18 August 2008

Ur-story: Isn't it good, Norwegian Wood?

It is late 1999—the turn of the Millennium—and not much happens in Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses (trans. by Anne Born): an old guy, a widower named Trond Sander, moves into a remote Norwegian house with his dog to get away from it all; meets his neighbor, another old hermit-type guy named Lars Haug, and helps him find his dog; they share a meal or two; a giant spruce falls in Trond's yard, barely missing his cabin and his car and his tool shed; he and his new neighbor work together, chop it up and clear it away just in time for a surprise visit from Trond's daughter who has spent the last few weeks trying to locate him. If you are a reader for whom plot is the most important element of a novel, this just might not be the book for you. Most of the "action" takes place between 1944, when Norway was occupied by the Nazis, and 1948, and is told with the distance of memory. Yet, you can rest assured those actions have consequences that resonate all the way down to the present time of the novel—even its very last line—and not just in the minds and memories of the characters.

This is a book more about story than character. Sure, the old man is interesting; but it is his story (and the stories of the other characters) that makes this book so luminous. It is their stories that make the characters. Trond's father, it turns out, was involved with the underground resistance to the German occupiers, along with Lars's mother. Needless to say, the two men recognize each other after half a century's absence and immediately Trond's thoughts hark back to the tragic events that took place in aftermath of the war. We witness the first time Trond hears the phrase "out stealing horses" (from Lars's older brother) and then we learn the origin of that phrase—and it has nothing to do with rustling. The two men share a history and a grief, that is to say: a story. Trond's story is sad: the loss of a friend, the rejection by a father, the passing of innocence, and, much later, the (offstage) death of a spouse. The rest of his life is fairly innocuous. But Lars's story is even sadder: disillusionment and the loss of a father and the death of a twin brother. Trond's daughter's story, though not yet complete, is still being written, as she refuses to allow her father to slink off into the woods to die, refuses to lose him. There is espionage and logging, heroism and betrayal, adultery and revenge, adventure and domesticity, Scandinavian stoicism and unexpected ecstasy in this novel. Much is left unsaid, though is understood by the characters—and the readers. This is the great artistry of this book.

Structurally, the book does not read linearly. The narrative is more spatial. It jumps around. The frame story of Trond and Lars and Trond's daughter (which is conveniently tagged for the reader with the present tense) is interwoven with episodes from several different points in the past. The reader must work to keep the stories and the characters from 1944, 1948, and 1999 straight, wandering as if in a dream house from one room back into the others in no particular order. At the end the stories all come together and make sense, masterfully falling into place. Unlike most books with temporal plot lines where once you get to the end and know what happens you can discard them, this book bears re-reading to see, at a minimum, how the writer has worked all the diverse threads into a coherent strand. (On this score, the one weak element I found in the novel had to do with how Trond came by his knowledge of the personal lives of the characters from the WWII era. It is explained by a sort of wizened old neighbor, but only cursorily and unsatisfactorily. And I do wish he'd somehow managed to tie the ending—which takes place in 1948—to the present; though that would have detracted from an otherwise perfect ending. See below.)

I have not read the original Norwegian but the translation feels trustworthy. There is nothing overly complex or sophisticated about the syntax or idiom. Often, I will read a book if I'm drawn in by the first paragraph of so:
Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest. There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.
Nothing really captured me until that last sentence, an image that alerted me that something special was about to happen here. However, it was the last couple paragraphs that, like the shape of the wind on that Norwegian forest lake, absolutely blew me away and commanded me to read this book:
I had my old clothes in a paper bag, which I rolled up and carried under one arm. When we were out on the pavement and walked on down to the station and to a cafe, perhaps, for something to eat, my mother put her arm in mine, and we went on like that, arm in arm like a real couple, light on our feet, our heights a match, and she had a click in her heels that day that echoed from the walls on either side of the street. It was as if gravity was suspended. It was like dancing, I thought, although I had never danced in my whole life.

We were never to walk like that again. When we came home to Oslo, she fell back into her own weight and remained that way for the rest of her life. But on that day in Karlstad we walked arm in arm down the street. My new suit fitted my body so lightly and moved with me every step I took. The wind still came icily down between the houses from the river, and my hand felt swollen and sore where the nails had pierced the skin when I clenched it so hard, but all the same everything felt fine at that moment; the suit was fine, and the town was fine to walk in, along the cobblestone street, and we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt.
Again, that velvet hammer in the last phrase: 'we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt.' Isn't it good? The lump in the throat. The story of Trond Sander's life.

Read, no, cherish this book!

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