Lars Saabye Christensen’s last novel to be translated into English, The Half Brother, won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2002 (the year after one of my favorite novelists, Jan Kjaerstad), and was shortlisted for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The epic family saga, which runs to some 700 pages, was met with almost universal critical praise. It is one of those books that sits on my shelf and makes me feel guilty that I haven’t read it yet. So, I was particularly excited to get a chance to review The Model, the latest of Christensen’s novels to be translated into English.
According to Christensen, The Model has been viewed as a departure for him:
[He] reports that Norwegian critics have commented on the difference between the new novel and its predecessors. Here, he never names the city it is set in, whereas his other fiction very much belongs to Oslo.
Unfortunately, I think the novel is something of a failed experiment.
The Model is the story of Peter Wihl, a 49-year-old painter whose best years as an artist are behind him. He leads a more or less standard bourgeois life, with a wife, Helene, and a 6-year-old daughter named Kaia. As the story opens, Peter is working on a new set of paintings, which he hopes will recapture the promise that his most famous, and first, exhibition had shown over 20 years ago. However, Peter isn’t able to find his inspiration, and shortly thereafter he begins to experience mysterious blackouts, which he attempts to keep secret, not wishing to worry his family or his long-time friend Ben—who also exhibits Peter’s work at his gallery and anxiously awaits some progress on this new set of paintings.
Peter isn’t able to maintain his secret for long, however, and he soon discovers that he is suffering from a degenerative—and, to Peter’s horror, genetic—eye disease, which will render him blind in six months. Although his doctor informs him that there is no cure, he will still be able to live an otherwise normal, healthy and long life. Desperate to finish his paintings, and to escape the quickly approaching darkness, Peter turns to a long-forgotten schoolmate who suddenly reappears during this difficult time, the ophthalmic surgeon, and all around shady character, Thomas Hammer.
Thomas promises Peter that he can perform an operation which will save his eyesight, but he refuses to provide any details about the operation. At first reluctant, his ever increasing desperation leads Peter to agree to the procedure, and in so doing he risks his life, and his relationships with his wife, child, and best friend for the sake of his art.
As I said above, I was looking forward to reading this novel a great deal. Everything I read about The Half Brother led me to expect a strong and interesting plot, a full range of thoughtfully-drawn characters and a happy surfeit of style. Unfortunately, The Model doesn’t have any of these things.
The characters aren’t drawn by Christensen in sufficient depth to convince the reader that they will behave in any way that wouldn’t serve the plot. Thomas Hammer, the shady ophthalmic surgeon, acts shady—at one point Christensen goes completely off the rails, dragging Peter and Thomas through an absolutely inexplicable ‘school reunion’ scene, simply to convince us that Thomas is a disreputable guy. The loyal Ben acts loyal and does little else (except go through a non sequitur romance that disappears as randomly as it appears, leaving hardly a ripple on the surface of the story). Peter’s wife Helene, who is also supposed to be a successful artist, appears in the novel only to bicker with Peter.
And it’s because of these essentially one-note, unchanging characters, including Peter, that the plot seems so uninteresting. If I found Peter to be a compelling character, perhaps it would be easier to accept the mawkish, conventional plot—famous painter struggling, painter suffering mysterious illness, painter going blind any day now!, painter trying to paint his 6-year-old daughter (really?), painter making a deal with the devil to get his eyesight back, and so on—to accept the otherwise uninteresting supporting cast, and easier to find a way to some sympathy for these people.
There is nothing subtle about this novel, nothing which suggests that the characters in the novel are dynamic, changing, or complex human beings, nothing in the writing to draw you into the story, and nothing in the story which reaches beyond its own, very narrow, parameters to the world outside.
If you’d like to read Christensen, I’d steer clear of The Model and check into The Half Brother, or wait for his next novel to be translated.
Lars Saabye Christensen
translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett