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The GoodShortNovels.com Review--One Recent Release and One Classic Revisited
Winter/Spring 2007 Edition
Norwegian Appetites for Alienation
Reviewer: Stedman Mays

Recent Release
book cover - IN THE WAKE by Per PettersonIN THE WAKE by Per Petterson. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2006 (originally published in Norway under the title I KJØLVANNET by Forlaget Oktober A/S, in 2000). Hardcover. 202 pages. Estimated length of the novel: around 60,000 words.

Writing is a difficult job. I think there's even a hint of the self-punishing masochist in most writers. On a bad day, when the right words aren't coming to you, it's actually excruciating to try to put pen to paper, or to sit in front of a computer screen with a blank document staring back at you. True, on better days when the words are coming to you with relative ease and things are going well, writing can bring you satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment. But those not-so-great moments when you're blocked or frustrated make you question whether the good days are really worth the effort. It seems insane to go through so much grief for so little pleasure.

Perhaps this is why there are many books in the global literary canon about the frustrations of writing and the inability to communicate effectively, even just to communicate as one human being to another. Meanings often slip between intentions, words, and the impact that those words have on others. Our very human tendency to have such slippages is probably one of the core reasons that many of us read--to get a little closer to understanding the mystery of communicating with words.

In Per Petterson's novel IN THE WAKE, we are confronted with one such lost soul, named Arvid. He's a published novelist who now can't seem to write much, as well as being an intensely emotional person who can't seem to connect satisfyingly with others or the world around him. He's divorced and lives by himself in an apartment. Apparently he doesn't see a lot of his wife and kids. He seems to traipse through life haunted by memories of the death of his father, mother, and two younger brothers in a tragic ferry accident (the novel is supposed to have been inspired by an actual fatal ferry incident). He has a conflicted relationship with the one other surviving member of his immediate family, an older brother, even though the two of them seem to be in similar psychological stages in their lives. Both Arvid and his surviving brother, age 43 and 46 respectively, are going through midlife crises and adjusting to breakups with their wives.

But Arvid, unlike his more practical older brother, is a dreamer. And, being a dreamy sort of guy, Arvid informs us that he has trouble distinguishing between his dreams and reality and what he reads in books:

"I remember a lot of dreams. Sometimes they are hard to distinguish from what has really happened. That is not so terrible. It is the same with books."

Thus Arvid tells us his tale in a series of desultory reflections on events and people from his past and present. There's a surreal, wandering-without-a-goal quality to much of his narrative.

The seemingly defeated listlessness of the narrator pervades the book, lending it a contemporary feeling of alienation and isolation. There's even Arvid's acquaintance with a Kurdish neighbor, a man who speaks almost no Norwegian, and this mostly nonverbal relationship is symptomatic of Arvid's need to overcome barriers that keep getting in the way of his interactions with other people in his life.

The most warmth that Arvid shows is in his sexual bond with a woman who lives with her son across the street. But even this intimate relationship eventually results in the book's most theatrical anxiety attack, when he wakes up and realizes that she is not in bed next to him:

"I am alone. I slide my arm over the pillow, it is still warm, but she has not left a note. I do not want to be alone. I jump out of bed and run into the hall. In the mirror I see a face, and I stop and without thinking grab the first thing I see, a metal box standing on the chest, and hurl it at the mirror. The glass breaks with an incredibly loud noise, it disintegrates into glittering fragments raining silver on the floor, and I stand there watching them spread all over the hall like the aftermath of an explosion in a film on TV. One of the fragments slices into my arm and blood trickles out, not much but enough to show red against the white skin. I raise my arm and lick the blood up..."

The passage seems reminiscent of the films of Ingmar Bergman--the persona shatters as the mirror shatters, at the moment of the character's contemplation of his image. The blood-sucking is also symbolic of the protagonist's sense of his own enervation and wasting away as "one of the middle-aged forgotten."

