13 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and published by Archipelago Books

This post is written by Trevor Berrett who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes, where readers from around the world are discussing all of the books from this year’s longlist in this forum. Definitely the best place to share your thoughts on this year’s longlist.

With My Struggle: Book One, Karl Ove Knausgaard began a six-volume (3,600 page) novel/autobiography in an attempt to exhaust everything at the age of forty. He knew it had to be long. He also knew he’d have to write it fast. So, at a rate of 5 to 20 pages per day, Knausgaard wrote these books over the course of about five years, moving at a headlong pace that purposefully outran any ideas of censorship or style. What makes such a long and seemingly self-indulgent experimental book worth reading and why should it win the Best Translated Book Award? Well, despite the fact that Knausgaard wrote at a breakneck pace, or perhaps because of this, the book is beautiful and direct as it weaves together thoughts and surroundings from various times in Knausgaard’s first four decades, all with immediacy. We get a strong sense of his urgency and are taken away. Knausgaard is working out his struggle, he’s opened it up for us to see, and by bringing us up close he allows us to feel the heat and energy or to stare in silence.

In the United Kingdom, the book was published as A Death in the Family, and indeed throughout the book we delve into death again and again. But it is about more than death. It’s about this life, about relationships, about the passage of time, about trying to find some kind of meaning in it all, about trying to be happy when everything seems to be going well but you still feel sad.

It does this by going through seemingly ordinary days in great detail. Often, the details and memories are banal. But even the banality of it all fits and is necessary for the book to have the effect it does. We do not see that which we see all the time, Knausgaard suggests. And most of the time it is in the banal that our lives are played out. That’s where we work out our feelings. This is shown well in the last 200 pages, around 70 of which are spent cleaning a home in preparation for the wake of Knausgaard’s despised father. How do we work through all of these conflicted feelings (he wanted his dad to die, “so why all these tears?”)? The answer: in the hours in which we clean, letting the thoughts come and go as they will.

In the end, this is a tremendously powerful and personal work of art. Yes, it is long and at times even tedious. Some of the detail is excessive and could be taken out. But I wouldn’t want it that way. To remove anything might disturb the balance, might make remove it even just a fraction of an inch. This is raw, and the struggle is beautiful. The tedium is meaningful—it may hold the most meaning of all: “Why should you live in a world without feeling its weight? Were we just images?”

16 October 12 | JT Mahany | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and published by Graywolf Press.

This is the fifth book of Petterson’s to be published in English translation, the most famous being Out Stealing Horses, which won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was named a Best Book of 2007 by the New York Times and many other publications.

Here’s the opening of Larissa’s review:

On an early morning in Oslo in 1970, Arvid Jansen shimmies up his high school flagpole and replaces his nation’s flag with that of the Viet Cong. Confronted by the headmaster in front of his classmates, Arvid takes the opportunity to expound on the evils of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and Norway’s complicit foreign policy, all the time being observed from a far corner by his good friend Audun Sletten. “I guess it’s all very important,” Audun shrugs, “but I am up to my neck in my own troubles, and it almost makes me want to throw up.”

Frequent readers of Per Petterson have by now come to know Arvid Jansen rather well. In typical Petterson fashion, Arvid’s life has been examined in alternating atemporal versions set forth in In the Wake and, most recently, in the masterful I Curse the River of Time. Arvid is often the vehicle through which the author explores and recasts episodes of his own past—“[h]e’s not my alter ego, he’s my stunt man,” Petterson stated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Vulnerable, self-absorbed, and made miserable by hindsight, Arvid is an incredibly sympathetic character. If for no other reason than this, then, English readers should be delighted to now have access to one of Petterson’s early novels (first published in Norway in 1992): It’s Fine By Me.

To read the complete review, click here.

16 October 12 | JT Mahany | Comments

On an early morning in Oslo in 1970, Arvid Jansen shimmies up his high school flagpole and replaces his nation’s flag with that of the Viet Cong. Confronted by the headmaster in front of his classmates, Arvid takes the opportunity to expound on the evils of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and Norway’s complicit foreign policy, all the time being observed from a far corner by his good friend Audun Sletten. “I guess it’s all very important,” Audun shrugs, “but I am up to my neck in my own troubles, and it almost makes me want to throw up.”

