ahead to complete his Septology, I bought one of his very short novellas. I think I might appreciate his work more in a very tight space.

The balance of my Norwegian project featured three new-two-me authors, Thorvald Steen (The White Bathing Hut), Ingvild H Rishøi (Winter Stories), Kjell Askildsen (Everything Like Before)  and one long-time favourite, Per Petterson (Men in My Situation). When I think about it, the one theme that binds every one of the  books I read is isolation. That is, perhaps, a significant aspect of the appeal for me.

All in all, this little Norwegian project has been a rewarding experience—I read a lot of great books and bought even more. This is the first time I have set a solid goal early in the year and met it. I have also read and reviewed several nonfiction and poetry collections and one other short story collection since the beginning of January. It feels good have been so productive, slow reader that I am, but it will also feel good now to think about reading without any strict self-imposed objectives for a change. However, I do hope it bodes well for 2022, reading wise. I mean, we’re still dealing with the pandemic despite the willingness of many governments to believe it’s over and the worsening situation in Ukraine and ongoing conflicts elsewhere are terrifying. Then, of course, there’s climate change and so much more. I would suggest we need literature and art more than ever at this time.

“I was thirty-eight years old, everything was blown, I had nothing left.” Men in My Situation by Per Petterson

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.

Sympathy for the misanthrope: Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen

The world isn’t what it used to be. For example, it takes more time to live now. I’m well into my eighties but it isn’t enough. I’m far too healthy, though I have nothing to be healthy for. But life won’t let go of me. He who has nothing to live for has nothing to die for. Maybe that’s why. (from “Chess”)

Norwegian writer Kjell Askildsen (1929–2021) is considered one of the greatest shorty-story writers of all time, a master of a spare, ascetic style in which quiet tension builds around what is unspoken. His themes tend to be sombre, with a dark, dry wit most reminiscent of Beckett, while his protagonists—all male—tend to be irritated, misanthropic and lacking empathy. Typically they find themselves isolated, often through their own behaviors or choices. There is little resolution in Askildsen’s world. Everything Like Before, gathers a selection of thirty-six of his stories spanning 1953–2015—including the entirety of his award-winning collection Thomas F’s Final Notes to the Public—that offers a generous taste of his idiosyncratic, if  bleak, worldview.

In such an extensive collection, within which many of the stories are very short, only two or three pages, the strongest pieces are often the longer ones—those which give the author more room to develop a scene or scenario. Some that really stand out for me include “The Encounter,” “A Sudden Liberating Thought,” “Mardon’s Night,” “Midsummer,” “The Wake,” “An Uplifting Funeral” and “Carl Lange.” Askildsen has a wonderful way with cranky, eccentric octagenarians in particular, but I did find that his fondness for stories involving husbands caught in marriages plagued by either tedium or restlessness—at least from their own dispassionate perspectives—frustrating for the persistent lack of communication, despite the fact that some of these pieces actually rely extensively on dialogue. Couples talking a lot, saying nothing.

However, his treatment of strained or difficult dynamics between fathers and sons is more effective. In “Mardon’s Night,” an older man named Mardon makes his way through an unfamiliar town to visit a his son, also named Mardon, whom he has not seen in many years. The exact nature of their estrangement is not clear, but the son is certainly odd and difficult. Their encounter is awkward, mediated by Vera, the son’s neighbour and at least occasional lover, one of the most fully realized female characters in the entire collection. But the visit fails to ease the distance of accumulated years, as neither man can or will make an effort.

Mardon lit a cigarette and said: We can’t actually do anything about who we are, can we? We’re completely at the mercy of our pasts, aren’t we, and we didn’t have a hand in creating our pasts. We’re arrows flying from the womb and landing in a graveyard. And what does it matter how high we flew at the moment we land? Or how far we flew, or how many we hurt along the way? That, Vera said, can’t be the whole truth.

As self-centred and insensitive as the younger Mardon may be, he echoes the view so many of Askildsen’s protagonists seem to have. A motivation for improvement, of one’s self or relationships, is lacking. The women, although we rarely see their emotional perspectives, often appear to demonstrate more will, much to the dismay of the men in their lives. Genderwise Askildsen tends to view the world through an odd one-way mirror—though that may in fact be the point he is making about his male characters. We as readers do not come to know the women because the men do not care to know what they really think.

Another highlight, “Carl Lange,” a story from the Thomas F collection, is a comedy of errors driven by paranoia. When two policemen arrive on Carl Lange’s doorstep and suggest that a man matching his description has been accused of the rape of an underage girl he is shocked. But, even though there is no reason to believe he is guilty, the suggestion triggers a series of increasingly neurotic and thus incriminating behaviours. Askildsen captures the gears turning inside our hapless protagonist so vividly that, as his reckless actions and antagonism directed at the investigating officer escalates, the tale is not only funny, but increasingly distressing as we watch a man careening into his own self-created disaster.

At best, these stories—whether long or short—open up haunting, unsettled spaces inhabited by characters who fail to connect, or do so only by awkward chance. There is a variation of form, not surprising given the wide span of Askildsen’s career covered here, but, taken too many at a time, the stories can, at times, flatten out and run into one another, as a certain sameness blunts the sharpness of his wit. In that respect, this collection, like other longer volumes, may be best enjoyed a handful of stories at a time.

Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen is translated by Sean Kinsella and published by Archipelago Books.

The Kindness of Strangers: Winter Stories by Ingvild H. Rishøi

Those of us who live in northern countries know that winter is not just a season, it is a state of mind. Ice and snow, cold and short days can test resources and strengthen resolve. Everything, good and bad, can be heightened at this time of year. This is the mood that permeates Norwegian writer Ingvild H. Rishøi’s third collection Winter Stories, her first to appear in English. This volume contains three stories, two almost novella length, set in winter and featuring working class characters and their children or siblings. As such it is a book about families, what to means to be a family. Each story is anchored in a strong, distinct narrative voice—a protagonist caught up in a situation he or she had not anticipated, circumstances they cannot escape. They know they have some agency, but it is not that simple—their own families of origin are damaged, wounded, marked by poverty, mental illness, violence. Yet in each case the central figure holds to the hope that they can break the cycle, that things can be better, for the sake of the young children in their lives, the children who give their lives meaning.

The first and shortest story “We Can’t Help Everybody” features a very young single mother and her sensitive observant kindergarten-aged daughter as they make their way home from school on a rainy, cold afternoon. The mother, down to her last 60 kroner, is worried about how they will make it through the weekend. She is overwhelmed by the responsibility of parenthood, the weight of poverty, and, one gathers, little support from the child’s father. As her daughter argues that they must help a young man begging on the street, the narrator thinks back to her own childhood, growing up in a caravan. The picture she sketches of a troubled mother, and emotional instability, is scant but telling. The insecurities linger, but:

Now everything is so different.  One thing after another has changed, and now I have a job and a daughter and days like this, and here I sit on the pavement and she is five years old and shakes her head, and squeezes her eyes shut, but the sound of the rain creates something light in me.

That everything can be different again.

Everything can be fine.

On the surface, the challenges that emerge in this short piece may seem small—the decision to help a beggar, the desire to buy a new pair of underpants—but if you have ever faced the inability to meet basic expenses for your children, as I have, you know the feeling of despair can be crushing. And the smallest of miracles pure magic. This story captures a reality many know too well.

The second and third stories, each running to about 70 pages apiece, also take place over a short span of time, but offer the space for a greater development of the protagonist’s character, background and the circumstances behind the immediate events. In “The Right Thomas,” a man recently released from prison is preparing for his young son’s first overnight visit in over a year. He has studied the recipe he plans to cook, and with only a few hours to spare, sets out to buy a pillow for his son’s bed. Only thirty-three himself, Thomas’ route to fatherhood is a little unconventional. A one-night stand led Leon’s conception, and when the panicked mother-to-be manages to track him down, she makes it clear that she expects him to take on the role of co-parent, but she neither wants a relationship nor does she need his financial support. Thomas has a difficult past, with an abusive, violent father and a troubled recent history, but he longs to be a better man, a new man.

