Dalkey Archive and Graywolf Press [Norway Month]
I initially had some fun ideas for this post—mostly trying to work in my theory of the “2019 Sad Dad Movement” and Elisabeth Åsbrink’s forthcoming Made in Sweden, the pitch for which is “How the Swedes are not nearly so egalitarian, tolerant, hospitable or cozy and they would like to (have you) think”—but I think I’m going to play it (a bit) more straight and just break down some of the findings from my “big data dump” post.
One of the more interesting observations about Norwegian fiction in translation is that, despite the significant number of crime novels published mostly by Big Five presses, the top two publishers of Norwegian lit since 2008 are Dalkey Archive (16 titles) and Graywolf Press (12). Two nonprofits, one whose meteoric rise over the past decade-and-a-half can be partially (if not mostly) attributed to the enormous success of a little Norwegian author named Per Petterson, the other responsible for a significant number of books by Jon Fosse, a potential Nobel Prize winner.
There were two things that stood out the most to me when I looked into Dalkey and Graywolf though, one of which will probably surprise you:
1) Of Dalkey’s 16 titles, 5 are by Stig Sæterbakken and 5 by Jon Fosse. 62.5% of their Norwegian books are from just two authors.
2) 100% of Graywolf’s Norwegian books (in the Translation Database) are by men.
You can see here where my “sad dad” idea was coming from . . . Especially when you read some of the descriptions of these books:
Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken (trans. by Seán Kinsella)
Dentist Karl Meyer’s worst nightmare comes true when his son, Ole-Jakob, takes his own life. This tragedy is the springboard for a complex novel posing essential questions about human experience: What does sorrow do to a person? How can one live with the pain of unbearable loss? How far can a man be driven by the grief and despair surrounding the death of his child? A dark and harrowing story, drawing on elements from dreams, fairy tales, and horror stories, the better to explore the mysterious depths of sorrow and love, Through the Night is Stig Sæterbakken at his best.
Self-Control by Stig Sæterbakken (trans. by Seán Kinsella)
The second volume in Stig Sæterbakken’s loosely connected “S Trilogy,” Self-Control moves from the dark portrait of codependent marriage featured in the acclaimed Siamese to a world of solitary loneliness and repression. A middle-aged man, Andreas Feldt, feeling that he is unable to communicate with his adult daughter over the course of a friendly lunch, announces on an inexplicable whim that he is going to get a divorce. Though his daughter is initially shocked, she quickly assimilates this information and all returns to normal. Faced with this virtual invisibility—for no matter what actions he takes, the world seems to take no notice—Andreas is cut adrift from the certainties of his life and forced to navigate through a society where it seems virtually everyone is only one loss of self-control away from an explosion of dissatisfaction and rage.
I Curse the River of Timeby Per Petterson (trans. by Charlotte Barslund)
1989: Communism is crumbling, and Arvid Jansen, 37, is facing his first divorce. At the same time, his mother gets diagnosed with cancer. Over a few intense autumn days, we follow Arvid as he struggles to find a new footing in his life, while all the established patterns around him are changing at staggering speed. I Curse the River of Time is an honest, heartbreaking yet humorous portrayal of a complicated mother-son relationship told in Petterson’s precise and beautiful prose.
Encircling by Carl Frode Tiller (trans. by Barbara Haveland)
David has lost his memory. When he places a newspaper ad to ask his friends and family to share their memories of him, three respond: Jon, his closest friend; Silje, his teenage girlfriend; and Arvid, his estranged stepfather. Their letters reveal David’s early life in the small town of Namsos, full of teenage rebellion, the uncertainties of first love, and intense experiments in art and music.
As the narrative circles ever closer to David, the letters interweave with scenes from the present day, and it becomes less and less clear what to believe. Jon’s and Silje’s adult lives have run aground on thwarted ambition and failed intimacy, and Arvid has had a lonely struggle with cancer. Each has suspect motives for writing, and soon a contradictory picture of David emerges. Whose remembrance of him is right? Or do they all hold some fragment of the truth?
