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Jan Kjærstad [Sort of the Open Letter Author of the Month]

Prior to the start of July, my plan was to highlight Jan Kjæstad, author of the “Jonas Wergeland Trilogy” about a famous TV director who is jailed for murdering his wife. The three books present three different histories of Wergeland’s life, which is interesting enough, but what’s really great is how each one employs a different form in telling the story. The Seducer is set up like a fugue, with the levels of the story regressing into the past, regressing again and again, then rising back up to the major “key” of the present. The Conqueror is a sort of mosaic-spiral, revisiting particular scenes in a repetitive way that is broader and bigger each time around. The Discoverer is . . . shit. I can’t remember now. We published this in 2009 (by arrangement with Arcadia Books who, are no longer around?) and I am old. I think it had something to do with twinned-narratives, but what I really remember is the devastatingly bad review in the New York Times. (There are some things you never forget.)

That’s about where this idea of promoting Kjærstad starts to get awkward . . . See, we only published the last two volumes of the trilogy: Overlook did the first, which still appears to be in print in some form. AND we did both of ours in paper-over-board/caseback/hardcover sans dust jacket, and never had the ebook rights. (Which is so 2009 that it makes me gag.)

Anyway, we have nothing to discount for you.

I do want to encourage you to read Kjæstad though, and will post a few things from him this month regardless, starting with this very special post from Norvik!

As it turns out, after seeing my first post for Norway Month (the big data dump), they contacted me about a couple of their forthcoming books—including a new title by Jan Kjæstad!

First off, if you don’t know Norvik, here’s a bit that they wrote as a way of introduction:

Norvik Press is a small publishing house specialising in high-quality English translations of Scandinavian literature. We mainly publish translations of classics and contemporary literary fiction. Our publication list consists of some of Scandinavia’s most influential and renowned authors, like August Strindberg, Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf and Vigdis Hjorth—whose A House in Norway is a PEN Award winner and nominated for the Dublin Literary Award 2019. Berge, by Jan Kjærstad, will be published autumn 2019.

(Spoiler alert: I’m planning on covering the Vigdis Hjorth book that’s forthcoming from Verso later in the month.)

And here’s the description of Berge:

One August day in 2008 the Norwegian Labour Party’s most colourful MP, Arve Storefjeld, is discovered in a remote cabin in the country, together with four of his family and friends, all with their throats slit. This unprecedented crime in the peaceful backwater of Norway sends shudders through the national psyche, as the search for the perpetrators begins and people have to adjust to the terrifying thought: it can happen here too.

The rapidly unfolding events are narrated from the stand-points of three observers who in different ways become drawn in to the investigation: Ine Wang, a young journalist who has just finished a biography of Storefjeld and realises that the tragedy has presented her with an irresistible scoop; Peter Malm, a judge whose ideal of a quiet contemplative life away from public scrutiny is turned upside-down by his unwilling involvement in the case; and Nicolai Berge, a former boyfriend of one of the victims, who emerges as the main suspect and a focus for the public demand for catharsis.

Published six years after the trauma of 22 July 2011, when 77 Norwegians were killed in a one-man assault on the government offices in Oslo and a Young Labour camp on the island of Utøya, Jan Kjærstad’s novel explores the vulnerabilities of modern life and the terrifying unpredictability of acts of terror.

*

 Berge

Jan Kjærstad

Excerpt translated by Janet Garton

Published by Norvik Press

 

Apparently it was a crime beyond all comprehension. A hiker had rung the papers. Several people had been killed in a cabin in the wilderness of Nordmarka, way off the beaten track. Slaughtered, according to the tip-off. In a bestial way. Amongst the dead were well-known people, it was said. Extremely well-known.

Terrorism, flashes through my mind. Finally it has arrived here too.

I’m standing here with my mobile phone in my hand. Trembling. Was this to be my lucky day after all?

