We will be choosing our third book to read in our trip through Scandinavian Lit. The first two books are Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’ll be posting (stealing) some reviews of possible choices.
We imagine we’ve seen this: Trond Sander, an Oslo professional who has recently lost his wife and sister, hopes to cure his loneliness by a plunge into solitude; nothing dramatic, he wants to pension out and make a few changes. Scandinavians differentiate between loneliness and solitude as a matter of course. But Trond, insinuating at times, but colloquial and close to one’s ear, tells a candid story so concretely that the reader has to live it out. “I have been lucky,” he says of his life, while acknowledging that he has always longed to be alone. Has the death of his wife liberated him? He says only, “I lost interest in talking to people.” He will indeed learn to talk, alone, in the middle of a train of thought when “the difference between talking and not talking is slowly wiped out.” Reflecting upon his move to the country, he says, “I had put myself in an impossible situation.” He sleeps poorly because in the quiet, the past presses in upon him and it is disturbing. The millennium is nigh but he expects it to mean nothing. While the fireworks are elsewhere, he will get drunk and listen to Billie Holiday on his record player. We accept that cultivated people turn up in such places, though Americans tend to view them as Edward Dahlberg described the conventional view of Thoreau, “as a kind of cranky male sibyl, a crabbed and catarrhal water sprite of our woodland culture.” Trond is no Thoreau — he’s more like us than other Scandinavian protagonists including Knut Hamsun’s Lt. Glahn or Halldor Laxness’s Bjartur — but his efforts require peace and quiet.
A vital man in his 60s, Trond tells himself he has turned a corner; he moves to a rural cabin, worries about his old Nissan in a village where only Volvos are routinely fixed; worries about having the wrong brand of chain saw and knows no one who will plow his driveway if he is snowed in. He would have liked four-wheel drive but didn’t want to be perceived as “new rich.” Planning to chop firewood, he also has an electric heater. Despite the straitened circumstances of many of the local people, no one walks, so wedded are they to their machines. This, in contrast to the pastoral subsistence Trond remembers from the boyhood he is bent on reimagining as he searches for the mysteries that have ruled his life. The place has a sort of grandeur: the nearby river flows through the town then loops north into Sweden and beyond, how far beyond we can only guess; but the suggestion is of a spacious and not fully known North, even into the Taiga, whose extent, said Chekhov, is known only to birds of passage. It’s a pleasant place withal — a farm here, a cottage there, a bit farther along a store where a child could buy sweets. “The feeling of pleasure slips into the feeling that time has passed, that it is very long ago, and the sudden feeling of being old.” He has a dog, Lyra, with whom he has a somewhat formal relationship. He listens to the BBC all day long, which helps cement his feeling that he no longer understands the news or at any rate that it is too late for him to make plans based on something he might hear on the radio. Television would be a problem as he despises being entertained, though when he wonders how he learned to sharpen a chain saw he concludes he must have seen it in “a feature film with a forestry setting.” He seems to appreciate this detached state.
The rural lands of northern Europe have had a long if spare human presence to which modern people feel akin; of course the same could be said of America, though details of our self-regard suggest we are uncertain if our Indian predecessors were actually human. When the characters of Hamsun or Laxness take to the wild it is not to a place they think they have conquered, gouged and depopulated; it is part of a fondly held origin story offering redemption and eternal peace. Be that as it may, to Trond and his neighbors the natural world is an intimate presence, and it is benign. But city dwellers heading for the country hope to find a picturesque past and are not pleased when rural people are catching up too quickly, have new methods of farming, spend too much time in their cars or perform dances they have seen on television.
Like many an older man at loose ends, Trond flings himself into various do-it-yourself homeowner schemes whose quotidian nature barely masks the eeriness of his life and memories. One recollection is of the “unison crash of boots, like the crack of a whip” as Wehrmacht troops marched into Oslo, the roar of Messerschmitts as they came in formation “from the open sea and from Germany” up the fjords and low over the rooftops of the city. His mother’s brothers, twins, come to be known as the one who was shot by the Gestapo and the one who was not shot by the Gestapo. Another twin, a child, is shot by accident in very different circumstances as the first of a series of eventualities that tighten around the whole of Trond’s adult life. This doppelgänger effect and other kinds of mirroring are part of the ingenuity of the narrative, which passes back and forth in time with such structural assurance and isometric tightness that the continuity is undisturbed. Even the title, “Out Stealing Horses,” serves as both the announcement of an adolescent prank and a password for the dangerous activity of the resistance. A fairly short novel with a timescape of half a century that seems to have left out nothing important is a bit of a miracle. I can’t see how exegetes, excited by unpacking fraught outcomes, can pry this one apart. As Dostoyevsky remarked, “Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence.”