Now, back in the outside world, ready to make good on his resolution, Thomas still reads threats and accusations into even the most mild interactions. What he fears most is his own anger, that it will be triggered, erupt, be uncontrollable. It is a legacy he wishes to leave behind, but it stalks him everywhere, mitigated only by the words of his prison psychologist that echo in his thoughts:

‘You want to buy a child’s pillow,’ she says.

But this isn’t an attack. This is just something I don’t master, if you’ve felt under attack for your entire life, this is how you react, that is Stone Age biology, the psychologist said, the fear is embedded in the brain, but I’m not going to behave like a caveman, because I live in a time period with pillow shops and psychologists and traffic lights and if I continue to feel suffocated and lose it, then the same things will happen to Leon, my father scared the bejesus out of me, and I scare the bejesus out of him, but I don’t want to.

I want Leon to sleep peacefully in his bed.

His sincere wish is that his son can enjoy the confidence and success he feels his upbringing and failures have denied him. But will he even manage to make it through to this important opportunity to start over again?

The final story, “Siblings,” opens with seventeen year-old Rebekka ready to run away, essentially from social services, with her two young half-siblings. The children have no idea what is going on, but they trust her, even if she is not sure she trusts herself. She picks up the children after school, dumps their books in the garbage, fills their rucksacks with clothes she has stashed, and hurries them off to catch a bus out of town. As the story unfolds and the challenges that threaten her careful plans mount, the complexity of the underlying factors behind this sudden flight are revealed.

This is excellent classic story telling; as a reader it is impossible not to become invested in each scenario as it plays out. With empathy and a keen poetic sensibility, Rishøi creates deeply human, interesting characters and gives each one a compelling voice. She excels at building narrative tension, fueled as much by the outside circumstances that arise as by her protagonists’ own insecurities and growing doubts that they will fail those who depend on them most. They take risks, stumble and pull themselves together again. Success is not certain, there are no happy endings, but there is promise. And, sometimes, promise is enough.

Winter Stories by Ingvild H. Rostøi is translated by Diane Oatley and published by Seagull Books.

“We know something of ourselves, but not much.” The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen

Beneath my clothes there is 1.8 square metres of skin stretched over five litres of blood, thirteen billion nerve cells and twenty-five billion red blood corpuscles.

I’ve got twenty-three chromosomes in each cell.

The chromosomes in each pair are the same length, apart from the fourth. There, one of the chromosomes is fractionally shorter than the other.

That’s why I can’t get up and walk out of this text.

One might hope that, at this point in time, especially more than two years into a global pandemic, that illness and disability might be understood as something that could strike anyone, at any time, even you or someone you love. But, as we have seen, human beings have a stubborn capacity to blame those who fall ill, experience extended symptoms or die for their outcomes, citing age, lifestyle, or co-morbidities. The stigma and shame well known by those of us who live, love someone and/or work with people who have a disability, has been replayed and reinforced  during this extended period of co-existence with a persistent, evolving virus with unknown long term consequences.

The events chronicled in Norwegian writer Thorvald Steen’s The White Bathing Hut illustrate the extent to which societal attitudes toward disability can lead to deception and family dissolution. The unnamed narrator is a man nearing sixty whose deteriorating physical condition has left him dependent on a wheelchair. One day, with the Christmas season approaching, he receives a call from a woman who identifies herself as his cousin, the daughter of his mother’s brother. The existence of an uncle and a cousin come as a complete surprise to him, but, as this woman, Eline, explains, his family had refused to have anything to do with hers and she had only come to know of him by chance. She also reveals that her father and their mutual grandfather both died of the same disease he has. This unexpected information leaves him wondering if his entire life was constructed on a web of lies and sets off a chain of urgent inquiries. His account unfolds through a spare, tight narrative reported from an unusual perspective, so to speak.