I’m shocked at the thought, try to stop it, but it won’t be stopped, I feel a kick, because I’m at a low point, not just in my life, but here too, stranded on an island. I’ve been feeling out of place for a long time, standing here dressed up and sweaty, watching young couples running around in the sand in just their underwear, I can see that the party is already beginning to degenerate, I read the long text message again, just to make sure that I haven’t read it wrong, and let my mobile slip back into my bag, like a weapon into its holster, I think, as Marie waves and points, I have to come down and sit on the rug, she pulls comic faces, I smile and indicate that I’m fine just here, raise my glass, at the same time as I conceal a grimace of contempt and regret that I could be so stupid as to accept this wedding invitation, on Hovedøya in the Oslo fjord of all places, the bridal couple in white, the guests in white, even I’m in white as the invitation demanded; and they were in luck, the weather on this late August day made you long for a parasol, and everything was so unbearably romantic, with the wedding ceremony in the monastery ruins and everything, the word of God and birdsong and tears of joy, a cool female, presumably Lesbian, vicar, lots of hot air, solemn, far-too-solemn words about love, the greatest of all and la-di-da, doggerel, doggerel, but just the tiniest bit moving; it was just as much a Celtic ritual, a dash of Tolkien, surrounded by tall leafy trees, the flock of people in white amidst all the shimmering green, poetry reading, kissing, unrestrained kissing, champagne in plastic glasses, masses of champagne, the vicar too drank the champagne greedily, and I was surrounded by shouted conversations which became even more meaningless as they all got mixed up together. ‘Skål for the newly-weds,’ I hollered, just to be a part of it, people began to stumble on the stone steps of the ruins, screaming with laughter, I should never have come, Marie was a much younger colleague from the paper, murdered, and she was pregnant as well, she had admitted, in a bestial way, I felt like an old woman alongside Marie’s contemporaries, to hell with them, lucky bastards, and everything was so strenuously informal and improvised and abandoned, we were hippies in 2008, forty years too late, of course there was not to be any stiff wedding lunch, it was a picnic, many dead, they’d brought rugs and baskets, occupied the meadow sloping down towards the northern beach, the one facing Lindøya, and they spread it all out with shrimps, French bread, lemons, salad, wine from cooler bags, some people lit grills in the designated areas, so that an aroma of grilled meat, mixed with the smell of grilled lobster, soon lay over the rocks and the hill up towards the forest, and we had an orgy of food, we drank, we toasted, spontaneous speeches were made, one platitude after the other, of course people had brought guitars, there was singing, raucous singing, ‘All you need is love’, to hell with them, lucky bastards, all these shamelessly young attractive people with their lives ahead of them, well-known people; some danced, some smoked, and it wasn’t just ordinary cigarettes, there was indiscriminate kissing, there was indiscriminate petting, several couples disappeared into the forest, giggling, soon they’ll be skinny-dipping, I think as I watch, I recognise the atmosphere, fifteen years ago I would have gone skinny-dipping myself, now I’m just depressed by all this happiness, genuine happiness, I grudgingly admit, whilst I search for an excuse to be able to sneak off home.

That’s why I see the text from Ulrik as a life-line, a chance to get out of here. These killings. Many people murdered in the forest. I catch the scent of something, the scent of a heaven-sent opportunity. Who would have thought that on one of the loveliest of late summer days . . . In town no-one knew that in the forest not far away . . . Sooner or later it had to happen here too . . .

I can feel it. A current of air. Something is happening. Everything is changing.

I turn away, no-one takes any notice, I find the steep path up towards the westerly canon emplacement, the high point with a view towards Bygdøy, towards the Fram and Kon-Tiki museums, towards the town and the looming hill to the north. What has happened in the spruce forest behind it? In a bestial way.

