The Other Name (Septology I-II) – Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I had not read anything by Jon Fosse before but when The Other Name (Septology I-II) was longlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, I was greatly interested. The book ultimately failed to make it to the shortlist, and after having just finished it, I wish it had. I loved this novel.  

The Other Name is an intense and deeply introspective novel about an ageing painter reminiscing about his life, where elements of the everyday and the existential flow into one another, while touching upon big topics of life and death, love and grief, and the process of art.

Our protagonist, Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone in the small town of Dylgja in southwest Norway. When the novel opens, Asle is standing before his newest painting – a canvas depicting two lines intersecting in the middle – and is contemplating whether it’s a piece of work that satisfies him.

And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line, it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, the paint is thick, two long wide lines, and they’ve dripped, where the brown line and the purple line cross the colours blend beautifully and drip and I’m thinking this isn’t a picture but suddenly the picture is the way it’s supposed to be…

Asle is a widower, having lost his wife Ales many years earlier, and leads a solitary existence. He is religious and a teetotaler having given up drinking years ago at the insistence of his wife. His only friends seem to be his neighbour Asleik, a fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, who is the gallery owner in the city of Bjorgvin.

Asle’s shows are held annually in the Beyer Gallery, which is located in Bjorgvin, a few miles away from Dylgja. This entails trips to Bjorgvin on some days to procure art supplies and also to deliver his final paintings. Asle is not comfortable commuting in big cities, and Beyer assigns him a designated parking space, making things easier for Asle.

At the same time, the reader is introduced to the other Asle who stays near Bjorgvin, in Sailor’s Cove. This Asle is also an ageing painter and lives alone in his home. But there the similarities end. Bjorgvin Asle is an atheist and an alcoholic with two failed marriages behind him. He has children from both his marriages, but they don’t keep in touch. The only person who cares enough for him is Dylgja Asle.

Are both Asle and Asle doppelgangers? Or is the second Asle an alternate version of the first Asle – of what the latter’s life would have been had he not stopped drinking?

There is not much in the way of plot in the novel and the drama is mostly internal, as the characters think about the present and hark back to the past. The crux of the plot then is this – While Asle drives back home to Dylgja from his trip to Bjorgvin, he regrets not having stopped at Sailor’s Cove to check on the other Asle. He reaches home, puts all his purchases on the kitchen table, has a long conversation with his neighbour Asleik, and decides to drive back to Bjorgvin the same day to make sure the other Asle is all right (which he is not) even though it is getting dark and there’s a snowstorm on the anvil.

And yet it’s a unique novel with the power to transfix the reader. That’s largely because of the quality of writing that takes it to a whole new level. Fosse has employed what is called ‘slow prose’, a circular narrative technique, which reminded me of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. There are no breaks in the paragraphs except when the characters are conversing, and the sentences are punctuated with commas and no full stops. But while Bernhard’s tone is more of a rant, Fosse’s novel is meditative and personal. Reading this novel feels like being at sea – the endless repetitions and rhythmic quality of the prose is akin to the ebb and flow of waves crashing on a beach. Or, there is a sense that you are listening to the chorus in your favourite song again and again. It has a soothing and calming effect.

There are some beautiful passages in the book which dwell on Asle wanting to perfect and hone his craft. He loves the stream of light in his paintings as do his eventual buyers, but he emphasizes that it’s only when he highlights the shadows and the darkness in this pictures, does the light shine through.

…I’ve sometimes thought that’s why I became a painter, because I have all these pictures inside me, yes, so many pictures that they’re a kind of agony, yes, it hurts me when they keep popping up again and again, like visions almost, and in all kinds of contexts, and I can’t do anything about it, the only thing I can do is paint, yes, try to paint away these pictures that are lodged inside me, there’s nothing to do but paint them away, one by one…

The book is also a meditation on grief and death. It becomes obvious as the novel progresses that Asle deeply grieves for his wife Ales. This is presented to the reader in the form of vivid forays into his past where he relives moments with his wife particularly when they were young and courting.

…and I’ve never missed it, not the beer, not the wine, not the stronger stuff, but that’s because of her too, because of Ales, without her I never would have been able to stop needing to drink, I think, and now Ales is waiting for me, she and our child, and I need to get home to them, to my wife, to our child, but what am I thinking? I live alone there, I’m going home to my old house in Dylgja where I used to live with Ales but she’s gone now, she’s with God now, in a way I can feel so clearly inside me, because she’s there inside me too, she isn’t walking around on earth any more but I can still talk to her whenever I want to, yes, it’s strange, there’s no big difference or distance between life and death…

In this regard, there’s a wonderful set piece in the early part of the novel. Dylgja Asle is driving back home from his trip to Bjorgvin and passes a playground where he sees a young couple on the swings. Are those two people real or is it a figment of his imagination?

