Posts Tagged ‘Dag Solstad’

Armand V

December 13, 2018

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.

T Singer

August 16, 2018

“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.

Professor Andersen’s Night

April 1, 2012

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.