Morning and Evening by Jon Fosse (trans. by Damion Searls)
A child who will be named Johannes is born. An old man named Johannes dies. Between these two points, Jon Fosse gives us the details of an entire life, starkly compressed. Beginning with Johannes’s father’s thoughts as his wife goes into labor, and ending with Johannes’s own thoughts as he embarks upon a day in his life when everything is exactly the same, yet totally different, Morning and Evening is a novel concerning the beautiful dream that our lives have meaning.
The “beautiful dream that our lives have meaning” . . . I don’t think I could’ve found a better line to end that exercise on.
That’s not to say that these books aren’t good. I’ve been looking forward to reading the Sæterbakken for a while (more on that below), and Fosse is really good (if not sometimes a bit heavy with the emotions and the slowness), and everyone loves Per Petterson. It’s just, as I was reading Sæterbakken’s Invisible Hands—a dark thriller of sorts involving a girl who goes missing and a run-of-the-mill male detective who makes an emotional mess of things checking into the case a year after her disappearance—I was struck by just how male some of books I had assigned myself for July appeared. Not just male in the “written by a man” way, but in the sort of self-serious, “important literature” way as well.
Again, this isn’t to disparage these books—Invisible Hands is quite good, and I more or less devoured it—it’s just an observation about which type of books are making their way out of Norway. This is partially why we’re doing Monsterhuman by Kjersti Skomsvold. Not only is she one of the very few Norwegian female writers to have more than one book published in the U.S. (22 Norwegian male writers have 2+ books available in translation compared to only 8 women), but this is a big, baggy book. The sort that tend to be overlooked when they’re written by women, and heralded when they come from men.
(Again, again, I’m not saying big books by men are bad. I LOVE THEM. See: The Invented Part, my Pynchon obsession, JR, the Sergio de la Pava books, etc. and etc.)
One more comment on this, then I’ll let it drop: There’s something in the “Sad Dad” tone of these books that bums me out. Not in the obvious sad-dad ways (time passes, people die, does life have meaning?, all those tropes that exist in hundred of books written by Serious Men over the past thousands of years), but in the “is there actually a market for these” sort of way. I sort of had that feeling reading Dag Solstad’s T Singer as well.
T Singer begins with thirty-four-year-old Singer graduating from library school and traveling by train from Oslo to the small town of Notodden, located in the mountainous Telemark region of Norway. There he plans to begin a deliberately anonymous life as a librarian. But Singer unexpectedly falls in love with the ceramicist Merete Saethre, who has a young daughter from a previous relationship. After a few years together, the couple is on the verge of separating, when a car accident prompts a dramatic change in Singer’s life.
The narrator of the novel specifically states that this is not a happy story, yet, as in all of Dag Solstad’s works, the prose is marked by an unforgettable combination of humor and darkness. Overall, T Singer marks a departure more explicitly existential than any of Solstad’s previous works.
Although I quite like this—because it’s bleak, because existentialism, because nothing has to happen for a book to be interesting—I totally understand why my students found it “boring.” It’s not a book for twenty-something women. Which is kind of my point—it feels like the market has shifted so far away from this type of book.
I have to admit, that’s just a feeling I have based on things like Twitter (which I’m avoiding as much as possible to eliminate the possibility of becoming a “Sad Dad” tweeter) and various “best of” lists. And general buzz, I suppose.
There are two reasons for this that come to mind and neither of which will surprise you:
1.) Because we’re at a point in time in which the “old white male” narrative feels bankrupt and other voices (women, LGBTQI+, people of color, etc.) feel, and largely ate, more pressing and relevant.
2.) There aren’t a lot of white dudes reading traditional white dude literature.
Sticking with point 2: There are some, there will always be some, yet although I do believe these books should be published and their readers (myself included) should have access to great works of literature in this vein, well, despite all of that, I don’t think there are many of us out there. It doesn’t feel impossible that there’s been a shift and this particular demographic of literary readers is shrinking.
These observations are as obvious and banal as anything I’ve ever written, but aside from poking jokes at Peak Sad Dad Twitter, I’m not sure there’s a more relevant way to build up to saying at least a few things about Stig Sæterbakken’s Invisible Hands (trans. by Seán Kinsella).