Several weeks after Eline’s call, while seated at the table trying to find a location on a map of Norway, our narrator leans forward, realizing too late that he’s forgotten to apply the brakes of his wheelchair, and he and the chair topple over as if in slow motion, each movement described and dissected in poetic and anatomical detail. “I land in a heap. / Soft and hard. / Textiles, hair, flesh and bones. / That’s all there is.” His wife has just left for a week-long business trip, his daughter is away for the weekend and his caregiver is off for the holidays. His phone and alarm are on top of a shelf out of reach and he is now consigned to a new vantage point… the floor.

Unable to get up, his thoughts turn to his own past, to the development of his disease, and the more recent investigations and interrogations triggered by his cousin’s phone call. He had been diagnosed in his teens with a progressive form of muscular dystrophy that causes gradual muscle degeneration and eventual paralysis—news that was a terrible blow to him as an athletic young man with a promising future as a ski jumper. But the reaction of his parents was even worse. They warned him to tell no one. They refused to speak about it. Tried to wish it away. So he was burdened with a secret that slowly unveiled itself as his muscles weakened. Now, armed with new information there is a further significance to his desire to better understand his place within the broader context of his family history: his daughter Karoline appears to have inherited the same crippling condition.

The spare, tight narrative proceeds in short, nonchronological chapters that move between the protagonist’s childhood, youth and adult years, and the few weeks that have just passed. He has recently made two visits to his recalcitrant mother who informs him she is dying of cancer but refuses to answer his questions. What little he can glean guides his search through archival sources for biographical details about his uncle and grandfather. As he looks back over his personal life experiences, his efforts to conceal his pain and growing weakness—often by putting himself at risk—is contrasted against the demonstrations of physical strength that marked his earliest years. The increased awareness of body difference and stigma lead him to believe he will be forever unloveable. As a young man, his future, as he sees it, looks bleak:

How could I make a plan of any kind? I didn’t know what I’d look like or be able to do in a few years’ time. I hated my body. If anyone had told me that I ought to think positive, I’d have hit them. The weekends were the worst. Sometimes I lay in bed the whole of Saturday and Sunday without the energy to sit, eat or drink. In the mirror I could see that a few of the little muscles around my eyes and mouth had completely disappeared.

This is a very physical text. A story that is bound to the body. Driving this physical aspect home are the poetic interludes, often containing minute skeletal and cellular descriptions, that regularly relocate the narrative in the immediate space, on the floor, where the narrator observes his surroundings and struggles to shift his reluctant limbs into a position that might enable him to push himself up. It is an exhausting, futile effort. With a steady resolve he returns to his account.

Although the disability central to this novel is explicitly visible, The White Bathing Hut manages, without ever exercising a heavy hand, to call attention to the extent to which any disability—physical, cognitive or mental—is met with a social stigma that extends beyond the afflicted individual to the family and their contacts. It also alludes to an even darker subtext, that of Norway’s difficult historical relationship with eugenics. Of course, neither of these factors are unique to Norway, nor are they entirely behind us. Shame associated with disability still exists, and the ability to selectively control for desired sex, against congenital conditions, or even for other qualities raises serious ethical questions. Through this book’s very honest, resilient and endearing narrator, many of these critical issues are brought to light.

The White Bathing Hut by Thorvald Steen is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

“I wanted to bind up a wound”: The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik

Who was I? Everywhere I went, something broke or became distorted. What had I thought? That by travelling to somewhere else on the map I would arrive at some new place in myself? A place in me that was good and warm and worthy of love?

Set deep in the endless night of an Arctic winter, The Pastor by Norwegian writer, Hanne Ørstavik, is a novel that pushes into that darkness—on an emotional, spiritual, and historical level—in search of some glimmer of clarity, some sense of meaning in an uncertain, insensible world. Yet, rather than reaching any absolute truths, the internally focused narrative rides on a current of relentless speculation and questioning, becoming a melancholic testament to the inadequacy of language to isolate and contain our thoughts and feelings, and the barriers we often erect that keep us from being able to communicate what cannot be articulated in words. Yet out of this sombre landscape emerges a tale of quiet beauty.