There is a kind of secular jauntiness to Trond’s inquiry into his present state of affairs, late in life with much unwound bafflement. About death, just around the corner, he says that he doesn’t “give a damn,” and we believe him but with reservations: his compulsive examination of his past reads as a final account. “That part of my life when I could turn the dreams to some use is behind me now. I am not going to change anything anymore.” Most of all he would like to know why his father, whom he adored and who seems to have adored him, disappeared from his life — the disruptions of war of course — and made Trond almost an orphan while causing his abandoned mother to drift toward something heavy he doesn’t want to understand. That his father was a courier for the resistance, transporting documents, then human beings, out of occupied Norway makes the abandonment even more ambiguous. It’s another distant ripple of Nazism with the inextirpable suggestion that Germans are Nazis forever. Or perhaps, as in Conrad, so is everyone else.
On the other hand, in a Gidean “gratuitous act,” offered first as an idyll, Trond’s boyhood companion Jon holds the perfect cup of a goldcrest’s nest only to crush it to dust and break the eggs on the ground. With his unruly hair, scarcely subdued air of violence and love of hunting for the pleasures of the kill, Jon universalizes a problem unresolved by his enviable if enigmatic freedom. Jon’s fathomless black eyes and chalkwhite, expressionless face are raised almost to myth as he performs this desecration; he has a position in the story as a source of ill comparable to Germans in their long overcoats, guarding the village bridge with their motorcycles and machine guns. It’s a challenging pairing: sympathetic glimpses of German soldiers as youths far from home oddly quick to murder and young Jon’s small but memorably violent act incline us toward a view of a more universal evil, absolution withheld.
Among the agreeable surprises of Per Petterson’s novel is the misleading suggestion that the modesty of his narrator’s voice foretells a tale of minor events, an account of the sort of photorealism that prevents anything from ever happening. In fact, the book contains some bold, convincingly stated coincidences well outside the range of our highbrow realists. When Trond discovers that his next-door neighbor is Lars, the surviving twin of the accidental shooting over half a century ago, he observes that this is the sort of event you could never put in a novel. We’re delighted to accept his explanation. Something big has happened! And Jon, who vanished from the story nearly as long ago for a life at sea, returns to take the farm away from Lars by the cruel law of primogeniture. It would seem that the Dionysian lad who destroyed the nest and eggs of the goldcrest has completed his work. Lars leaves home never to see his mother or brother again; it’s been many years, he doesn’t know if they are dead or alive: he doesn’t ask. Trond, in the meanwhile, sorting through his life and continuously reminding us until our suspicions are aroused that he has been lucky, thinks somewhat ominously, “It would be nice finally to have some rest.” But he declines to ask the palpably damaged Lars the question that would complete his search. It is an extraordinarily humane decision.
The characters living and dead are equally palpable, another small wonder of “Out Stealing Horses.” The unsentimentalized remoteness of Trond’s place produces a vital tranquility that allows Trond to remember and comprehend what swept his father away. Whether seagoing Jon or Trond’s lovestruck father, the feral male is quietly taken apart as the suffering that results from his jaunty negligence is laid bare. So much of this book’s melancholy derives from the long shadow of men with guns, equal at least to the erotic force that interrupts civilized arrangements.
I won’t give away the events that allow Trond to make peace with his memories of the father he loved and who abandoned him. But the visit of one of his grown daughters, Ellen, has much to do with it. A levelheaded young woman who questions him gently about his self-imposed exile, she understands his choices but does not comprehend why he never told the family he was leaving. She has gone to great lengths to find him, calling town councils for 80 miles around and arriving in a white Mitsubishi Space Wagon. Trond doesn’t know if his eyes are moist from crying or from the glare of white paint on the Mitsubishi. He has some work to do.
Ellen asks if he would have preferred it if she’d not come. He thinks about her question and says in his characteristically rational detachment that he doesn’t know. Then, filled with sudden and unexpected terror that she won’t return, he asks her not to leave. Ellen replies that she has no intention of leaving but that she would like to make a suggestion.
“What’s that, then?” Trond asks.
“Get yourself a telephone.”
After this, the house is different, the yard is different. Even with Lyra, his dog, the place feels empty. Trond thinks, “When someone says the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there, then I have probably felt that way for most of my life because I have been obliged to, but I am not anymore.”
This short yet spacious and powerful book — in such contrast to the well-larded garrulity of the bulbous American novel of today — reminds us of the careful and apropos writing of J. M. Coetzee, W. G. Sebald and Uwe Timm. Petterson’s kinship with Knut Hamsun, which he has himself acknowledged, is palpable in Hamsun’s “Pan,” “Victoria” and even the lighthearted “Dreamers.” But nothing should suggest that his superb novel is so embedded in its sources as to be less than a gripping account of such originality as to expand the reader’s own experience of life.