"Unshaven and Often Drunk" [BTBA]

I know the BTBA announcements will be taking place tomorrow morning, but we have one last preview post for you. This is from judge Mark Haber, who works at Brazos Bookstore in Houston—one of the best stores in the country. Enjoy and tune in tomorrow to find out what made the longlists!

If you’ve ever had your heart broken nothing has to be said, it’s understood. A psychic anguish and soul-crushing plague that seemingly has no end. The earth seems to slow, every joke is at your expense; it’s like the flu of your emotions. Well, Norwegian author, Tomas Espedal, wants you to know that he’s had his heart broken too. Toward the end of his novel Against Nature, a much younger girlfriend has left the home they shared and moved to Oslo. The protagonist (ostensibly Espedal himself) walks the house, unshaven and often drunk, reminiscing, brooding, attempting to write, seeing in each empty room the emptiness of his own existence. It is one of the closest examinations of a broken heart I’ve ever read, equal parts painful and beautiful.

Espedal was a new name for me until a fellow juror raved about Against Nature, published by Seagull Books and a companion to an earlier volume, Against Art. Both books were translated by James Anderson and based on Against Nature, Anderson is an incredible translator. The language is crisp and lucid, with passages that beg to be reread and underlined and read aloud.

Like fellow Norwegian contemporary Karl Knausgård, Espedal’s novel blurs the line between memoir and fiction, between narrative and navel gazing. In style, however, there couldn’t be more of a difference; Espedal eschews the pages upon pages of exposition and daily minutiae that Knausgaard has mastered; Espedal has a minimalist approach that often borders on poetry (although the comparisons to Knausgård are inevitable, neither should suffer for both have plenty of their own to offer).

Against Nature jumps between periods of time, from the narrator’s youth working in a factory (where his father also works) to a doomed marriage and the daughter from that union. His life, he seems to be saying, goes against nature, from an unhappy marriage to falling in love for the first time at age 48 to a woman half his age, nothing he does agrees with the way things should be. At one point the young parents go to Nicaragua (she’s an actor and planning to take part in a touring acting troupe) and amidst their turbulent marriage a coup occurs, certainly a symbol of their own state of affairs; the couple and their child quickly abscond to Europe. No one, it seems, has a plan. There are bursts of time that pass and not given much attention, only for the lens to slow and a sudden myopic attention attended to relationships, states of mind and nature. Yet, between all the jumping back and forth, a life is formed and examined. Deaths occur, plans dissolve, marriages end.

Espedal is a deadly serious writer and treats his craft with that gravity. Toward the end of the novel, during his lowest ebb, he still writes every day and explains his maxim:

I attempt to write as quickly and directly as possible, without worrying whether it’s bad or good, without correcting or deleting, without troubling about whether it will be read; and it’s here I achieve a vital freedom, I can write whatever I want.

One of the joys of novels is there are no rules. A story can be told in an endless variety of ways, indeed, in as many ways as the human imagination allows. Tomas Espedal proves this case with ease. Gorgeous, profound and exquisitely translated, Against Nature has made me an Espedal devotee and I will seek every book that carries his name.

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Tomas Espedal claims he became a writer in order to know his mother, a voracious reader, better. For anyone interested, this short clip is an incredible glimpse at his inspiration for becoming a writer.

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