The troubled narrator, Liv, is a theologian who has abruptly abandoned her PhD studies in Germany, following the tragic death of her friend, Kristiane, and accepted the position of adjunct pastor in a small town in the far north region of her native Norway. When we meet her, she has been in this new role for one year. She seems to have achieved a certain state of equilibrium with her skeptical parishioners, and a companionable relationship with the recently widowed woman she has invited to live on the main floor of the parsonage with her two daughters. As well, the relative proximity to the site of the 1852 Kautokeino Rebellion, the Sami uprising against Norwegian settlers, allows her to continue her longstanding academic investigations into the events and the role the understanding of Biblical language might have played in inspiring the Sami’s attack. But it has not been easy. Her brief friendship with Kristiane and the circumstances surrounding her suicide continue to haunt her while she worries that she will always be an outsider, emotionally distant from others and from God.

Unfolding over the course of one week, the novel opens with our unlikely pastor officiating communion. Her thoughts go back to Kristiane, to her decision to move, her hopes for her new home, and the very unfortunate first impression she made in the church. This continual cycling of memories, sometimes shifting from present to past and back in the same paragraph, drive the narrative forward, slowly filling in more of the details, discomforts, and unresolved doubts she carries. An imagining of the Sami rebellion, augmented with historical records, is also woven into the broader tapestry. In the present moment though, it is a call to attend to the parents of a suicide victim, a nineteen year-old girl who has hung herself from a fish drying structure out on a barren piece of land, that triggers Liv’s immediate crisis of identity and faith. By the end of the week, she will have been tested, or rather, will have tested herself against a variety of circumstances that she  struggles to meet.

The challenges Liv faces all revolve around her inability to physically bridge the gap between herself and others—to reach out a hand to a grieving parent, respond to a man to whom she is attracted, recognize signs of depression in someone close to her—a skill she perhaps imagined the priesthood would magically confer upon her. She recognizes what she wants to do or say, imagines it, but fails to follow through. Again and again. Key to understanding her crippling inhibition, she believes, is her brief friendship with Kristiane. At forty-one, seven years her senior, the German woman was a puppeteer with her own workshop and theatre. A definite counterpoint to the serious theologian. Liv saw in Kristiane a lightness of spirit, and an apparent self-confidence that she craved. She seemed at ease in her body and her being, quick to laughter, her crooked teeth flashing—an image Liv cannot forget. They only knew each other for forty days, but Liv is obsessed by the fear that she failed her friend:

Weightless. I was so heavy myself, and all I saw in her was what I needed. Was that it? I didn’t realize that the light in her was turned up too bright, like a film going completely white until the image disappears. Was that the way it was?

If she was aware of an intrinsic “heaviness” before encountering Kristiane, her death untethers her completely. She carries this disconnect with her all the way back to Norway. Recollecting the long drive north she says:

I drove slowly. The flat, open vista seemed to make everything so plain, but still felt like I couldn’t get a hold on anything, as if I was so very far away. The road, stretching out in front of the car, the landscape, the steering wheel I gripped between my hands. My mind was a haze, as if there were no thoughts left to think. It was like I was driving over the back of some great beast that could get to its feet at any moment and shake me off. I wasn’t attached to anything, wasn’t a part of anything.

Liv is wounded. She is ever aware of her failure to connect, feeling outside, separate. She reminds herself that she is a pastor, that people depend on her for comfort, and then wonders again whatever possessed her to choose the ministry as a career when she herself is so uncertain, so ungrounded, so afraid that she will fall and that there will be nothing or none there to catch her. Isn’t that what everyone needs to have? Some kind of faith?

As it moves through the vast, eerily lit northern Norwegian landscape, The Pastor relies on the reader’s ability to connect with a protagonist so estranged from herself. Some might find Liv frustrating, but in its winding, lyrical passage, her narrative contains great depth and mounting tension. As someone who has experienced difficulties with mood regulation, I found Ørstavik’s portrait oddly familiar. I was not surprised to hear in an interview that the author was coming out of a serious depression when she wrote the book almost twenty years ago—she captures the disjointedness of thought so well. And it’s a sensation most people have probably known at some point or another. For example, when Liv is rushing back to town having learned of another tragic incident, this one much closer to home, her thoughts are suspended, frozen: “I tried to think about what I was thinking about. My thoughts wouldn’t think.”

