T Singer

“Dag Solstad is without question, Norway’s bravest, most intelligent novelist,” according to Per Petterson, yet, ironically, Petterson’s availability in English (with eight books translated) far exceeds that of his compatriot who, up until this year and the publication of both T Singer and Armand V, has been represented by a meagre three. T Singer is the novel which Solstad has claimed as the pinnacle of his literary craft:

“After I had written T Singer it struck me that I couldn’t write any better than that, and if I wanted to, I could write a book like that every year. And that I didn’t want.”

While this might seem like a declaration of retirement, it was, instead, a licence to experiment, Solstad describing everything he has written since (including Armand V) as “an exception, which will never be repeated.”

T Singer is a man who, by and large, lacks purpose. At the age of thirty-one he decides to “say goodbye to the intoxicating days of his youth and become a librarian instead.” (We learn little about his life before this point). Once he has trained as a librarian he moves to a remote town, Notodden where he intends to live “incognito”:

“Using his full name, of course, but hiding from the thirty-four years that had clung to him, comprising the life he had led so far.”

He sees himself as “vague, even anonymous” and “a denier of life, lacking in identity.” His ambitions are slim:

“Routine work, conscientiously performed, was something he’d always liked.”

Is he lonely? It doesn’t seem so: while popular with his colleagues, he dislikes the friendly overtures of library users:

“At times his stomach would knot when book borrowers came over to the counter, carrying books they wanted to take out, and they would speak to him with an overly familiar and cheerful tone, offering some so-called clever remarks that personally amused them greatly, and then look at him expectantly, waiting to hear his response.”

He is happy to lunch alone, always at the same restaurant, and also go to the cinema. Routine is his refuge, which is not to say his life is without anxiety. In fact the novel begins with a description of the shame he stills feels recalling moments in his life from years before. It’s an opening which almost seems intended to daunt the reader as he repetitively describes these minor events, for example when he accidentally speaks to one friend as he would normally another. He still agonises over this although the individual in question is oblivious:

“He doesn’t know that it is Singer’s ‘nakedness’ he has captured, and observed.”

There is a similarly extended section where Singer speculates about his dream to become a writer, a dream which has never gone further than one endlessly edited sentence – presumably the type of passage Solstad is referring to when he describes his work as “objectively humorous but actually sad.”

Some semblance of narrative is created when Singer moves to Notodden, but Solstad continues to confound our expectations when Singer meets Adam Eyde, manager of the area’s largest employer, Norsk Hydro, on his way there and spends the evening with him. This incident is described with the detail one assumes will lead to a relationship of some kind, but Singer only sees Eyde once more, from a distance. Conversely, events which would normally be regarded as dramatic are underplayed, as when Singer meets the woman who will become his wife:

“Can a man like Singer fall in love? Yes, he can. But can he, under the influence of this love, move in with the one he adores in order to sleep with her and eat at her table, which they will now share? Yes, he can.”

Note how Solstad quickly answers the reader’s questions, eschewing any chance of narrative tension.

T Singer is not a novel, then, for those in search of a narrative arc, but it is filled with many other pleasures. In particular, as the novel progresses, Singer’s strange behaviour seems more and more normal, its initial ‘strangeness’ simply a conflict with our expectations of a fictional protagonist rather than its unlikelihood. Solstad’s narrative choices perhaps reflect more accurately our experience of life. His is certainly a voice to be cherished.

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7 Responses to “T Singer”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I haven’t tried this author yet, but this sounds tempting. I like Per Peterson’s books, so his endorsement is a plus as well.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I really like the sound of this – so much of it seems to resonate with me.

    As someone who has volunteered at the local community library, I can definitely identify with that image of the cheerful borrower trotting our their own personal and unsolicited anecdotes in anticipation of an enthusiastic response. I have experienced that very thing! It’s amazing what people will come out with apropos of nothing. I recall one chap who insisted on telling me that he’d been on a quiz show that was still available on the iPlayer, complete with full details of how to find the right episode when I got home. He was adamant that I should watch it, even though I’d never met him before! I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not particularly into that kind of thing…

    • 1streading Says:

      I can believe it! When you start reading this it seems a little far fetched but eventually you realise that’s because it’s more like reality than most novels.

  3. Radz Pandit Says:

    The only Solstad I have read so far is Novel 11, Book 18 which I thought was brilliant.

    Here’s my review: https://readersretreat2017.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/novel-11-book-18-dag-solstad/

    Your review for T-Singer is timely because I have the novel too and am looking forward to it.

  4. banff1972 Says:

    This enticing review has pushed the book to the top of my TBR pile, Grant.

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