March 19, 2009

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18

Posted in Solstad Dag at 8:00 am by John Self

The second book in my short (as in, this could be it) trot through some of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist titles, is Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18. I knew I wanted to read it as soon as I saw the title and cover on publication last year: I presume the name laconically places the book in Solstad’s oeuvre. Anticipation over the book was only enhanced by Steve Mitchelmore’s praise. Solstad is not what you’d call a big name in the UK, a fact that was verified when I searched for him on Amazon (just for more information on it: I try not to shop at Amazon for reasons which are too self-righteous to go into) and was greeted with the prompt Did you mean: dvd solstad? That was a few months ago. When I tried the same search just now, the response was Did you mean: dog solstad? Which, I suppose, is progress of a sort.

A good deal has been written recently – not least by me – about Richard Yates, his uncompromising bleakness and brave refusal to pander to the reader. In fact Yates, fond as I am of his books, makes all sorts of concessions to readability in terms of his deft character portraits, swift storytelling, meaty dialogue and so on. It’s a bleakness which is cushioned by literary niceties: and very nice they are too. Similarly, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, a black hole of despair of a book, is made palatable by being very (blackly) funny. What makes Novel 11, Book 18 so interesting is that Solstad dispenses with many of the traditional novelistic ‘draws’ and lets the bleak speak for itself. Perversely, it is this very quality which I found seductive.

Novel 11, Book 18 is the story of a man who finds that experience of life does not match up to his expectations, and so he acts dramatically to bring his expectations into line, to reduce them ruthlessly. Bjørn Hansen is “a slow, introvert and not very spontaneous person,” who “knew that the most desirable happiness on earth was a brief happiness.” Such a happiness he has experienced with his ex-lover, the anagrammatic-sounding Turid Lammers, with whom he lived for fourteen years; with whom he originally moved in “because he feared he would otherwise regret everything.” With Turid, Bjørn Hansen (he is almost always referred to by his full name, the narrative cool and detached) takes up amateur dramatics, becomes a player, homo ludens, an ironic epithet for one so unplayful. He has the double tragedy of ambition without ability: he urges the theatrical company to try something more than their usual light operas (“What if they rose to the level where one could feel the blast of real life?”), and they put on a production of Ibsen. Bjørn Hansen, whose performance is the low point of a “total flop”, learns that “it is not enough to feel, inwardly.” (It was the am dram that made me think of comparison with Yates: his most famous novel Revolutionary Road opens with a symbolic production of The Petrified Forest, where April Wheeler is no better than Bjørn Hansen.)

I said above that Solstad’s writing is devoid of traditional novelist’s effects, but this is not quite true. As I became accustomed to his style, I began to find more and more sly humour in the prose, so that the occasional playful authorial intervention elicited a practical belly laugh.

The two years that went by before he managed to tear himself away from [his wife] were a total nightmare, which here will be passed over in silence.

Bjørn has one friend, Herman Busk (“the singing dentist”), with whom he feels little affinity. He likes books “that showed life to be impossible and contained a bitter black humour” (Bjørn, I have just the thing) – but now is bored with those, and wants “a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.” About halfway through the book, Bjørn starts to find it impossible to reconcile himself to the fact that “this is it”, that “time is passing, boredom is everlasting.” He conceives a plan – “his No, his great Negation” – which is put on hold when his son Peter comes to stay, bringing with him youth and its “intoxicating nonchalance, self-indulgence and idleness.”

That is about as much of the story as I can reveal, though in a way, I could detail everything that happens without reducing the book’s effect at all. Just as the prose is plain, the content of the book speaks for itself, bold and unmistakable. The denouement is an outlandish, almost freakish challenge to the reader, but arising so naturally from what has come before that it is impossible not to accept. The reader feels sympathy with Bjørn who, when conceiving his plan, “could not tell whether it was a game or real.” The reader shares this wonderment. The book could be handily reduced to this ‘twist’, making it a mere high-concept trick, and ignoring the importance of what leads up to this decision, both on the book’s terms and on Bjørn’s. In this (and in this only), I was reminded of Magnus Mills’ very different but equally bouleversé-ing Explorers of the New Century.

