Novel 11, Book 18 – Dag Solstad (tr. Sverre Lyngstad)

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.

Novel 11 Book 18
Harvill Secker Hardback Edition

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.

Tales from the 1001 Nights – Dali’s Watercolours

To me, for many years, Salvador Dali was synonymous with Surrealism. He painted those bizarre images, which supposedly evoked his dreams and hallucinations.

Dali Main Book Folio Society Limited Edition

I was never much of a Dali enthusiast to be honest. His oil paintings didn’t really speak to me. Atleast not in the way Impressionism did (represented by Monet, Renoir, Degas et al). Clearly, I am missing something.

The only painting of his which is etched in my mind is also probably his most famous one – The Persistence of Memory.

Dali the-persistance-of-memory
Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory

But what is lesser known about Dali – atleast to me – is that he also produced watercolours. And oh boy, those are completely on a different plane altogether.

To put it simply, they are brilliant.

Many of these watercolours, Dali produced as illustrations for books.

So when a Limited Edition of Dali’s watercolours by Folio Society came out (picture at the start) for The 1001 Nights (or The Arabian Nights, if you will), it greatly piqued my interest.

The popularity of the Nights…

There has always been something quite fascinating about The Arabian Nights.  These medieval tales are set in a world that is exotic, magical and other worldly. The main story arch is where Shahrazad relates tales every night to the king to delay her execution.

In world culture, the influence of The Arabian Nights is immense. These tales have been popular subjects for films and have also inspired many pieces of music. They have also greatly influenced a diverse range of authors and writers not just in England but all across the world. Many of these writers have alluded to The 1001 Nights in their own works.

It is hardly surprising then that these tales were also a constant source of fascination for artists and book illustrators – especially Golden Age illustrators such as Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen to name a few.

Here’s what the introduction in the Penguin edition of The Arabian Nights says:

The Arabian Nights is a vast storytelling ocean in which the readers can lose themselves. One story, like a wave, is absorbed into the one that follows. The drift of the narrative tide carries us, like Sindbad, to strange places, and the further from home, the stranger those places are.

Ifrits, jinns, sultans, viziers, beautiful princesses, witches, ghouls, monsters, sorcerors, beasts and birds abound in these tales. Many of the stories are also quite erotic as they are suffused with sex.

Little wonder, Salvador Dali was also seduced by The Arabian Nights and desired to illustrate it.

Dali’s obsession with the Nights…

Infact, it seems that Dali had engineered The Arabian Nights commission himself. Giuseppe and Mara Albaretto, a wealthy Italian couple who became enthusiasts and collectors of Dali’s work, arranged for him to illustrate a series of books for the Turin-based publisher Rizzoli.

The first of these was the Bible in 1963, but Dali, was not as devout a Catholic as Giuseppe was. He insisted that the book he wanted to illustrate was The 1001 Nights.

Why his obsession with the Nights?

Here’s the publisher:

Everything about Dali seemed peculiarly suited to the Nights – his fascination with the Arab world (he believed that he was of Moorish descent), his indomitable and tortured obsession with the erotic, even his improvised approach to composition, which mirrored that of the tales’ narrator Shahrazad. Yet above all it is his imaginative power, his ability not merely to transport his readers to an exotic world, but to take them on an exhilarating sensory and psychological journey, that makes him one of the great interpreters of this collection of stories. Executed in a vivid blaze of colours, his illustrations abound with figures – humans, animals, curious monsters – which shift between the familiar and the disorientating. At once rooted in the tales and departing from them, Dali’s watercolours have an almost hallucinatory effect.

Here’s more from the Folio Society on his sumptuous illustrations in the introduction to the Dali illustrated edition of The Arabian Nights:

Dali images

Dali produced a total of 100 illustrations for The 1001 Nights, of which 50 have survived in good condition.

The watercolours (which are occasionally supplemented by pen and ink or charcoal) are all dated 1966.

Indeed, as you will see the illustrations are vibrant with striking colours and pulse with life in a manner that was rarely matched by other artists. They are exciting, inventive and brim with fierce energy. They will transfix and mesmerise you!

I have displayed a few of them here…

Dali 1

Dali 2

Here are some more…

Dali 3

Dali 5

More to gush and drool over…

Dali 4Dali 7Dali 6Dali 8

The Forgiven – Lawrence Osborne

When I had visited Northern Norway, crossing the Arctic Circle a couple of years ago, the dark, remote landscape held a spell over me. To me, there is something quite fascinating about remote, mysterious regions whether in reality or in fiction. And while The Forgiven is not set in cold, freezing Norway, Osborne’s Morocco seemed sufficiently dusty, barren and bleak enough based on the blurb, pushing me to pick up this novel.

It turned out to be quite a read.

The Forgiven
Vintage Books Edition

The book opens in Africa, particularly in Morocco, where the Hennigers, David and his wife Jo have just landed.

David is a doctor in the UK, who has recently lost a malpractice suit, and is possibly an alcoholic. His wife Jo writes books for children, although she has been suffering from a major writer’s block and has not written anything for quite a while. They have been invited by friends Richard and his partner Dally for a weekend party at their lavish home, deep in the heart of Morocco, in a town called Azna.

It’s a long journey there. Before they rent a car, they make their way to a hotel and down a few drinks. It starts getting dark, and probably not such a good idea to drive, but Richard decides to do so anyway. Jo is uneasy.

But still there was a needling reluctance in her voice, a physical disinclination of some kind. She didn’t want to go. She always doubted him in moments of pressure, and when she doubted him, there was a tone in her voice that made him resist at once. So, naturally, they had to go.

‘It’s a bit mad to keep driving,’ she tried.

