As befitting a novel about inaction, very little happens in Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night – most of the drama is, in fact, confined to one paragraph. Spending Christmas Eve alone, Professor Andersen glances across at the apartment opposite to see a young woman standing at the window. A man appears and Andersen watches as he
“…put his hands around the woman’s neck and squeezed. She flailed her arms about, Professor Andersen noticed, her body jerked, he observed, before she all at once became completely still beneath the man’s hands and went limp.”
The parenthetical ‘noticed’ and ‘observed’ reveal Andersen’s detached, philosophical nature, but still his first thought is to phone the police. His thought, however, is not matched by his actions:
“’It was murder, I must call the police,’ he thought, but still did not lift the receiver.”
Instead he watches the window, now with the curtains drawn. The longer he waits the more difficult it becomes to phone. He cannot understand his own inaction:
“I know I should have done it but I can’t. That is how it is, I simply cannot do it.”
He speculates that perhaps the fact that the murder is irreversible and therefore any phone call could only lead to the arrest of the murderer, but not save the victim, has caused him to hesitate, but when he goes to discuss it with a friend he finds he cannot bring the subject up. The novel becomes not so much about Andersen deliberating whether to contact the police or not, but attempting to understand why he did not do so immediately. That Andersen can find no mention of the murder (or missing women) in the newspapers adds to the sense of unreality.
It would be difficult to sustain a novel simply on this (though Solstad does deliver one or two more twists before the end), but Andersen also seems to be at a potential turning point in how he views his own life. (The ‘night’ of the title, therefore, refers to more than simply the night of the murder, but a period of doubt). As a Boxing Day dinner party demonstrates, he belongs to a group of middle-aged intellectuals who spent their youth as radicals in the 1960s but are now part of the establishment, even though they did not like to see themselves as such:
“They were strongly disinclined to regard themselves as pillars of society…They denied being what they were…They continued to be against authority, deep inside they were in opposition, even though they were now, in fact, pillars of society who carried out the State’s orders…”
Solstad uses a wonderful conceit of a photograph of the dinner party as viewed in 25 years’ time to convey his point. This idea of time passing reoccurs when Andersen asks a friend what he knows about his great-grandparents:
“…there is probably barely a hundred years between the birth of the eldest of them and you. And already they’re no longer part of your consciousness.”
Andersen also doubts his own calling as a professor of literature:
“Literature is not going to survive, not in the way we think of it. Its survival is just a matter of form and that is no longer enough. All enthusiasm lies in the present…”
Professor Andersen’s Night is not a book you would choose to cheer yourself up, but nor is it unremittingly bleak. Andersen’s relationship with his students is one cause for optimism. It is also not a novel that provides easy conclusions; instead it is one which provokes uncomfortable thoughts, as the best literature always does.