A certain uneasiness gripped me as I reflected on how much I enjoyed Novel 11, Book 18. (Enjoyed despite – because of – its uncompromising force and Bjørn’s flattened affect; such a work of art can only be invigorating and thrilling.) Would I have liked it as much if it was a new novel by a contemporary British author? Or was my pleasure enhanced by the preconception that foreign fiction must be really worthwhile if someone has thought it worth translating? But preconceptions are all part of the reading experience, and pleasure is pleasure, and we must take it where we find it. Right, Bjørn?


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15 Comments »

  1. Fascinating, and interesting comparisons, I loved Something Happened (“Virgin for short, but not for long”) and indeed Revolutionary Road which I blogged myself recently (it’s a popular subject, isn’t it?).

    When you say it’s largely devoid of novelistic effect, how do you mean that exactly? Is it that nothing much happens, that there is little dialogue or what there is is prosaic, that the characters themselves are dull?

    I’ve not been following this prize at all, reading this review I start to suspect that may have been an error on my part.

    Oh, on the translation bit, it’s a bit like movies really, one tends to assume if it reaches us it’s not the local equivalent of Police Academy 5 (picked at random, for all I know it’s a work of Ozuian grace). If a work has been translated, someone at least loved it enough to spend the time translating it. Anyway, preconceptions are unavoidable, the best we can do is to be aware of them, so that if they turn out to be wrong they don’t get in the way too much.

  2. John Self said,

    Perhaps I should have said ‘devoid of traditional literary fiction effects’, Max. All the things you say do apply however, more or less, which enhances the effect of the ‘twist’. Also the time frames are blurred, and it’s one of those books with no chapters or line breaks, and long paragraphs. The last are surface things, I suppose, but it all helps add to the atmosphere of suffocation and strangeness.

    I do think the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is worth watching. I’ve now read four-and-a-half of the books on it (but only written about two) and all are interesting. You may want to wait for the shortlist, which I believe is announced next month.

    Also, I would love to know how WordPress managed to link this book to Wilbur Smith, who appears in one of the ‘Possibly related’ links.

    And I have begun adding social networking widgets to my posts, so people can share them on Facebook etc. If you really really hate them, do say.

  3. No chapter or line breaks has a big effect in my experience actually, so I can definitely see why that would have an impact, I’m not sure they’re that surfacey.

    Your writeup has definitely caught my interest here, this sounds like one I’d really enjoy. I’ll follow the prize on the blogs for the moment, it hadn’t caught my interest but that’s now changed. Recently I’ve been reading more retro stuff, I just blogged a Huysmans and a Roth (and I’ve just finished an Anthony Powell that I haven’t written up yet), and I’m planning next to read a mid-20th century African American writer named Chester Himes, but my interests ebb and flow and it looks like this prize will bring out stuff that otherwise I might never have heard of – and after all, isn’t that the point of these prizes?

    Oh, being the anti-social sort I am, I hadn’t even noticed the widgets, so no issue here with them.

  4. This book does interest me. I have seen negative blog reviews of Out Stealing Horses, a book that I thought was excellent, and from this review it seems like this book explores some similar ideas. Thanks for the pointer.

  5. nico said,

    John, I was laughing aloud with the Amazon thing: ‘Did you mean…?’
    Did you or Kevin read ‘In the wake’ by Per Patterson? I liked it better than ‘Out stealing…’ and it evidently holds some connections to this one.