Martin Aitken’s sensitive translation maintains an atmosphere of profound longing for connection and contact, for the touch to fill the unspeakable space, a gesture that can be so hard to give or accept. That is at the core of Liv (and her name means “life”)’s existential discontent. There are many unanswered questions in The Pastor, but small cracks appear and spread slowly, and there is the hope that what one tragedy broke open, a second tragic occurrence a year later might finally begin to heal.

The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik is translated by Martin Aitken and published by Archipelago Books.

The seasons of love and death: The Year by Tomas Espedal

When something hurts
you shouldn’t avoid it
no
you should meet the worst
with all your weakness
and allow yourself to be destroyed.
You should seek out loneliness
to feel that you are alone
to feel that you are desolate
to feel that you have loved
to feel the love
that can obliterate you entirely.

Norwegian writer Tomas Espedal’s uniquely autobiographical fiction rests close to his own life. From one work to the next, his narrator, ever aging as he does, is restlessly questing, his explorations at once intimate and yet maintaining a certain personal distance, or opaqueness. In his last book, Bergeners, his protagonist, nearing fifty, is seeking to understand the meaning of home as he tries to adjust to both the departure of his adult daughter and the unexpected loss of his girlfriend. He wanders the streets of his hometown and travels abroad, but cannot escape the deep loneliness that settles into his bones. Now, with The Year, his most recent work to be released in English, a few years have passed but Espedal’s fictional Tomas has been unable to let go of his love for his former girlfriend, Janne, and now, wondering if he is destined to spend the rest of his life alone, he seeks advice from another man who loved only one woman, from his first sight of her to the end of his life—Francesco Petrarch.

Thus, The Year begins on a meditative, melancholy note. Our narrator states that he wants to write a book about love, with the initial objective to record the events of each day for an entire year. Ah, but where to start? He decides upon the sixth of April, which is, appropriately, the day in 1327 when Petrarch first set eyes on his beloved Laura, the date in 1348 that she died, and the framework within which he structured the 366 poems that comprise his great Canzonniere—his celebration of his boundless affection for the woman he loved so faithfully, from afar and forever. So, on the sixth of April, seven centuries later, another lovelorn man is making his way by train to Avignon, and then by foot to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse to stay for a time near the house that Petrarch built there. And we are with him, riding along on the flow of his thoughts. Bergeners combined a mix of fragmented poetry and prose, but The Year is a novel written entirely in free verse, a compulsively readable style that very effectively captures the protagonist’s reflective, frequently repetitive and increasingly neurotic consciousness.

Having already spent a year immersing himself in Petrarch’s writing, the narrator is on a sort of pilgrimage. If the Italian poet could love so completely and purely, he must have known something about living with the one he loved. After several weeks living in the area, it is time for him to approach the master directly. On Easter Sunday, an imagined encounter and walk along the river occurs, echoing the Petrarch’s imagined discourse with Saint Augustine recorded in his deeply personal Secretum. They even stop at a café where the narrator’s ghostly companion challenges him, accuses him of being banal, and shares some of the wisdom the saint disclosed to him. Still, the unanswerable question remains: How is it possible that love remains, year after year, even after the one you love has left you and hurt you so deeply? How?

After tracing and retracing Petrarch’s steps and agonizing over his peculiar predicament and the way it has left him emotionally paralyzed, it is time for the protagonist to move on. There’s a writer’s festival to attend in Montpellier where he drinks heavily, has a brief encounter with a woman, and escapes from the hotel the moment she starts to talk about catching up with him once he is back home in Norway. He catches the first southbound train. The atmosphere and mood has shifted.

There’s nothing better than being inebriated
on a fast train at such high speed racing away
from everything you’ve done as a stranger
in a strange city it’s almost
as if you’d never been there I say
aloud and drink some wine
write in my notebook I’m back
to normality writing and drinking
on a journey on the train
the first of May
under way
to or from
it makes no difference
it’s good to be on the move
it’s good to be nobody.

