Solstad Dag

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

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.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18

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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