Have you ever finished a novel with a sigh of mingled relief and bafflement (“whatever that was about I’m so very glad that it’s over); puzzled over what you had read for the last day or so; bored your companions enormously by recounting various bits and pieces (well, Mr. J was pretty bored but the cats seemed o.k. with the monologue); found yourself laughing at something you passed over at first and, finally, realized that you’d just finished one of the strangest small masterpieces that was ever likely to come your way? And all this in less than forty-eight hours? An odd reaction, to be sure, but then, this is a very odd book, at least for readers like myself who are unfamiliar with Solstad’s work. If you’ve read any of it, please share your own reactions. Don’t be shy! Are you a fan, who’s devoured everything translated into your own language (or — and I’m in awe if this is the case — were you able to read it in the original Norwegian?). Or were you more in the “one and I’m done” category?
Before going further, I need to point out that I owe my discovery of this very interesting writer to my participation in two fun reading events: Annabel’s #NordicFinds Reading Month and the 2022 European Reading Challenge. Although I already had a copy of Novel 11 as part of my subscription to the New Classics series offered by New Directions press, I’m afraid it would have languished in the TBR pile (probably near the bottom) had I not had an incentive to actually read it. Isn’t self-discipline wonderful? I’ve always wished I had some!
Here are a few Solstad factoids for those who are interested in bio. Regarded by many as Norway’s most accomplished writer, Solstad has published over thirty volumes of essays, nonfiction, drama and short stories as well as novels; much of his considerable oeuvre has not been translated into English. Born in 1941, Solstad began his writing career as an ardent member of Norway’s Workers Communist Party and his works (controversial to some) initially reflected his political bent. By the late 1970s, however, Solstad’s political involvement began to wane and his work took a different turn. In 1992 Solstad published Novel 11, Book 18, the first of four novels in which a contemporary male protagonist sees himself as drifting outside the currents of conventional Norwegian life. Rendered into English by different translators, these four novels (which the author himself has said may reasonably be viewed “as a suite”) provide the basis for “Solstad’s growing reputation in the English-speaking world.” (Matt Weir’s “Norwegian Mood,” Fall 2019 article in Dissent Magazine). Solstad has won every major literary award in the Nordic countries and his work has been praised by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Peter Handke and Haruki Murakami; as if that weren’t enough, Lydia Davis taught herself Norwegian by reading one of his novels. If you’re interested in learning more about Solstad’s fiction, I’d recommend “Dag Solstad, The Art of Fiction No. 230,” an interview contained in a 2016 issue (No. 217) of The Paris Review (there’s a pay wall, alas, but occasional users should have a free click or two).
Novel 11 has a disconcerting style, due to its non-linear digressive structure and Solstad’s laconic, matter-of-fact, almost flat language, which heightens the banality of the life that he is describing. That life belongs to Bjørn Hansen, almost always referred to by his full name, a stylistic device that produces a sometimes ironic, sometimes hypnotic and an always distancing effect. Bjørn is the treasurer (i.e., tax collector) of the small Norwegian town of Kongsberg; when the “story begins, Bjørn Hansen has just turned fifty and is waiting for someone at the Kongsberg Railway Station.” (page 3, New Directions ed.) In the brilliantly concise account that follows, we see the events that brought Bjørn to that particular railway platform at that point in time. It’s a familiar tale, beginning with his humble origin in a small town, continuing to a university degree in economics and a promising career in a government ministry in Oslo and culminating with marriage to Tina Korpi and an infant son, Peter.
It’s an ironic touch that Solstad uses the most banal of devices, an extramarital affair, to relieve the quotidian banalities of Bjørn’s very ordinary life. But so it transpires. Bjørn’s big adventure arrives with the appearance of Turid Lammers, a young divorcee recently returned to Oslo from France. When Turid ends their affair by moving back to her hometown of Kongsberg, Bjørn follows, deserting wife and child and subsequently settling in with Turid. Daily life in Kongsberg replaces daily life in Oslo; the town’s tax office, the government ministry and Turid Lammers supplants Tina Korpi. The one addition to Bjørn’s life that occurs in Kongsberg is his membership in the town’s dramatic society, which revolves around Turid, now a teacher of drama and languages in the local high school. After some fourteen years, Bjørn separates from Turid; their relationship is over and he has been living alone in a modern bachelor’s flat for four years before we see him standing on that railway platform. He is awaiting the arrival of his semi-estranged son Peter; now an adult, Peter has enrolled in the local university and has asked to live with his father, at least temporarily, until he secures his own lodging.
All this seems straightforward (it’s not at all dull, because the writing and dialogue are so effective) but there are complications beneath the surface and Solstad has a way of throwing the reader off balance with an odd detail or two. Right from the very beginning, while Bjørn is standing on that railway platform, it’s made clear that the inhabitant of this most ordinary life is a fiercely intellectual lover of literature and philosophy.