…come on, come on, just come over here, she says and then he takes off his brown shoulder-bag and puts it down next to the sandpit and takes off his long black coat and lays it over her and then he covers the both of them with the coat so that only his coat is visible and, no, I have no right to look, to watch this, I think, and is it really happening? or is it all just something I’m dreaming? or is it something that actually happened to me once?

It seems more likely that the couple is a younger version of Asle and Ales in their earlier days. Ales is on the swing, and Asle begins pushing her swing hard. Ales is terrified and implores him to stop, but Asle keeps pushing anyway. Suddenly, Ales begins to enjoy thoroughly and begs Asle to continue. It’s a lovely section in the novel and wonderfully brings to the fore, the charm of adults when they occasionally display the inner child in them.

Death and sickness pervades the life of the other Asle in Bjorgvin. Wrecked by drink and loneliness, Asle is at the end of his tether and contemplates suicide. He is rescued by Dylgja Asle in time and taken to a hospital where the latter spends a sleepless night worrying.

The Other Name is also a book of many contradictions. Asle wants his art to be displayed in the gallery and yet he wants to keep his best paintings himself and not sell them. His wife’s death instills a feeling of loneliness in Asle and yet he does not really crave company except that of his neighbour Asleik. The other Asle drinks heavily to stop his tremors which are the result of his relentless drinking in the first place.

Despite the reflective tone of the novel, it is not without its fair share of tension. There is a particular set piece in the middle of the novel where Dylgja Asle has reached Bjorgvin in the middle of a raging snowstorm. With the snow obliterating the landscape, Asle loses his bearings and spends an interminable amount of time trying to locate the place to where he is heading. With no one on the streets, the whole scene feels surreal, tense and other worldly.

The Other Name is the first book in Fosse’s Septology trilogy comprising sections I and II. Both the sections begin with Asle standing before his painting as he reflects on merging of the two lines and end with him reciting prayers with his rosary beads.

It’s a brilliant book, personal, intimate and hypnotic, and asks some big questions – To what extent can certain decisions alter the course of one’s life, one that is different from someone else’s? What determines our identity – our actions or our circumstances or both?

The second book I Is For Another (Septology III-IV) has also been released by Fitzcarraldo Editions and I plan to dig into it soon.

Love – Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room is one of my favourite Peirene novellas so far (the other Peirene favourite is The Looking Glass Sisters).

The Blue Room was among the top books I read in 2016. So when I learnt that Archipelago Books has released another of Ørstavik’s titles called Love, I knew I had to read it.

And what an excellent and dark little gem it turned out to be. Ørstavik clearly has the skill to bring out the uncanny in ordinary, everyday life.

Archipelago Books Edition. Cover Art by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter.

Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so.

He goes out for a walk to sell a bunch of raffle tickets for his sports club.

He (Jon) feels a draft now that he’s standing still. It’s from the front door. They should have it insulated, with weather stripping and draft excluders like he’s seen in other houses. He sticks his water pistol in his back pocket and puts on a different woolly hat. Vibeke needs to be on her own so that she can get things ready. If he’s out while she’s baking the cake it’ll be more of a surprise, he thinks to himself. He goes out. Reaching the road, he wishes he’d put his mittens on., but he won’t go back.

Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. Vibeke is a single mother and has managed to secure a job in an arts council in which she seems to have settled in well.

But Vibeke is in her own world. On that particular night, she chooses to go the library to collect some more books and also hopefully meet the engineer who had been flirting with her at work. But things don’t go as per plan. The library is closed and given that she took so much trouble to dress up, Vibeke wanders into the village fair.

For the rest of the evening, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

That is the central set up of this novella.

It also makes Ørstavik’s storytelling technique unique and interesting. Given that each is on his/her own trip in the icy cold weather, the narrative keeps shifting between Vibeke and Jon and this happens in a series of alternate paragraphs rather than chapters.  This is done quite seamlessly and in the blink of an eye. So for instance, the reader will move on to the first few lines of a paragraph thinking that he/she is still reading about Vibeke, when the narrative has already switched to Jon’s.

Ørstavik also infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son.

What makes it disconcerting for the reader is the ease with which Vibeke and Jon interact with strangers. Throughout the evening, Vibeke is in the company of a man called Tom, who works at the fair, and who Vibeke has met for the first time. When an old neighbour agrees to buy all the raffle tickets from Jon and tells him to go down with him to the basement, Jon willingly does so.

So much so that at one point in the novella, there’s a conversation that Jon has with another unknown woman…

‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to go with stranges?’

She rummages on as she speaks.

‘Why not?’

‘Not everyone’s as nice as me.’

She looks at him and smiles again. Her teeth are really quite small. He gets an urge to feel his own and compare.

‘My mom says everyone’s good on the inside.’