But something seems missing from the turmoil of the book. It's not as pungent as it needs to be. As a reader, I felt blocked from Arvid's many ordeals--his ordeals as a writer, a husband, a father, a lover, a brother, and a person haunted by the past. Everything that happens, no matter the various particulars, seemed to be covered in a drab sameness. When the moments of high anxiety finally did occur--such as the crashing of the mirror in the panic of isolation--I didn't feel the visceral impact I might have if the author had explored Arvid's fears and fetishes more fully. And I wonder if any writer down on his luck would keep so relatively quiet about not being able to concentrate on writing much of anything. I yearned for a better understanding of his despair and emotional confusion. I'm not asking for pretentious explanations of why he did this or that or thought this or that, of course.  I just would have appreciated more vivid depictions of what was going on with him, and inside him.

And yet the book does succeed in creating an atmosphere of estrangement that suggests multiple states of consciousness, even if none of those states of consciousness are developed to the degree I desired. Although the lead character needs more penetrating development and more of the spontaneous abandon that flows from such development, Per Petterson is an intriguing author who, at his best, artfully combines fleeting impressions to create scenes that are something like collages.

The American edition of IN THE WAKE that I read is nicely packaged, and the book-cover image--of a hand reaching upward through multiple layers of whirling water without grabbing on to anything--is evocative of the protagonist's ineptness in forging connections with others. Regarding the manuscript, the text of the American edition that I read contains a few too many errors and was not proofread carefully enough. I hate to be a pedantic sourpuss about this, but I hope the American publisher will try to correct the errors in future printings and editions of IN THE WAKE.

Classic Revisited
book cover - HUNGER by Knut HamsunHUNGER by Knut Hamsun. Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad. Penguin, 1998 (originally published in Norway under the title SULT in 1890). Paperback. 197 pages. Estimated length of the novel: around 60,000 words.

We're getting fatter and fatter in America, as well as in most of the rest of the world. Of course there are some starving people who don't have enough to eat or to sustain themselves, and this is a serious problem that should be addressed. But the statistics clearly indicate that the general population has never before had access to such plentiful food supplies and has never weighed so much. Deadly diseases and conditions are on the rise as more and more pounds are being steadily packed on our bodies. Obesity breeds illness. With each passing decade, it's becoming increasingly obvious that the majority of people are literally eating themselves to death.

In our age of plenty and epidemic obesity, then, it's interesting to read a novel about a writer whose imagination is afflicted by malnourishment and starvation: Knut Hamsun's HUNGER. Initially published in Norway in 1890, HUNGER is the fictional memoir of an unnamed protagonist who tells the story of his perversely willful slide into starvation and physical self-abnegation. The protagonist is a youngish author who has a rather hard time getting his articles published. Apparently his pieces are a too arcane for the popular taste. When he does make a little cash for a piece that's accepted for publication or he manages to get money in some other way, he tends to give much of the money away, sometimes to strangers, even though he himself desperately needs it for lodging and food. It's as if he's driven to become a martyr to some unnecessary cause, not seeing to it that his own basic needs are met, all the while ranting on and on about his proposed grandiose writing projects. Alas, he never seems to be able to concentrate on these proposed projects long enough to finish any of them. He begins to have trouble even getting started to write at all.

We only get vague snippets of information about our antihero protagonist. His background and family are a mystery. Being a writer, he's probably well educated or at least self-educated, but we don't know much about the specifics of his education, nor do we learn much about any of his past friendships. He's basically a loner who lives by himself in a series of transient rooms and boardinghouses.

The bleak tone is set near the beginning of the novel, as the narrator tells us about his dilapidated room and the view out the window:

"I leaned forward with my elbows on the windowsill and gazed at the sky. It promised to be a clear day. Autumn had arrived, that lovely, cool time of year when everything turns color and dies. The streets had already begun to get noisy, tempting me to go out. This empty room, where the floor rocked up and down at every step I took, was like a horrible, broken-down coffin...I didn't even have a comb anymore or a book to read when life became too dreary. All summer long I had haunted the cemeteries and Palace Park, where I would sit and prepare articles for the newspapers, column after column about all sorts of things--strange whimsies, moods, caprices of my restless brain. In my desperation I had often chosen the most far-fetched subjects, which cost me hours and hours of effort and were never accepted. When a piece was finished I began a fresh one, and I wasn't very often discouraged by the editor's no; I kept telling myself that, some day, I was bound to succeed. And indeed, when I was lucky and it turned out well, I would occasionally get five kroner for an afternoon's work."

Our narrator tries to get his writing career going, but slowly, through a series of fits and starts, we watch his decline.

So why should we care? Why has HUNGER attracted a small but enthusiastic following? It's a relentless diatribe of delusions and dreariness, relieved here and there by a bit of self-deprecating, grouchy drollery and a weirdly erotic episode with a veiled woman. The novel is organized in four parts that keep returning to the lead character's failure to get his career going, rather like four variations on a theme.

I suppose what attracts me to the book is what has attracted many others--the unflinching, plodding, awkward, searchful, probing examination of a creative consciousness under duress. HUNGER, brief as it is when compared to long novels, has a paradoxical quality of patient hysteria. As Hamsun himself claimed, his semiautobiographical novel is "an attempt to describe the strange, peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starving body." The unnamed protagonist's frustrated yearnings and his subjugation of the need of his body for food seem to say something about our own isolation and our disconnection from understanding our own needs. Like the character, most of us have had trouble at some time in our lives even just asking for help and taking care of ourselves. And the searing pain of having one's work rejected is an unpleasant experience we've all been through at one time or another.

The 1966 Scandinavian movie version of HUNGER, originally titled SULT, is one of those marvelous examples of the perfect casting of a difficult-to-cast lead character. The actor Per Oscarsson reportedly starved himself, and his wafer-thin, almost skeletal body looks appropriately in urgent need of a meal. He also reportedly exhausted himself prior to shooting by taking long hikes. Aside from the physical preparation, it is his superb emotional mixture of disgruntledness and vulnerability that gives the performance its power over repeated viewings. (I should add that the supporting cast does a very good job as well--HUNGER is dominated by the lead character to such an extent that it's easy to overlook the subtle craftsmanship that goes into these supporting performances, just as it's easy to overlook Hamsun's talent for making the other characters appear and disappear seamlessly in the narrative weave of the book.)

The script of the movie has less emphasis on the lead character's writing--and his many thwarted attempts at pursuing abandoned projects--than I would have liked to see. His writing is an essential element in the novel that gets a little lost in the condensed reshuffling of events in the movie version. And the ending of the movie seems rather abrupt. The final image of the book is so wonderfully cinematic that it's baffling to me why the director/script-writer Henning Carlsen chose to ignore it. Still, it's a beautifully shot, stark, well-acted film that contains Per Oscarsson's riveting portrayal of a character that I thought would never come to life in a film treatment.

Knut Hamsun's bravura creation of the lead character of HUNGER is seen by some critics as heralding a new direction in the depiction of the archetypal antihero. These commentators see HUNGER, Hamsun's first and what many believe to be his best novel, as striking a new literary chord that would echo through the works of later authors. Isaac Bashevis Singer proclaimed that "the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun." And there does seems to be a degree of truth to this view. But I think we shouldn't dismiss the notion that HUNGER is also very much in the company of works by certain literary authors of Hamsun's era, especially Dostoyevsky, among others. There's even a classical dramatic arc of HUNGER's antihero that takes him into increasingly dire circumstances and alienation (Zola was a master of this kind of thing--he was particularly good at capturing the downward spirals of characters in impoverished circumstances). Hamsun himself trumpeted his own originality, but I go to the tale itself for evidence before I trust what the teller says about it.

HUNGER was published in 1890, and Knut Hamsun would go on to publish twenty novels during his long career and life (he died in 1952, at the age of 92). He won the Nobel Prize for his work in 1920 and was lauded as one of the great writers of his time. In his old age, he became associated with the Nazis and he made sympathetic comments about them, as Germany was occupying Norway and committing the atrocities that are a chilling part of the historical record of World War II. Hamsun even had a meeting with Hitler in 1943 in which the Norwegian author did confront the Führer about the injustices being committed during the German Occupation of Norway (Hitler summarily told Hamsun to "shut up" and kicked him out of his study). After World War II was over, Hamsun was declared mentally impaired, although he wrote a final memoir, ON OVERGROWN PATHS, which was published in 1949. He was fined by the Norwegian courts for his Nazi associations and forced to give up most of his large fortune. He died in poverty.

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