Per Petterson: Out Stealing Horses

Looking back at the books I’ve read this year, of 60 or so just nine have been in translation from other languages.  Worse still, only one of those did I enjoy unequivocally (Stefan Zweig’s Chess).  Is it me or them?  Am I a philistine, or is there a cultural and linguistic barrier which means I will never enjoy translated literature as much as stuff written in English?  What better way to find out than to try this season’s hot foreign property, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.

It was published in Norway in 2003, where it won two awards.  Translated into English in 2005 by Anne Born, it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year.  But not only is this the best foreign language work recently published; a few weeks ago it also won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, making it apparently the best book in any language, anywhere in the world, available in English, this year.  It was up against some pretty stiff competition: Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, J.M. Coetzee and others. Great expectations.

One thing Out Stealing Horses does not do is radically rearrange your stereotype of Scandanavia.  The people here are taciturn, laconic, moody.  Brooding.   Brooding hardest of all is our narrator, Trond, who is living a life of chosen solitude in the remote forests of Norway.  The book takes us between his present existence and the childhood days which changed his life.

“I hate being entertained, I don’t have any time for it,” Trond tells us.  Well: you’ve come to the right place.  While the tentative, misty prose has its seductive qualities, another word for it would be soporific.

…picked our rakes up and walked out fanwise with the right distance between us and started to rake the grass from all sides towards the rack, and it was obvious at once why the handles were so long.  They provided radius enough for us to cover the whole space together, and not so much as a straw was left behind, but it was tough on our palms with the rake rubbing forwards and backwards a thousand times, and we had to wear gloves to save the skin from being torn and prevent burns and blisters after one hour only.  And then we filled the first wire, some with hayforks and balance and great precision, others with their hands, like my father and I, who did not have the same experience.  But that went well too, and the inner side of our bare arms turned slowly green, and the wire filled up, and we fixed up another one and filled that one too, and then another, until we have five wires crammed full one above the other, and the top one with a slightly shallower layer of grass hung down like a thatched roof on each side, so when the rain came it would just run off, and the rack could stand there for months and the hay would be just as good right under the outermost layer…

But it does flare into life in places, most notable when Trond and his childhood friend Jon go ‘out stealing horses’ and Jon does something sudden and shocking when they are looking at birds’ eggs in a tree.  The reason for his ‘sudden breakdown’ is even more horrifying and provides the engine for the subsequent revelations in the story.

There is also a pleasing quality to the book’s serenade to a life of physical labour among nature: barely a scene passes without wood being chopped, logs being rolled, or dogs or horses being men’s greatest companions (“I landed on the horse’s back a bit too close to its neck, and its shoulder bones hit me in the crotch and sent a jet of nausea up into my throat”).  And there are interesting things to be told about the rarely discussed role of Norwegian civilians in the second world war.

But the prose never really engaged me, and I knew we were in trouble when I felt the page lighting up on recognising the work of other writers.  Petterson peppers the later pages with the opening lines of The Go-Between (“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”) and Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark (“It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known”).  It doesn’t serve to flatter him.  I wondered if there might be other famous opening lines too – the narrator is a fan of the novels of Charles Dickens, though I didn’t spot any of his.  And that sums up my experience of Out Stealing Horses: not the best of tomes, but not the worst of tomes either.

11 comments

  1. I’m afraid I’m one of those people that really loved this book. I loved the gentleness of it. But appreciate that may not appeal to everyone.

    I am, however, interested in why you regard Scandinavians as taciturn, laconic, moody and brooding. That’s definitely not the impression I have formed of the many Danes and Swedes I have met…

  2. Ah well, as I haven’t met any Danes or Swedes, I think brute ignorance must be the reason! I’m glad you liked the book, kimbofo. It’s great to see translated literature doing so well.

  3. Now I wondered about those lines, especially the Jean Rhys quote and the great efforts made to identify them on the copyright pages of the book when you might usually expect them to be acknowledged as quotes as they appear on the page.I do hope no fast ones had been pulled anywhere along the way.I have more PP lined up.

  4. Very funny, John. “not the best of tomes, but not the worst of tomes either.” Just after mentioning Dickens. I felt the same way you did about the book. I was expecting it to be outstanding but ended up thinking it was somewhat routine.

  5. I loved this book!

    And being a Dane myself, I find it rather interesting and kinda funny that the stereotype of Scandinavians is taciturn, laconic, moody and brooding. We do have a certain special kind of melchony about us, I will agree to that, but we are also a people with a dark sense of humour and free spirits. I dont have to come up with the world know facts, that we were the first in the world to have free porn and gay marriages, do I ?😉

    I hope you get to find and enjoy our sense of humour and life while reading more writers from Scandinavia.

  6. Thanks Flower. You know, I really suspect that if I read this book again now, I would like it much more. Perhaps this is because I feel more attuned to Scandinavian literature now (having read two novels by Norwegians in the last month!). I will have to look at something else by Petterson.

    Thanks for mentioning free porn too – should bump up my hits nicely.

  7. You are welcome, John!🙂

    After having written this post along with another one on Stewarts blogg, I came to think that the book Im reading at the moment actually have the same theme. And its written by an Irish writer, John Banville. Im reading “The sea” and its also about a man who heads off alone and griefs. The two books are very similar and if you dont take into account the poetic language Banville uses, then I would say I can still sense the Scandinavian touch in Petterson very strongly but yet I have a hard time pointing it out, let alone write about it.

    I have only read Petterson, Linn Ullmann, Liv Ullmann, Lars Saabye Christensen, which ones have you read?

    Saabye Christensen is more fun than Petterson but still very Scandinavian. I read one of his old ones, a small collection of short stories called “the jealous hairdresser”, and they showed me a new side of him, where he actually is full of a very wicked sense of humour and later I found out that one of the stories actually has been made into a film. If you have not read Saabye Christensen yet, I would recommend “The model” if you dont want to start out with his loooong novel “The half brother”.

    Right now Im reading a biography by a Swedish writer, you may have heard of, Per Olav Enquist. He has lived in Denmark for several years and is very popular over here but I havent gotten around to reading him yet. He is from a small town up north, close to Norway and Finland. He is actually from the same town as another famous writer, Stieg Larsson, who wrote crime stories.
    Enquist is not a crime writer and what I find is that he also has the same feel to his style as Petterson, at least in his biography. Its a sort of describing the drama in everyday life, in the smallest things without it becoming one of them social documentaries with long dialogs, and there is this sense of a longing, a sense of loneliness and a close connection with nature. Maybe this kind of quiet sensuality is what you think is brooding?

    Have you read any Danish writers?

  8. Thanks for your excellent suggestions, Flower. I don’t know if I have read any Danish writers, which implies that I probably haven’t. (I was going to say W.F. Hermans, then remembered that he’s Dutch, not Danish :oops:) The two Norwegians I was referring to were Linn Ullmann and Dag Solstad. Oh, and one Swede recently: Hjalmar Soderberg.

  9. Just finished this last night and went searching for mentions of Petterson’s book and The Go-Between in the same place.

    I thought this was a fine work with a vaguely unreliable narrator that seemed like it was going one way – with the narrator commenting on people around him and their losses – and then ends up being a far more personal story of fatherlessness.

    Trond seems never to have recovered from what he thought he understood about his relationship with his dad and the subsequent reality.

    If Stoppard’s play about Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern tells a known story from the POV of previously insignificant characters, Out Stealing Horses builds an entire novel during which almost every important event occurs off stage. I found it delicious.

  10. dear John,

    was just skipping through the site looking for the next book to read when i stopped here. i seem to be one of the rare few who found this book as tiresome as you did – everywhere i turn i’ve found it garlanded with superlatives, so much so that i’ve come to wondering whether i read the same copy everyone else did. as for other Norwegian writers, try Tarjei Vesaas.

    thanks and keep up the great work.

    Jay

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