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. That was his luggage. Dostoyevsky. Pushkin. Thomas Mann. Céline. Borges. Tom Kristensen. Márquez. Proust. Singer. Heinrich Heine. Malraux, Kafka, Kundera, Freud, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Butor. (page 3)
Although “mostly interested in art and literature, philosophy and the meaning of life” (page 14), Bjørn had chosen to study economics for practical reasons. Though good at his work, he regards it only as a necessary evil and secondary “to life’s true meaning, which for Bjórn Hansen was clearly a woman. Living with a woman, Turid Lammers.” (page 17).
Solstad uses a third person narration, which focuses intensely on Bjórn; we are privy to his thoughts and we see his relationships through his eyes. The relationship with Turid dominates the novel’s first digression (that with Peter, the abandoned son, the second) and it’s here that I first had my expectations upended. The femme fatale for whom Bjørn upends his life is a “skinny, nervous” woman, “constantly sending out nervous signals to her surroundings, who was never at rest.” (pages 4-5). Far from being madly in love with Turid, Bjørn is obsessed with the adventure of their affair; Turid herself “was nothing apart from the * * * circumstances surrounding” their clandestine relationship. Knowing that ending his marriage also ended “the adventure” of the affair, Bjørn nevertheless leaves his wife in order to preserve the memory of the time in which he had lived so intensely, if briefly.
He had discovered in this deliberate infidelity an intensity and a suspense that he could usually only observe with fascination, but without fully understanding, in art and literature.
Ultimately, and, as Bjørn himself had realized, inevitably, the fiction of his great love for Turid fails (that the failure coincided with the physical failings of a middle-aged Turid revealed, to me at least, a strain of misogyny in Solstad’s writing). The failing of art to supply meaning, hinted at in the quotation above, is fully underscored by the theatrical society’s disastrous (and very funny) performance of a classic Ibsen play, starring Bjørn and undertaken at his insistence. Turid’s decision to ham it up during the performance at the expense of the other actors is the final nail in the coffin of the couple’s relationship, as Bjørn realizes that to Turid (and the rest of the troupe) artifice is everything and underlying meaning irrelevant.
Outraged at the unimportance of his life and the role played by chance in determining his fate, Bjørn unburdens himself to Dr. Schiøtz, a fellow thespian and leading citizen of Kongsburg. Over a series of meetings, Bjørn becomes (page 63)
increasingly absorbed by thinking openly in the language that had somehow taken hold of him. It was all about his inability to reconcile himself to the fact that this was it. He felt outraged. He refused to put up with it. Somehow or other he had to show it, that he refused to put up with it. And so he hatched a plan * * * whereby he, Bjórn Hansen would actualize his No, his great Negation, as he had begun to call it, through an action that would be irrevocable. Through a single act he would plunge into something from which there was no possibility of retreat and which bound him to this one insane idea for the rest of his life.
Dr. Schiøtz, whose cooperation is necessary for the plan to work, initially refuses his aid; he later relents, however, providing he “gets half of the insurance money.” (page 64).
After Bjørn comes up with his scheme to rewrite his life, the novel shifts to its second lengthy digression when Peter, the son whom Bjørn hasn’t seen for a number of years, temporarily reenters his life. The period in which the introspective reader of Kierkegaard shares his apartment with a self-absorbed twenty-something whose ideal art work is a poster of a red sports car, is as brilliantly observed (and at times funny) as Bjørn’s time with Turid. Although I would have found Peter’s view of his father interesting, this was not the story Solstad intended to tell. We see father-son interactions strictly from Bjørn’s perspective, in which Peter is a self-centered, emotionally detached and fairly unpleasant young man. Although Bjørn means well and behaves decently, he is essentially befuddled by their relationship and the gap between the two remains unbridged.
Love, art, work, philosophy and now family ties have failed to supply meaning and emotional engagement. From this point, the novel is concerned with Bjørn’s attempt to rewrite the story of his life and the consequences of his actions on himself and those around him. Since this is a spoiler free zone, my discussion of the plot ends here.
A few more points merit mentioning. This is an arbitrary novel, arbitrary in the sense that it never lets you forget that it’s artifice, from its title (which informs you of nothing other than its chronological position in Solstad’s oeuvre) to its almost random shift from one area of Bjørn’s life to another. It’s also deceptive; the abundance of realistic detail and terse language imply a simple and straightforward story while in reality it probes the most profound questions of human existence. Novel 11 is replete with great minor characters drawn with skill and subtlety, such as the drug addicted Dr. Schiøtz (he doesn’t really need money because he gets his supply free from the hospital) and Herman Busk, the “singing dentist” and Bjorn’s best friend. The novel is also very funny in a very, very dry kind of way, although for me at least it took a little time for the humor to sink in.
At this point, it’s customary for me to apologize for my overly long review (I know, I tend to write long. It comes from a lifetime of churning out fifty-page documents known, in all seriousness, as “briefs”). My logorrhea is more pronounced than usual, however, as I’ve had to struggle a bit to deal with the unexpected impact of this odd but compelling work. Was my struggle worth it? Very much so although as I indicated at the beginning of my review it took a thoughtful day or so before I reached this conclusion. Would I recommend Novel 11, Book 18 to others? Yes, if you’re in the mood for a brilliantly odd piece of fiction that, like life itself, suggests a meaning but compels you to look for it.