In Barcelona he has arranged to meet his father, for a time panicked that he won’t find him among the mass of tourists arriving, then disappointed to see how old he looks when he does. Together they board a luxury cruise ship, a self-contained city of its own where the days pass, their calendar designations blurring. Our middle-aged narrator seems to view his father with a mix of admiration and contempt. The older man, who has lived by himself since his wife died seventeen years earlier, now clearly shows the weight of his age. This triggers a range of complicated emotions in his son who is secretly fretting about his own life unfolding empty and alone to the end. When, sitting in the ship’s casino, his father says something he knows well—all my life I’ve loved just one woman—the truth suddenly hits home:

He’s always been what I shall become.
All my life I’ve loved just one
woman they’re my father’s words and
they’re Petrarch’s words in a letter
to Boccaccio
and as I’d searched for Petrarch’s history
I had without knowing it
searched for my father’s history
I’d searched for a love story
which I thought was my own.
I’d searched for my father
here he sits
and I hardly see him at all.

I know only too well
why I don’t see him
it’s because I
resemble him.

Father and son, hard-headed, each with a fighter’s instincts and a stubborn inability to let go of love, are an odd, yet endearing pair. The narrator cannot help measuring himself against his father, for better and worse. The dynamics of their relationship plays out while we learn more about the circumstances that led to Janne’s leaving and discover our protagonist is nursing not only an unhealed broken heart but an unresolved grievance. The tension rises as he hatches a plan to resolve it.

The Year is book that, by virtue of its internalized poetic narrative, moves swiftly, swirling around a core set of ideas or, shall we say, obsessions, but shifting and changing shape along the way. In the early pages I took a little time out to glance sideways into Petrarch’s life and writing, but as the narrator’s short pilgrimage draws to a close one soon comes to understand that although he can be meditative and thoughtful, he can also be neurotic, edgy, and a man with a tendency to drink too much. Through this year, spring to autumn, Petrarch continues to surface, as does the initial reflective tone and, amid the ongoing questioning of life, love and death, profound, wide-reaching observations are raised, anchoring Espedal’s work, as ever, in the world in which we all exist.

The Year by Tomas Espedal is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books.

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.

To be someone: The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti A. Skomsvold

It may seem counterintuitive given the immediate obsession with death and a life unlived, but this quirky little book, opens with promise. Mathea Martinsen, the self-deprecating narrator, is an odd character, an elderly woman as afraid of living as she is of dying.  What concerns her most is that she will pass unnoticed, that her existence will not be registered. With an irrational fear of other people, and a preference to stay home watching TV and knitting an inexhaustible supply of ear warmers, she has reached the far side of life and is given to morose reflections on the fact that she has failed to make an impression on the world. Each morning she reads the obituaries, relieved not to find herself listed there. And yet, she reasons, an obituary would be proof that she had been someone, if only a presence noted in passing. She considers writing her own obituary and sending it in to the paper so that it will be on hand when the time comes, assuming that is, that someone notices that she is missing (or registers a smell coming from her apartment).

Cheery? Well, having just witnessed an increase in nuclear posturing between the US and North Korea, riots on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, mud slides in Sierra Leone, and carnage on the streets of Barcelona, one could argue that The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Norwegian writer Kjersti A. Skomsvold is the perfect, light refreshing read—intimations of death notwithstanding. And it is an enjoyable diversion, but strangely unconvincing if one is looking for a meaningful meditation on what it means to be alive.

Serious times welcome distractions. However, is that enough?

Mathea and her husband live in a cooperative where they stick to themselves as they have for decades. High school sweethearts, were brought together after Mathea, a natural loner given to lurking on the edge of the schoolyard, attracted not one, but two bolts of lightning, one after the other. This exceptionally unlikely occurrence caught the attention of a similarly unpopular classmate with a penchant for statistics:

“The chances of being struck by lightning twice in the same spot are less than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity” was the first thing Epsilon said to me. “It’s completely unbelievable.” He didn’t know how truly unbelievable it was, because nothing had ever singled me out. The spun bottle never pointed at me, the neighborhood kids never found me when we played hide-and-seek, and I never found the almond in the pudding at Christmas, one or the other of my parents always found it, which was almost a bit suspicious.