Love then is a novella that explores how both of the central characters are on a quest for intimate and deeper relationships. And yet paradoxically, they are not able to closely bond with each other. Jon, obviously, is seeking a loving connection with Vibeke, his mother. Vibeke is affectionate towards Jon, but its apparent she’s lonely.

She (Vibeke) reaches out and smoothes her hand over his (Jon’s) head.

‘Have you made any friends yet?’

His hair is fine and soft.

‘Jon,’ she says. ‘Dearest Jon.’

She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink.

For instance, Vibeke has hopes that her first encounter with Tom will slowly evolve into a more meaningful relationship. Jon keeps erroneously thinking that his mother is planning a surprise birthday for him, with a model train set as a gift, so he stays out for most of the evening with the fervent hope that Vibeke plans everything well.

What’s more, the lack of communication between mother and son is quite telling even on a basic level. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

And to top it all, the ending comes as quite a shocker!

As mentioned earlier, Hanne Ørstavik first came to my attention with her novel The Blue Room. That one explored the troubled relationship between mother and daughter, but interestingly the mother in that book was overprotective.  

Clearly, based on both these novellas alone, Ørstavik has perfected the art of making the stories of imperfect mothers absorbing and riveting.

Bergeners – Tomas Espedal (tr. James Anderson)

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. But this adage is hardly apt for the Kolkata based Seagull Books, whose book covers are as enticing as the content within the pages.

Seagull Books has been doling out compelling literature in translation and it is good to see that it is being recognized for some major prizes as well.

Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners caught my attention because it was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year.

Bergeners
Seagull Books Edition

Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners opens in New York in the fancy Standard Hotel.

New York City. The Standard Hotel. Room 1103. The loveliest room I’d ever seen. So transparent, so open, so white and severe.

The city was in the room. The room was in the city, like a transparent cube with glass walls.

Tomas is there with his partner Janne but we are immediately told that it is not going to end well as Janne reveals her intention to end their relationship. It’s a break-up that unsettles Tomas greatly and in some way forms the core of his subsequent loneliness.

It’s not just Janne who has left him though. We learn later that his daughter from a previous marriage has moved out of their house (as young adults are bound to do) to shift to Oslo.

You don’t become lonely by being alone. It’s when you’ve got used to living with a lover and children and all the surrounding family and friends, it’s when you suddenly lose all this, all these things you’ve become fond of and reliant on, that you become lonely.

Bergeners is not a straightforward book by all accounts, quite indefinable infact. It has personal, autobiographical shades to it, and yet it is not your standard autobiography fare. The narration is an amalgam of diary entries, poetry, short stories, ruminations on art and reflections on the people of Bergen.   In a way the thin line between fact and fiction is quite blurred as is the narrative voice which shifts between the first person and the third.

There is a restless quality to the book as Tomas travels to places such as Madrid, Italy, Oslo, Nicaragua, Berlin and so on. And yet, paradoxically, he has reached a phase where he does not wish to travel any more…

You’ve done all your travelling, seen what you wanted to see, and what you haven’t seen, you can’t be bothered with.

There are some absorbing pieces on the process of writing as well. In one titled ‘The Writer Who Doesn’t Write’, Tomas travels to an upland village in Italy to meet the writer Harold Costello. The house Costello is living in is perfect, and yet he is staring at a dilemma…

I made a bit of money, travelled around Europe and stumbled on this house which I bought. I thought that this would be the perfect place too, the perfect house, the perfect place to write. I moved here to write. Everything in the house and in the garden and all around me was arranged with just one object, to write. But in all the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never managed to write anything worthwhile.

In a personal narrative of this sort, it’s not surprising to see the presence of other Norwegian authors, and here it includes the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Dag Solstad. As an aside, I have not read Knausgaard but I have read Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18 and it’s brilliant.

Espedal’s conversation particularly with Dag Solstad is laced with humour.

For some reason, I let it be known that I was reading Thomas Mann’s diaries in German. Yes, Thomas Mann wrote his diary every evening before he went to bed, said Dag Solstad. Every evening without fail that diary had to be written, every evening, every single evening before he went to bed. Why didn’t he just go to bed, roared Dag Solstad suddenly.

I am partial to art and like books that talk about art and there is some of that here as well. Once again, it is Dag Solstad who gives Espedal perspective on how the latter should be seeing Goya’s Black Paintings.

Well, if you want to view Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado, you’ve got to walk straight through the first rooms without turning your head. You mustn’t stop or look at a single painting. Just go through as fast as you can with blinkers on, all the way to the innermost room of the museum. That’s where Goya’s Black Paintings are on display. After you’ve seen them, you must leave the museum immediately, in just the same manner as you came in, Dag Solstad said.

