Professor Andersen's Night
It’s Christmas eve and pampered academic Professor Pål Andersen is spending the holiday alone in his Oslo apartment where, to relieve the tedium, he spies on his neighbours in the building opposite his own. Through the window of a small flat he notices a beautiful woman being approached by a young man who promptly places his hands around her neck and strangles her. This would be a fairly hackneyed premise if Professor Andersen’s Night were crime fiction, but Solstad’s gem of a novel is a world away from Nordic noir. Andersen, it quickly transpires, is a particularly self-involved intellectual whose sense of empathy has been dulled by years of easy living and routine. Far from leaping into amateur detective mode, he ponders, procrastinates and deliberates – anything but taking affirmative action. There are some wonderful set pieces in this archly funny account of midlife ennui and inertia. A Christmas party Andersen attends with fellow members of the Oslo elite is a masterclass in affectionate satire, while the moment our antihero comes face to face with his chief suspect in a sushi bar is brilliantly and unexpectedly comical. Solstad may wear his learning lightly but this tightly-constructed novel offers a profound insight into the nature of apathy, engagement and social responsibility.
The Blue Room
Johanne, the unreliable narrator of The Blue Room, is a twenty-something student of psychology who wakes one morning to find that she has been locked inside her bedroom in the tiny Oslo apartment she shares with her domineering mother. With time on her hands as a result of the incarceration, she shares her story – its contradictions and elisions suggest it’s very much a subjective version of events – with the reader. A ‘devout’ Christian, Mum warns Johanne of the dangers of promiscuity, while dressing provocatively herself and enjoying a robust sex life with a married man. When Johanne, a promising and ambitious student, starts seeing canteen worker Ivar, her newfound sense of sexual liberation poses a threat to her education, her faith and, crucially, her already fractious relationship with her damaged mother. This dysfunctional parent-child relationship takes center stage as Johanne’s unsettling account of her life is interrupted by alarming erotic fantasies that might make E L James blanch. Hanne Ørstavik is a major name in contemporary Norwegian literature but sadly this compact masterpiece is her only novel available in English. A compellingly claustrophobic examination of a young woman’s battle for selfhood – both sexual and emotional – this eerily credible novel feels as troubling and memorable as a fever dream.
I Curse the River of Time
Per Petterson came to international attention when his novel Out Stealing Horses won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. While that luminous work, in which a reclusive Norwegian recalls a damaging series of events in the years following German occupation, has won many fans, his 2008 follow-up, I Curse the River of Time, is no less powerful. It’s 1989 and 37-year-old Arvid Jansen’s world, like the Berlin Wall that plays an oblique but significant role throughout this melancholy novel, is beginning to crumble. His marriage of 15 years is all but over and his mother, whose respect he lost many years earlier after choosing Communism over academia, is dying of cancer. In an attempt to reconnect with this steely matriarch, Arvid leaves Oslo and follows her to a remote corner of Denmark where she has sought repose. But a series of tragicomic mishaps and ill-fated ploys to win his mother’s approval seem to preclude any hope of this being an edifying journey. Of course, it doesn’t help that the past has a way of ensnaring Arvid’s thoughts at every juncture. Petterson is excellent in capturing the woozy sense of dislocation that arises as a very ordinary person is betrayed both by their personal circumstances and their ideological beliefs. However, while Arvid is certainly pummelled by life’s misfortunes, his capacity to persevere in the face of rejection and loss makes him both eminently relatable and oddly heroic.
Such has been the acclaim lavished on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s aforementioned My Struggle series, few would envy any writer who decides to follow in his footsteps by penning a multi-volume account of contemporary Norwegian life. But, on the evidence of the first instalment of the Encircling trilogy to be translated into English, Carl Frode Tiller could hardly be accused of riding on Knausgaard’s coattails. Encircling is a cunningly-conceived polyphonic novel set in the one-horse coastal town of Namsos. David Hugsar, whom the reader never meets, has amnesia and three people – his estranged stepfather and two friends – who were closest to him during his adolescence write a series of letters recounting their time together in the hope that it will jog his memory. Naturally, these missives, which are punctuated by first-person accounts of the current circumstances of each of the protagonists, reveal as much about their authors as they do about David, a void around whom these characters orbit. Jon is a morose, self-destructive musician who is still tormented by a sense of abandonment two decades after his teenage romance with David soured; Arvid, a vicar, is the bemused but loving stepfather currently undergoing treatment for cancer; and Silje is the once bohemian ex-girlfriend now trapped in a stale marriage. Book two of Encircling, in which three more voices join the fray, has just been published; based on the compelling and contradictory montage of David that emerges in this insightful chronicle of friendship and domesticity, readers are advised to buy both volumes in tandem.
The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am
It’s hard to think of a book in any language with an antihero quite as strange and skittish as Mathea Martinsen, the elderly narrator of Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am. Prompted by the death of her statistician husband Niels, Mathea realizes that her own time on this earth is coming to a close and, following decades of self-imposed withdrawal from the wider world, deems it prudent to stake her claim before it’s too late. Hitherto cloistered in her beloved apartment, the death-obsessed misfit sets herself a series of humble goals in a bid to have her existence acknowledged. Not only does she begin hounding the telephone exchange with requests to have her number confirmed, she takes to stealing jam from the local supermarket and wearing her husband’s watch in the hope someone will stop to ask the time. Although her ambitions may be touchingly modest, they rarely come to much; tellingly, when she buries a time capsule containing just one item, it is promptly unearthed to make room for a flagpole. Niels, who, it seems, was as susceptible to feelings of loss and desolation as his wife, is a ubiquitous presence throughout this singular, bittersweet monologue. Idiosyncratic, perceptive and threaded with a winningly wry sense of humour, Mathea’s musings, by turns mordant and rueful, manage to accommodate everything from spirituality to mathematics and philosophy. Skomsvold’s narrator might fret about her inability to make a mark on this world but few readers will come away without her singular worldview and oddball intelligence leaving an indelible impression.