As I mentioned above, this is a mystery/thriller. A young girl suddenly vanishes, the case goes nowhere, really, for a year, so Inspector Kristian Wold is told to give all the evidence one last pass and close it for good. No one wants him to spend much time on this task (except for the mother of the missing girl), but, well, he sort of does.
Which brings me back to the male voice/Sad Dad bit. I don’t think people who read a lot of detective novels would be all for this—there are no real clues for you to puzzle out ahead of time, the pacing is slow AF, not a lot of high tension/cinematic scenes, all things I assume that readers of these books are accustomed to, although maybe I’m wrong?—but it is well-crafted, written with a directness that can be very appealing when done by someone good, not just adequate. There is a resolution to the mystery, although not the book itself—or not with 100% precision anyway—which is thought-provoking in the way that it forces you to build a final narrative explanation for the ending.
All that: good. It’s a good book. Probably a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes sort of book. (Or “Positive” on BookMarks, which I suppose is the more appropriate—although less numerical, and thus less trust-inspiring?—reference.) But, it has a lot of those “male voice” aspects I was going on and on about above. Here are a few:
1.) Wold is more or less immediately attracted to the missing girl’s mom.
2.) The implied explanation for why he starts banging said mom is because his wife is “crazy” (aka has a lot of migraines) and quite good at the nagging (she texts a lot). Oh, and she “badgers” him about how he’s probably banging the missing girl’s mom already. So why not?
3.) When their affair is found out, he’s suspended and she cuts things off. This drives him—almost immediately—to the point of becoming basically a stalker.
4.) At one point they find a body of a young girl, and the mom starts to believe . . . When it turns out to not her daughter, she loses her shit, and Wold has some resentment toward her for pulling back from him, due to the missing daughter “getting in between us.” (Paraphrasing there. I think.)
5.) When he actually does find the daughter (SPOILER ALERT), he does something that “resolves” that problem so that he can be with the mom again. Which creates a troublesome narrative resolution.
Now, here are a few things I want to say to walk a lot of that back, and maybe one or all of them will surprise you?:
1.) All of those things above double as noir tropes.
2.) If I had framed this post as a way of looking at books that rework noir tropes in interesting ways (the noir becomes the rails of the story, but not the engine), then I could have used all of those as examples of things he’s playing off in the novel.
3.) The very lackadaisical pace of the book could be a commentary on the traditional noir in which I think (god I feel out of my depth with these generalizations) the detective is portrayed as being more driven, questioning, engaging, figuring shit out, whereas his foils are the ones that are lackadaisical and not direct, not forthcoming.
4.) As could the idea that he gets with the “femme fatale” (not exactly a typical femme fatale, but I’m going to stretch this metaphor for at least one more point) and maybe—MAYBE—kills her daughter to be with her is a reversal of the traditional structure in which the femme fatale fatally fucks the fellow’s life. (According to Wikipedia, “one of the most common traits of the femme fatale includes promiscuity and the “rejection of motherhood” playing right toward my reading of this as an anti-noir.)
5.) That said, Wold does make all his moral comprises for the girl . . .
Given that this has devolved into a post of lists, let’s finish with one that undercuts everything as much as possible, but is as close to a syllogism of criticism as I can muster at this moment:
1.) I chose to frame this piece in one way (A: Sad Dad) instead of another (B: Anti-Noir).
2.) Both viewpoints are 100% valid, although if you’re approaching books from a social good side, A works 1000% better than if you’re only interested in writing as art as game as intellectual stimulation as divorced from real reality, for which B is interesting.
3.) That said, the very concept of the B approach existing makes me think that there are works of art (which sounds pretentious as fuck in a way that it didn’t in 2010) which require some unpacking to be appreciated.
4.) I almost completely changed my mind about this by forcing myself to think about the things I didn’t like about it.
5.) I’m not sure what significance that actually has.
6.) It’s July: Time to sprinkle in a few books that are simply fun. I’ll never stop reading all the books listed above, but I’ll never only read only them.