"The Discoverer" by Jan Kjaerstad [BTBA 2010 Fiction Longlist]
The Discoverer by Jan Kjaerstad. Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)
Yes, The Discoverer is the third volume in Jan Kjaerstad’s “Wergeland Trilogy.” And yes, the other two books are also quite long. I only mention this because it was such a big deal to Tom Shone when he reviewed the book for the New York Times, and I quote:
Reviewing books doesn’t often feel like real work — not the kind of work that makes you break a sweat or join a union. So when an editor from The New York Times calls you up and asks if you want to review a new novel from Norway, and the novel turns out to be not only over 400 pages long and largely set in a fjord, but also Part 3 of a trilogy, Parts 1 and 2 of which ran to over 1,000 pages, with multiple narrators and a nonlinear time scheme — yeesss — then you jump at the chance to take your place as a worker among workers.
Which is kind of a shit way to start a review, no? It’s like saying “fuck modernism” because Ulysses is going to take a while to get through.
All that aside, I really want to point out that there’s no need to read the other two volumes in this series before reading The Discoverer. If you have read The Seducer (available from Overlook) and The Conqueror (from Open Letter) before approaching this book, the resonances will resonate that much more and the depth and awesomeness of the novel will be that much more complex and, well, awesome. But dif you can’t squeeze 1,000 pages of prose into your free time, don’t worry, here’s a little primer:
Jonas Wergeland is a Norwegian television celebrity responsible for “Thinking Big” an artsy program depicting a series of very important Norwegian people. He’s extremely popular. He’s bigger than Terry Gross plus Ken Burns. But following the mysterious death of his wife, he’s not quite so universally loved . . .
What’s fascinating about this trilogy—and the reason why you don’t need to read all three books to “get it”—is the way that each volume presents Jonas’s life and Margrete’s death in completely different ways. There’s some tricksy narrative stuff going on—who is narrating The Seducer and how do they know all the details of Jonas’s life? who is the woman giving the professor all the dirt on Jonas in The Conqueror?—but on a basic level it’s pretty straightforward: in The Seducer, Jonas is a superstar who is one degree from perfection and arrives home from a trip to find that his wife has been murdered, and in The Conqueror, he’s always has some violent urges which culminated in him murdering his wife. And in The Discoverer, he’s out of prison sailing down a fjord with his daughter and a group of young people working on a high-tech multimedia project.
For the first time in the trilogy, Jonas finally gets to speak for himself. And instead of really clarifying anything, he just adds another level of uncertainty as to what sort of person he is, and what actually happened to his wife. As Jan told me during his visit here to the States: people always turn to this volume for the “Real Truth” but in many ways it’s less reliable than either of the other two volumes . . .
And that’s Kjaerstad’s genius. The way these three separate visions overlap and interplay is absolutely brilliant. You can start anywhere with the series, and depending on the order in which you read these, you’ll end up with a different impression of Jonas, of what really happened, and of the various threads that tie together the three books.
Going back to the tricksy nature of these for a second: in all three books, the plot (or plots, since these are composed of hundreds of mini-stories from Jonas’s life), is way overshadowed by the overall structure of the book. The Seducer is organized like a fugue, with story nested inside of story, bouncing up and down between levels before coming to rest on the “present now” of Jonas arriving home to find his wife on the floor. The Conqueror is more like a mosaic in the form of a spiral, with little chunks of different stories coming up every hundred pages or so, gaining momentum as the book progresses, and leading to a hugely powerful payoff.
In many ways, The Discoverer is a much different, in some ways more mature, and—although it’s almost unbelievable to say so—more ambitious than the previous works. Although the meta-structures are very different, both of the other volumes are constructed from very short pieces that build on one another. The Discoverer is made up of eight longer chapters that are named after planets and moons (Jonas narrates the former, his daughter the latter) that weave several episodes from Jonas’s life into a highly literary, well-rounded (sic), almost standalone story.
I’d have to quote tens of pages to give you the full effect, but here’s a bit from the opening chapter, that sets the scene and motions toward the whole construction of this book, and the way is moves through the times of Jonas’s life:
Why did he do it?
One has to start somewhere, and a good, not to say almost perfect, departure point—or even, to stick with the climbing motif: viewpoint-from which to examine Jonas Wergeland’s life would be another stony edifice, another gallery, a hallowed hall, a room with walls of granite, and an autumn day in the 1980s—an autumn day which would bring with it deep sorrow and wisful joy, as well as a strange mystery, an incident bordering on the scandalous. Nor is it entirely inappropriate that Jonas should be at the organ, an instrument befitting his history and the pwoer which for so long he had exerted over the minds, not to say the souls, of the Norwegian people. Jonas Wergeland is playing the organ, framed by its gleaming, monumental face, making the whole church tremble with his playing, making the very stone, the bedrock of Norway, sing. He is not an organist, but he handles the instrument almost like a professional musician; he is an organist by nature, he might have been made for this part, this pose. No wonder he once replied when asked, in Samarkand, what he did for a living: “I am an organist.”
Scarcely an hour earlier, after collecting a pile of sheet music, he had closed the gate of the house he would soon be moving into and which people would dub Villa Wergeland, and set off down the road he had walked every day of his childhood. Wherever he turned his eye he risked becoming lost in memories: a life-threatening bonfire, the windows Ivan broke, the wallet in the ditch which brought him a heaven-sent fifty-krone reward, the magnetic, nipple-shaped doorbell on the front door of Anne Beate Corneliussen’s building. He sauntered along, wishing to prolong the poignant aspect of the moment. There was a strange mood in the air too. It felt as though there was no longer anyone living in the houses he passed. Even the shops looked deserted. It was an exceptionally dull day. Damp. The last leaves had fallen from the trees. The ground was covered with an indeterminate gunge, as if after an incredibly drunken party. The blocks of flats and the shopping center reminded him of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union. The whole of life seemed suddenly drab and dreary. And yet—in spite of all this—he felt hopeful. As if he knew that behind all the greyness lay something else, something surprising. Something is about to happen, he told himself.
Kjaerstad is a gifted writer, and even if it takes a year to work your way through all three books, it’s totally worth it.