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?