The only existential novel I remember having read many years back is Albert Camus’ The Stranger/The Outsider – a novel that famously opens with the lines “Maman died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
It’s a book that stayed in my mind, and I made a note of exploring more ‘existential-themed’ novels in the future, should I come across a good one.
And then I stumbled upon this Norwegian classic when it was translated into English around 7-8 years back. It’s a book I had never heard of, although it garnered critical acclaim in Norway when it was first published there. What more, the author Dag Solstad was also a completely new name to me, but obviously quite well known in his own country.
As my history of book buying suggests, I don’t always read a book as soon as I buy it. And this one was nicely shelved somewhere in the house. Then I came across it when scanning the bookshelves for my next read.
In some sense, it was kind of a rediscovery, and I wasted no time in going through the first few pages, feverishly making my way towards the end.
The rather mysteriously titled ‘Novel 11 Book 18’ is the story of a man who realizes that actual life does not really meet his expectations. And so he decides to drastically bring his expectations in line.
Bjorn Hansen is a married man with a two-year old son living in Oslo with a comfortable job as a civil servant in one of the ministries in the big city. One day he abandons his wife and child to live with the wonderfully named Turid Lammers in a smaller Norwegian town of Kongsberg.
That relationship doesn’t end too well later either as is evinced in the opening lines of the book:
When this story begins, Bjorn Hansen has just turned fifty and is waiting for someone at the Kongsberg Railway Station. It has now been four years since he separated from Turid Lammers, with whom he had lived for fourteen years, from the very moment when he arrived at Kongsberg, which before that time barely existed on the map for him. When he arrived at Kongsberg eighteen years ago, he had only a few personal belongings, such as clothes and shoes, plus crates and crates of books. When he moved out of the Lammers villa, he also took away with him only personal possessions, such as clothes and shoes, besides crates and crates of books.
But let’s rewind.
Hansen’s decision to leave his wife and move in with Turid Lammers is not necessarily well thought out. Hansen “knew that the most desirable happiness on earth was a brief happiness.” And he believes that he has found this kind of happiness with Turid. This is how he dwells on the subject in a matter-of-fact way:
He had to go to Kongsberg, to her (Turid), otherwise he would come to regret it for the rest of his life. Indeed, the absolute certainty that he would have regrets made returning to Tina and their son, to continue as before but now without a secret love, impossible. And so he disclosed his secret to his wife and cut loose from his marriage.
Bjorn Hansen, in the meanwhile, settles down gradually in his new life. He accepts the job of the town’s treasurer, for which he is overqualified, and has to endure the wrath of his colleagues who were passed on for this post.
And, he also decides to be part of the town’s theatrical society; persuaded to do so by Turid, who is the centre of attention of Kongsberg’s drama circle.
Initially, Bjorn Hansen begins to enjoy being part of the theatre group, helping on the productions (light operas, if you will) from the sidelines and yet not directly involved in the acting as such. But then he is gripped by this feeling that the theatre needs to put up plays that are more serious and substantial. He becomes fixated by the idea that they need to showcase a play by ‘Henrik Ibsen’ – Norway’s famous playwright.
He began to throw out hints that perhaps they should try for something big. All this enthusiasm, all this experience of how to conduct oneself on the stage, all this delight in precision and in displaying one’s abilities – couldn’t it be used for something more than performing operettas, which while capable of kindling a gaiety of spirit both in the actors and, not least, in the public, could nevertheless make one feel rather dejected, or outright weary, with all their intellectual vacuity, everything considered, after the lights came up in the hall, the public had gone home, and they sat in the dressing-room removing their make-up? What if they rose to a level where one could feel the blast of real life? What if they had a shot at Ibsen?
Since the idea was Hansen’s and Turid helps him bring it to fruition, Bjorn Hansen assumes the title role in the play with Turid as his wife. But the production flops badly. And it highlights the tragedy of Bjorn Hansen’s life – he has some ambition, but lacks ability.
They couldn’t do it. It was all too clear that this was something for which they lacked every qualification. Bjorn Hansen had insufficient radiance to enable him to make Hjalmar Ekdal’s (the protagonist in the play) painful gestures. That was the bitter truth. He had not enough acting technique, and hence no radiance.
Meanwhile, we are told that Bjorn Hansen has one friend, Herman Busk. They like discussing books – Bjorn Hansen in particular likes books “that showed life to be impossible and contained a bitter black humour”. But he is now bored with those and wants “a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”
And then, close to about halfway through the book, we come across a ‘twist’, prompted by Bjorn Hansen’s realization:
Just imagine, to live an entire life, my own life at that, without having found the path to where my deepest needs can be seen and heard!
He hatches an incredulous plan and decides to put it into action.
It was a plan whereby Bjorn Hansen would actualize his great No, his great Negation, as he had begun to call it, through an action that would be irrevocable.
I will not reveal what happens.
And while by itself, the plan might seem farfetched, in the context of the narrative, it doesn’t really seem so.
Which brings me to the narrative itself.
The prose in the book is deliberately plain, mechanical and sometimes repetitive. While that may put off some readers, I thought the book was compelling and interesting precisely because of it. Something about the matter-of-fact tone of the story-telling made it quite seductive, luring you into the tale, wanting you to keep the pages turning.
There is a certain detachment in the author Solstad’s storytelling and this also manifests when talking about the characters – they are always referred to by their full names, and not by either just their first names or surnames.
But there are moments of black humour in the tale, as seen from this quote:
The two years that went by before he managed to tear himself away from [Turid] were a total nightmare, which here will be passed over in silence.
This can easily be summed up as an existential novel – a man suffering a mid-life crisis. And while all of this might appear bleak, it isn’t really so. And this is where the author excels – it’s the prose, which is clinical and unemotional, and yet takes the novel to a completely different level.
Translation credits go to Sverre Lyngstad.