Jo’s fears are not unfounded. The drinks and the dark make for a deadly brew, as they struggle to navigate the unfamiliar desert roads. Not surprisingly, they are lost.

Infact, there’s something worse in store for them.

The sand darkened the moon, and the outline of the road disappeared for a few moments. And then, as her eyes relaxed, she saw two men standing to the left side of the road. They were running towards the car, holding up their hands, and one of them also held up a cardboard sign that read Fossiles, with an exclamation mark. It seemed like such a ridiculous scam. ‘Stop,’ she said very calmly to her husband, but something in him seemed to have decided otherwise, and their dreamlike momentum continued. The sign flew into the air, and there was a crash of opposing wills. Atleast that was how she thought of it. The car’s metal struck human bone…

We are then introduced to Richard and Dally, who have managed to build an expensive home in Azna. The Moroccan locals look at them with distrust and it does not help that Richard and Dally are homosexuals. But despite their disgust for those two, they are also drawn to their wealth like flies to a jar of honey.

Meanwhile, Richard and Dally’s weekend party is in full swing. The guests are glamorous, their hosts are extravagant and all their whims are catered to by the carefully trained Moroccan staff, led by Hamid.

At five to eleven the bells were sounded and the guests were asked to seat themselves according to the name cards posted around the table. Tall Berber lamps of painted animal skin were lit around it and the sprays of lilies gave up an unctuous golden pollen that people tasted on their tongues; a pink-white glow bathed the tablecloth and the walls turned gold.

Castored ice bowls held the bottles of Santenay and Tempier rose, and they were rolled around the room by the boys.

Later…

The lounge was crammed with people, many of them lying on the floor and eating McVitie’s crackers slathered with majoun, a mix of kif, dried fruits, nuts and sometimes fig jam.

Hamid is the head of staff and a well-drawn character, who tries to find a balance between both worlds. He makes sure that the instructions of his European masters are carried to the tee so that the party is a success – whether it is decanting expensive wines, supervising picnics, and ensuring an unlimited supply of champagne and kif. And yet, deep down he does not really understand their Western ways and his sympathies lie with the people of his ilk.

After hitting the young man on the road, David and Jo finally arrive at the mansion, with the young man’s body because they did not know what else to do with it. That puts Richard and Dally in a predicament because the police will have to be informed and any sort of negative publicity is bad for his party guests.

While the police formalities are being taken care of, we learn that the dead man’s name is Driss. A few chapters are devoted to him – how he comes from a family of fossil diggers (a job Driss loathes), how he escapes and makes his way to Spain, houses with an old couple and then makes plans to head to Paris. That venture eventually fails and he returns to his homeland.

Meanwhile, Driss’ father Abdellah – with a few of his men – travels a very long distance, from a remote, bleak part of Morocco (from Tafal’aalt), to claim his son’s body. Driss was Abdellah’s only son, but he is not a man to openly display his grief.

The men from Tafal’aalt were unlike anyone he (Richard) had encountered in this country. They were bone-dry and minimal in some way, like pieces of driftwood that have been whittled down to their essential shapes. They moved very slowly but with that purposefulness that makes even humble people seem formidable and relentless and aristocratic. Their poverty only accentuated this dangerous, fluid nobility.

One of the main themes that the novel explores is the inability of the Westerners and the Muslim world to really understand each other, and the clash of values this entails. The Westerners, David in particular, look down upon the Moroccans, and think they are thieves ready to take advantage of the whites.

It also explores how ill-equipped the whites are when it comes to understanding foreign lands, and that the rules that govern the West do not necessarily work elsewhere. More often than not, this misunderstanding leads to tragedy.

The Moroccans, meanwhile, detest the Westerners (infidels, they are called) and their shocking ways. And yet, the whites are the ones with the money, thus also envied by those very Moroccans who have to somehow make ends meet. So they are compelled to pander to them, albeit reluctantly. If not directly employed by the Westerners, most of the Moroccans dig fossils to sell them to the Europeans at exorbitant prices.

All these elements make Osborne’s The Forgiven a delicious and sinister read. His prose is stylish and languorous whether he is describing the ‘The Great Gatsby’ like party atmosphere at Richard’s mansion or the dust, wind, bleakness and barrenness of remote Morocco.

Here were the ergs, the open wildernesses. Tufts of pale, drinn grass lined the road with a hopeless greenery, and here and there a thorn tree rose into the immense morning light, glistening with a mysterious dew.

As they neared the plateau, the land grew almost black, its surface cracked and pitted. It was hard, jagged rock, not the sand he had expected, and before long they were rolling across open country, unbound by the puny formality of a road. In the hot season, the workers fled to the Atlas to make a gentler living, and they left their tool kits and camping gear by the side of the trenches, where they would remain undisturbed until winter. When the temperatures came down, they would return to find their belongings exactly as they had left them. It was like the equipment of a Roman army that had disappeared two thousand years ago, like the camps you could still see surrounding Masada in Israel. The burned plain to the right had a colour of roasted peaches and custard, and across it a single figure made its way in the full anonymity of a morning sun.

You get a feel that Osborne is influenced by Paul Bowles, an author who lived for long periods in Tangier, and wrote novels that explored the same theme. Bowles’ ‘The Sheltering Sky’ is a classic in this genre.

But while The Forgiven explores the theme of clash of values, it is also very much a story about grief and loss…and about atonement and restitution.

Will Abdellah find it in him to forgive David for the crime he has committed? Or will he seek revenge? Will this chain of events take a toll on David and Jo’s marriage? Will David become a changed man?

Osborne has spun a riveting and compelling yarn.