Epsilon works as a statistician, continuing well beyond retirement years, and measures life in statistically accurate probabilities. He is as eccentric as his wife, but at least he gets out of the house and, one suspects, has some semblance of a social existence. His career gives his life meaning—calculable and quantifiable—while his wife, with mortality facing her, has not even begun to figure out how to live.

She walks to the store, sometimes giving the time of day, literally, to a strange man she sees on her way, and buys countless jars of jam, hoping she will chance upon one she can actually open. She buries a time capsule and calls information repeatedly to request her own number, just to register the sense that she is a popular person. She likes to rhyme her thoughts, a strange game that affords for rather clichéd statements which one hopes may be in part an effect of translation. Nonetheless, Mathea comes across as a rather shallow, even irritating character—one can sense Epsilon’s stoic resolve and patience pushed at times to its limits—and she almost appears to recognize her own obstinacy. Yet she is powerless to fight it except in the most strangely counter-productive ways. What is humorous at the outset of this novella, quickly grows strained.

In the end, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am is somewhat like the meringues our narrator prides herself on making. Not enough substance to work as an allegory. Not dark enough to turn Mathea and Epsilon’s strangely isolated existence into a mildly gothic tale. A charming read on a week that, in world news, was in sore need of some charm, but, in the end, likely too lightweight to linger.

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive.

The haunting memory of friendship lost – I Refuse by Per Petterson

April 7, 2016: The post below was composed when I was debating the extent to which I wanted to turn toward reviewing books. As a result it is primarily personal and reflective in nature. Since writing it my reviews rapidly moved to more serious and critical efforts, many of which now appear on other sites.

I recently wrote a piece for the Three Percent blog on why this book should win the Best Translated Book Award for 2016. It offers a more critical view of this work.

23626238The novel opens with the chance meeting of Jim and Tommy, two childhood friends, now in their mid-50’s on a bridge at the break of dawn. More than 30 years have passed since they last saw each other. Jim, the sensitive and more intellectually inclined of the two, has struggled with mental illness and, as we meet him, he has exhausted a year of sick leave after a brief and unsuccessful attempt to return to work. Tommy, who dropped out of school at 16 to work at a mill, has benefited from some shrewd investments and a head for numbers, to find himself in a high level financial position in the city. But his life, with his fancy clothing and new Mercedes, is hollow. Both men have failed marriages behind them and over the course of the day that follows this early morning encounter each one finds himself facing a deep sense of grief and loss over the close friendship they shared growing up in semi-rural Norway.

As spare and luminous as the northern landscape that grounds this exploration of time, friendship, family and dysfunctional parents – themes Petterson has returned to continuously – I Refuse follows a winding chronology and employs a variety of perspectives and characters to frame the peculiar circumstances that helped forge the original bond between Jim and Tommy, and the fractured pathways that each has followed after Jim’s attempted suicide at 18 initiates events that drive them apart. Brought to life through the blistering translation from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (of Knuasgaard, Loe and Nesbo fame) this is simply Petterson’s broadest, darkest and most complex work to date. If his brilliant Out Stealing Horses has long occupied a space in my top ten all time favourite books, this new work is even more striking and mature.

Or maybe I am simply more mature myself.

At this moment in time, at roughly the same age as the men at the core of this novel, and currently engaged in my own pursuit of disability supports following an unexpected return of a mental health disorder after more than a decade of stability, I could relate to the essential theme of the slowly eroding and distorting impact of the passage of time on our selves and our relationships with friends and family. Apart from a failed marriage and a childhood in a similarly semi-rural setting; my life and circumstances are different than those portrayed here. But the true power of this work lies in the author’s skill and confidence in the reader to leave the space for ambiguity and hint at the possible dynamics that drive the characters without feeling the need to answer all the questions or resolve all the mysteries.

Kind of like the way we have to navigate life itself.