  6. Excellent review as usual John. And thanks for the link.

    Rather than ask whether you would have enjoyed had been a new novel by a contemporary British author, I’d ask *could* this have been written by a British author? And I don’t mean write “a Scandinavian novel”! The reviews in the British press suggest that it made little sense to them. Here, we assume a novel to be *important* it has to be about something definite, a particular milieu or such an issue as drug abuse, sex and/or violence etc. – whereas here the cold eye, sly humour and refusal of grandeur and closure denies the reader the familiar comforts beyond the forward movement of a story (which is very powerful here despite *nothing happening*).

    I suspect not only is this sort of novel not being written by British authors but it is actively discouraged by the publishing and reviewing culture. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but TS Eliot’s observations about the reception of Ulysses still holds I think.

    “[In London] there is a strong body of critical Brahminism, destructive and conservative in temper, which will not have Joyce. Novelty is no more acceptable here than anywhere else, and the forces of conservatism and obstruction are more intelligent, better educated, and more formidable.”

  7. John Self said,

    Well absolutely Steve, and we could extrapolate that to British culture generally; this is a country where ‘clever’ is an insult. Your point is well made, but one British writer who comes to mind (in fact, just came to mind when I read your comment) is Tom McCarthy, whose Remainder on reflection seems to have similarities to Novel 11, Book 18. It too seemed to “deny the reader the familiar comforts” while having a superbly conceived and memorable close.

    Kevin and nico, I am afraid that I was one of those bloggers giving Petterson a negative review. It’s on here somewhere, though I don’t care to read my post again as I suspect, from your praise, that I have masterfully misread the book. Or perhaps In the Wake is the one to try. I see the New York Times Book Review compared him with Sebald.

  8. JRSM said,

    Another fine review.

    As Max says, “I’ve not been following this prize at all, reading this review I start to suspect that may have been an error on my part.” Same here.

    The long-paragraph/no-line-breaks thing would normally be off-putting to me, but at the moment I’m reading the similarly formatted ‘The Anarchist’ by Hermann Broch (part of a loose trilogy, and about a fairly good man’s descent into vindictive abuse, and his job as a promoter for a female wrestling show in Germany in 1903 (the book itself is from 1932)), and it’s just marvellous.

  9. estelle said,

    I started laughing when I read the first paragraph because it reminded me of my colleague, who shares the same first name as this author, and with whom I share an office, trying to spell his very long and very Norwegian family name on the phone to an offshore call centre employee.

    This book sounds very fun to read. I love a subversive in-text jab.

  10. John Self said,

    Estelle, you should get your colleague to start referring to himself as “Dvd” on the phone – that will really delight the call-centre workers.

    JRSM, once again you have unearthed a book I’ve never heard of and made it sound very fine. Damn you.

  11. Flower said,

    Great,
    You have inspired me to take on yet another Norweigan writer.

    I found the words of Steve Michelmore rather intriguing:

    “Rather than ask whether you would have enjoyed had been a new novel by a contemporary British author, I’d ask *could* this have been written by a British author? And I don’t mean write “a Scandinavian novel”! The reviews in the British press suggest that it made little sense to them. Here, we assume a novel to be *important* it has to be about something definite, a particular milieu or such an issue as drug abuse, sex and/or violence etc. – whereas here the cold eye, sly humour and refusal of grandeur and closure denies the reader the familiar comforts beyond the forward movement of a story (which is very powerful here despite *nothing happening*). “

    • Flower said,

      I have just finished reading the book today and Im not sure what to think.

      At one point in the book I got annoyed with the repeating factor. The author describing things and then right afterwards you got Bjørn´s view, also using the same words. It almost put me off.

      Dunno what it is but the book seemed outdated to me. Its hard for me to put exact finger on what is which makes me feel this way.

      Maybe he is just not for me and I should stick with Petterson and Saabye Christensen as the Norweigan writers I do enjoy.

  12. [...] Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18 The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  ”He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.” [...]

  13. [...] It also features high praise on the back cover from Rourke and Steve Mitchelmore, a reliable source of [...]

  14. [...] and successful than Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity, this novel is reviewed more completely by John Self and Stephen Mitchelmore. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]


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