The yells from the beach below get louder and louder. I catch a glimpse of Marie, whirling round and round like a Dervish. Shouldn’t she be a bit more careful? My gloominess returns. Where did this melancholy come from? Is it the awareness that Heggholmen is just nearby—Heggholmen, where I met Martin one tropical Midsummer Eve at the beginning of the nineties? I was far from feeling out of place at that party, a bacchanal which was held in a large outbuilding decorated with leafy branches, just next to some summer cabins near the water. There we had garlands of flowers in our hair, paper lanterns under the roof, parma ham and melon, a whole roast lamb, bowls of strawberries, barrels of wine, two acoustic guitars and everyone singing—when I think about it, it was not very different from the wedding celebrations I am just now running away from. The difference was Martin. And that I was young, younger, in the middle of my journalism course, Martin had just finished and got a job on a paper, I was uncertain, wondering whether I should drop out of my studies and do something else, but Martin urged me to go through with it, said it was the world’s most important profession, we were the fourth estate, for Christ’s sake, he was glowing with eagerness, pushed a strawberry between my lips, I had nothing against creeping into the bushes, kissing, felt just as carefree, just as crazy, as the wedding guests I can see on the beach below me; there was something about Martin’s eyes, a look that struck sparks, I didn’t feel horny, just switched on when I looked into them, and later in the evening we were shown around an artist’s place on the southern point of the island, and were given more wine, an exclusive wine, in a studio down by the water’s edge, and we sat there drinking amongst extraordinary paintings and sculptures, and I was the finest work of art in the place, whispered Martin, and we had swum, we had swum naked, that first evening we met, we had kissed, we had done everything you do when you meet on a warm Midsummer Eve by the fjord and fall in love at once. I wasn’t drunk, I was switched on.

I feel it flare up. Long ago. Lost.

Slaughtered?

I ring the paper and get through to Jakob who is holding the fort this Saturday, he doesn’t know much more, but there are blue lights, he says, top priority, he says, people are on their way there now. ‘Where?’ I ask. ‘Blankvann, not too far from the Kobberhaug hostel,’ he says. Bloody hell, could that be right? I’d gone skiing there on the way to the Kikut viewpoint together with Martin. Sodding Martin. ‘According to what we’ve picked up from the police, the tip-off is right,’ says Jakob. ‘Someone found the bodies this afternoon.’ ‘How many?’ I ask. ‘Five,’ he says. ‘Perhaps more.’

My eyes follow a wedding guest as he strips off his shirt before helping himself to grilled lobster. I feel groggy, and it’s not from the champagne, the wine or the smell of burnt meat. ‘Terrorism?’ I ask. ‘It looks that way,’ says Jakob. ‘Five dead?’ I repeat. ‘Yes, at least, they say it’s a hell of a mess,’ he says. ‘Who?’ I ask. ‘Don’t know,’ he says, and his voice is different from normal. ‘I think it’s something sensational,’ he says. ‘Something we’ve never seen before.’

Again a shudder goes through me, and not because I’m scared. For a long time I’ve had a feeling that nothing is happening. Or that the same thing is happening over and over. Not just in my life, but in Norway. It’s not an undiluted blessing for a journalist, living in a prosperous society where no-one gets passionate about anything, with such a damned limited range of events. But now. Something is happening. Something different. On Sunday morning a peaceful country awoke to the news that . . .

Holmenkollen hill looks strangely dark in the fine weather. To the right of the masts is the tower of Tryvannstårnet—like a rocket no-one’s ever managed to fire. And behind that. Seven to eight kilometres into the forest. At least five dead. Suddenly it looks as if the ridge of the hill is holding back a dark evil behind.

I can’t stand any more, I must get home, I don’t know whether it’s because of the news, the agitation I feel, or whether it’s because the guests on the beach have all stood up and are singing ‘Love Is All Around’ with their glasses raised, accompanied by guitars, actually quite tunefully, actually not a little movingly, and I feel sad, melancholy, without quite understanding why I feel sad and melancholy. Martin, it’s all to do with Martin. I send a text to the bride – the pregnant bride – who most likely won‘t glance at her mobile till the next day, before I leave the bastion and stroll past the monastery ruins and onwards down to the quay, where I stand waiting for the little ferry; it’s just me and a few remaining bathers, no-one else from the wedding, they’ve booked a special boat so that they can continue partying in town. I try to keep my eyes on the ferry dock at Aker Brygge, but my glance is drawn inescapably upwards until it rests again on the ridges of Holmenkollen and Vettakollen, blue-black in the near darkness, as if I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of something further in, behind. Bestial? Have they been shot, hanged, dismembered? As I walk on board the ferry it seems that the evening sky has an apocalyptic gleam.

Is this such a day? Is this one of those days which will give rise to an oft-repeated question: where were you on 23 August 2008?



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