As I write this piece I realize that my review is possibly quite fragmentary as I can’t quite put a finger on how best to describe this wonderful novel, but perhaps that’s fitting given the nature and tone of the book itself. Essentially, to me this novel was an immersive experience and I will be exploring more Espedal.

Translation credits from the Norwegian go to James Anderson.

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

Norway is a country of gorgeous scenery. When I visited it a couple of years ago, I was stunned by the beauty of its fjords and the charm of its small towns. It was also where I was treated to a fabulous display of the Northern Lights!

But besides nature, Norway also has a strong literary heritage as I am beginning to discover. Two months in and I have already savoured the novels of two Norwegian authors. One was the existential Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad, which I had reviewed on my blog earlier. The other is the one I will be reviewing now – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas.

IMG_20180306_230024_082
Peter Owen Cased Classics Edition

The Ice Palace is a haunting tale of two 11-year old girls Siss and Unn. When the novel opens, it is a cold winter’s evening and Siss is one her way to Unn’s house.

Siss thought about many things as she walked, bundled up against the frost. She was on her way to Unn, a girl she scarcely knew, for the first time; on her way to something unfamiliar, which was why it was exciting.

Those lines are intriguing and we get a whiff of an intense friendship about to develop between them.

We then learn that Unn lost her unwed mother last spring. Having never met her father, she now comes to live in the village with her only relative – Auntie.

From the beginning it is clear that Unn is shy, likes to be alone and does not participate in the activities of the other children.

Siss, on the other hand, is a lively girl, always at the centre of her friends circle and tries her best to persuade Unn to join them.

And yet, despite their different personalities, they are drawn to each other, finally culminating in Unn asking Siss to come to her house one evening.

This is where it gets intense, sensual even and the meeting between the two girls is so electric, it crackles.

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know; gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves!

These are the tentative beginnings of a deep friendship as both the girls are trying to figure each other out.

We get to a pivotal moment in their conversation, an exchange (and what it implies) that Siss will have difficulty in conveying to adults later on in the novel.

After a long silence Unn said, ‘Siss.’

The start!

‘Yes?’

‘There’s something I want – ‘ said Unn, flushing.

Siss was already embarrassed. ‘Oh?’

‘Did you see anything on me just now?’ asked Unn quickly but looking Siss straight in the eyes.

Siss became even more embarrassed. ‘No!’

‘There’s something I want to tell you,’ began Unn again, her voice unrecognizable.

Siss held her breath.

Unn did not continue. But then she said, ‘I’ve never said it to anyone.’

Siss stammered, ‘Would you have said it to your mother?’

‘No!’

Silence.

Siss saw that Unn’s eyes were full of anxiety. Was she not going to tell her? Siss asked, almost in a whisper, ‘Will you say it now?’

Unn drew herself up. ‘No.’

‘All right.’

And we also get a feeling that while Siss is the extroverted of the two, she is also warier. She wants to know more about Unn and yet she is afraid.

By this time, we are barely 30 pages into the novel, and there is still so much yet to take place. But as far as the plot line goes, I will not reveal more.

While the entire novel is from Siss’ point of view, there is one chapter in the early part of the novel – and the only one – which is told from Unn’s point of view.

But it is a chapter that I read with a growing sense of dread and foreboding – and also with a sense of wonderment, of the kind Unn felt too. It is also the chapter where we are first introduced to the Ice Palace (of the novel) in the Norwegian fjords.

Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery.

A little further on…

The enormous ice palace proved to be seven times bigger and more extravagant from this angle. From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky, they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.

The Ice Palace then is a haunting, mesmerizing novel of friendship, of loss, of redemption and recovery, of the forces of nature, of people and their lives in a village.

Vesaas’ writing (wonderfully translated by Elizabeth Rokkan) is superb. The prose is lean, spare and poetic. He is great at getting into the minds of children and conveying the world one sees through their eyes. Throughout the novel, things are implied, never explicitly stated.

He is also particularly good at expressing mood and atmosphere and describing nature.

A loud noise had interrupted her thoughts, her expectancy; a noise like a long-drawn-out crack, moving further and further off, while the sound died away. It was from the ice on the big lake down below. And it was nothing dangerous, in fact it was good news: the noise meant that the ice was a little bit stronger. It thundered like gunshot, blasting long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths – yet the ice was stronger and safer each morning. There had been an unusually long period of severe frost this autumn.

Clearly, Vesaas writing’ was influenced by his origins. Here’s his profile from the book:

Tarjei Vesaas was born on a farm in Vinje, Telemark, an isolated mountainous district of southern Norway, in 1897 and, having little taste for travel and an abiding love of his native countryside, died there in 1970 aged seventy-two.

I simply loved The Ice Palace. It had me captivated throughout, and I will be exploring more of this author’s backlist.

The Ice Palace
Penguin Modern Classics Edition (Eau-de-nil)

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.