“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.

An eclectic collection of my favourite reads of 2014

I am not a conventional book blogger and, as such, I only touched on a limited selection of the 45 or so books that I read this year. Sometimes I can’t help devoting a post to a book that has grabbed me or fits into the particular flow of my life which, since June, has been waylaid by mental health concerns. I do hope that in the new year I will have more of a bookish focus but I am still likely to concentrate on musing about books that resonate with life for me at that moment. I am a firm believer that we have a kind of karmic relationship with books, that when we encounter a book that encounter is coloured by where we are at that moment in time. It might be the perfect moment. But that perfect moment might be passed or not yet come.

At this time I am particularly concerned with innovative approaches to story telling, especially stories that seek to give life to real or difficult experiences. To that end I have veered into some contemporary experimental novels, not always with entirely satisfying results. However, three novels are clear standouts, one new, one translated for the first time this year and one from a few years back. I have touched on all three to a greater or lesser extent in past posts.

My Top Three:
seventerrorsfrontcover_50acc7efa1d7c_250x800r Seven Terrors, is the first novel by Bosnian writer Selvedin Avdic (Istros Books). Briefly, this is the story of a man who takes to his bed for nine months after his wife leaves him, emerging only when the daughter of a former colleague approaches him to help her find out what happened to her father who disappeared during the war. What ensues is on one level a detective story into which come elements of Bosnian folklore, politics, criminal interests and an increasing sense of madness. The Balkan war is only approached obliquely, primarily in the accompanying end notes. The overriding theme is one of the damage, collective and individual, that the horror has left in its wake. The book concludes with musings about, terror, philosophy and Bosnian mythology, followed by seven blank pages for the reader to use to record his or her own fears. I read this book back in February and it has continued to haunt me all year.

20797992The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions), a recently encountered treasure, is an inventive juxtaposition of the mundane everyday snippets of conversation, remembrances and idle thoughts, against the extraordinary musings and reflections about the nature of human existence. There is no singular voice, no story arc, no solid ground. But in this collection of fragments there lies the essence of a rich and deeply human experience, at once stripped down and laid bare as they are collected and made whole.

 

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In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (McClelland & Stewart), has been out for four years but I came to it this year, most specifically because I wanted to see how a personal experience could be pared down to its essentials and explored through the lens of time and memory. The result is some of the most evocative and precise writing about what it means to be grounded in ones self and in relation to others (or not); the allure of the road and the ambiguity of home; and, most vividly, the way that all truth lived is a fiction – one that is necessarily subjective. Galgut is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors and the opportunity to meet him and engage in an encouraging conversation about writing was the highlight of our local writer’s festival for me this fall.

Other books that had a particular impact on me this year included:

23626238I Refuse by Per Petterson. Recently translated, this latest book by another of my favourite writers is darker, richer and more complex than his masterful Out Stealing Horses. This book explores the memories of youth, the mystery and pain of mental illness, and the re-evaluations that mark mid-life. Like life, there are no neat, easy resolutions. I discussed this book in a recent post.

 

Pakistan

 

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh. This was a recommendation from a regular poster on the brilliant Tips, Links and Suggestions (TLS) blog of the Guardian Books website, a must stop for any avid reader who likes to talk about books, reading and that endless TBR list. I had never heard about this classic tale of the brutal fallout following partition in India in 1947 as communities were dismantled and muslims relocated north to Pakistan, hindus south to Gujarat. Countless men women and children failed to make it across the border alive. I am ashamed that it took the death of the author just shy of his 100th birthday to bring this brilliant book to my attention and all I can say is, if you have not done so, read it. It is important, deeply moving and the last few pages are the most agonizingly intense you will ever read. Enough said.

BarracudaBarracuda by Christos Tsiolkas. Honestly this is a book totally outside my comfort zone, I just am not inclined to huge sprawling dramas that take on all of the big issues of class, race, family, love, sex, death, success, failure etc, etc and clock in over 500 pages. Give me spare novels with lots of space for unresolved tension and moral ambiguity, thank you. So I was blindsided by how much I loved this book. It was, in part, a book I needed to read at the time, as I was coping with shame, desire for redemption and loss of identity following my breakdown earlier this year and uncertainty around my ability to return to a career I loved. It is also a skillfully crafted, fast moving and intensely powerful novel on every count. And it contains the best descriptions of brain injury in adults that I have ever seen in literature – the main character has a brain injured cousin and goes on to find in himself (though he fails to fully appreciate it) a gift for working with the disabled. Tsiolkas was another author I was fortunate to see interviewed live and speak to at length. I found him to be absolutely passionate about reading and writing and extremely kind and generous with his time and enthusiasm.

There were many other novels I enjoyed and more than a few that were mediocre at best.

GevisserIn non-fiction, I only read a handful of titles, but my favourite was Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser. The author came to my attention as the result of his recent article in Granta previewing his current involvement in a global survey of sexuality and gender diversity and, although these interests are also reflected in this memoir, the book is a fascinating family history tracing his Jewish ancestors back to Lithuania, recounting his upbringing in a segregated South Africa and his discovery through a childhood obsession with maps that there were places in his own city seemingly inaccessible. Communities, he would discover, that black people emerged from and returned to each day, often very close but in another reality altogether. He takes the reader on a journey back in time to the activists who challenged the colour barrier early on (a nice dovetail with my reading of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter this year), on a tour of the black communities as they exist today, and through the vivid horror of being held at gunpoint for three hours as he and two female friends were the victims of a home invasion in early 2012. It paints a stark and yet loving portrait of a difficult city.

SpaceFinally, my guilty pleasure is science fiction, generally veering to the weird. I regularly read J G Ballard and I did read Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy this year and although I loved the first two books, the third seemed to try to resolve things in a most awkward and unsatisfying way for me. So my pick of the year was also my first read of 2014, the last installment of M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Empty Space. It was just as haunting and grotesque as one could want, assuming one wants such an experience. But for me Harrison is in a league of his own and I am even enough of a geek fan to have purchased single story chapbook signed by the man himself this year. So there.

I may finish a few more books before the year is out but this is the longest post I have written to date, so I will stop here.

Happy reading in 2015.

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.