Armand V

In Armand V, Dag Solstad’s 2006 novel written entirely in footnotes, and now translated into English by Steven T Murray, the writer declares:

“My literary output ended with T Singer… Everything after that is an exception, which will never be repeated. Including this.”

Solstad expanded on this in an interview with Adam Dalva in Publishers Weekly:

“The whole concept was a cheap trick from my side to help me work up the courage to pursue the freedom offered me by my ageing career as an author.”

Armand’s story is revealed to us in the footnotes to an unwritten novel. It begins, as it says, with “a displaced time perspective”, describing an encounter between Armand and his adult son before returning to Armand’s youth. The scene is one of humiliation, which seems to be a common theme of Solstad’s work, as Armand returns home to find his son being “debased by a young woman, a girl.”

“The girls tossed her head, and her hair swung softly around her; she gave him such a look of contempt while his son trembled in his abject state.”

Armand is unnoticed and waits quietly in the bedroom until he is able to leave the house, returning later that night as if he was only just arriving, an avoidance of emotional confrontation which we will discover is typical of his character. When he sees his son again six months later he discovers his son has joined the army, a career at odds with Armand’s pacifist tendencies, which are themselves in tension with his position as a Norwegian diplomat. As with T Singer, Armand’s trajectory though life, though superficially far more successful, is not one created by ambition. It begins with his choice of a “dry, pro-EEC topic” for his thesis even though (in fact, because) he is an opponent of the EEC. He is similarly “intrigued by the paradoxical nature of the situation” whereby a radical leftist such as himself can work for the diplomatic service of a country which allies itself so closely with the USA.

“Can a young, serious-minded person like Armand V. allow his career choice to be guided by something so banal as the thought of the comfortable life awaiting him if only he grabs a pen and fills out an application for the Foreign Ministry’s own course for future diplomats?”

Armand is able to both believe he somehow remains the radical he once was while rejecting any association, or even sympathy, with political dissent:

“Armand rejected those who shouted. He rejected the demonstrators. Even when they spoke reflexively in newspaper editorials. They didn’t know what they were talking about, he thought then, they didn’t know anything.”

Perhaps it is the case – we will never know as the novel from which these notes are excavated is unwritten – that Armand’s hypocrisy lies in his footnotes. This is certainly true of the affair he has with the twin sister of his girlfriend, and later wife, N, who features in the novel instead:

“Here I must point out that N, who appears at this stage in the novel, and who plays the role of an utterly decisive woman in Armand’s life, is not included here, in the footnotes, at the same time. Here we find her twin sister.”

The footnotes also detour into the story of Armand’s friend from university, Paul Buer, a science student whom Armand invites to sit with the humanities students. If Buer seems to take over the novel at this point this is because these fifty pages were written first, with Buer as the protagonist and Armand as his friend. If, at first, it seems detached form the rest of the novel, much as the sequence with Adam Eyde in T Singer, Solstad later suggests Armand betrays, or at least fails to support, his friend when they meet at an official function.

As the novel progresses, it is difficult not to regard Armand as a rather more unpleasant character than he at first appears. Superficially “He was a knowledgeable man, he was a connoisseur of European literature, film, music and art from the past to the present day.” However, although he continues to pay his son’s rent for him while he is away, his son does not seem keen to see him when on leave. At one point he feels he has “sacrificed his son to war.” In the footnotes he seems distant and withdrawn from others, though perhaps he is simply withdrawn from his unwritten novel. Solstad wonders:

“Is a novel something that has already been written, and is the author merely the one who finds it, laboriously digging it out?”

Armand V is another fascinating slice of Solstad, further expanding on his central concern of how we should live our lives by questioning our certainty over how we have lived, ignoring the narrative for the detail below the line. Solstad is clearly an important European writer and hopefully, over time, more of his work will be translated into English.

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2 Responses to “Armand V”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    A series of footnotes to an unwritten novel. Am I right in thinking that Vila-Matas used a similar approach in his book, Bartleby & Co? It does sound rather intriguing!

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