Frequent readers of Per Petterson have by now come to know Arvid Jansen rather well. In typical Petterson fashion, Arvid’s life has been examined in alternating atemporal versions set forth in In the Wake and, most recently, in the masterful I Curse the River of Time. Arvid is often the vehicle through which the author explores and recasts episodes of his own past—“[h]e’s not my alter ego, he’s my stunt man,” Petterson stated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Vulnerable, self-absorbed, and made miserable by hindsight, Arvid is an incredibly sympathetic character. If for no other reason than this, then, English readers should be delighted to now have access to one of Petterson’s early novels (first published in Norway in 1992): It’s Fine By Me.

Arvid is a prominent character in the novel, but it isn’t his story. Rather, it’s that of his troubled friend Audun, a young man who, with his “real problems”—a violent and drunken father who is, luckily, often absent; a beloved but drug-addicted younger brother, killed in a car accident; a lonely single mother struggling to support her children; and numbing jobs with long hours and little respect—is the actual embodiment of the working class hero that Arvid has so frequently wished to be. But as seen through Audun’s eyes, there’s nothing in the least romantic about his situation in life.

“It’s fine by me,” (reminiscent of Elliot Gould’s own cynical chorus of “It’s okay with me,” in Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye) is Auden’s go-to retort, forced in its apathy when pretty much everything that he remarks on is anything but. In fact, Audun cares a great deal about what happens around him—cares about his sister who he thinks may be in an abusive relationship, cares about a neighbor whose brother is getting into drugs, cares about Arvid and his family, cares about doing well in school, and literature, and Jimi Hendrix, and woodsy hideouts where he felt safe as a child. But isolating himself and not caring—or at least giving the appearance of not caring—is far easier and exposes him less.

Although there actually is quite a lot in the way of plot happenings, It’s Fine By Me is a rather familiar, somewhat anticlimactic coming-of-age narrative where the ‘what’ matters far less than the ‘how.’ This is by no means Petterson’s strongest novel, nor should it really be expected to be—it was, after all, one of his first. But although the flashbacks and overlapping memories fold together less seamlessly than in other Petterson novels, although the emotional pitch is generally less subtle (lots of capital letter exclamations when people are angry), and the visual metaphors more overdetermined (a beautiful runaway horse, turning just before it knocks over young Audun and Arvid), the novel is still compelling, and sometimes even quite funny. (A scene in which Audun and Arvid have to figure out how to put gas in Arvid’s father’s car is particularly delightful.) Petterson’s characterizations are always both sharp and empathetic, his prose measured, poetic, and visual. One feels connected to Audun—truly concerned for him—and yet, due entirely to Petterson’s writerly sleights of hand, the reader can distinguish between what has become entirely compressed and unified in Auden’s mind: run-of-the-mill teenage angst and real, emotional (and physical) trauma.

Through it all, Petterson allows for a quiet hopefulness, the possibility a better future for Audun. There is resonance in the clichéd assurances of a sympathetic neighbor: “You’re not eighteen all your life,” he tells Audun. “That may not be much of a consolation, but take a hint from someone who’s outside looking in: you’ll get through this.”

27 August 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s Shelf Awareness is basically one long love-letter to Norwegian author Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses) and his U.S. publisher Graywolf celebrating the release of Petterson’s new novel, It’s Fine By Me, which is translated by Don Bartlett and available in better bookstores everywhere on October 2nd. (Phew.)

Here’s a bit about the book itself:

In 1965, on 13-year-old Audun Sletten’s first day at Veitvet School, the headmaster asks him to remove his sunglasses. Audun simply and firmly demurs, “I have scars.” When pressed, he adds, “They’re so goddamn terrible.” Though he is lying and has no physical scars, he has also told a deeper truth. Audun carries his scars inside, and he has no intention of revealing the stories behind them. Over the next five years, Audun holds tightly to his secrets. No one is allowed to know of the abuse his drunken father inflicted on his family before disappearing; the tragic car accident that took the life of Audun’s delinquent younger brother, Egil; or his concern that his sister, Kari, has taken up with a layabout. Only his sister knows the most dangerous secret: Audun has seen their father on the streets of their town and lives in fear that he has come to terrorize the family again. Audun navigates a realm of specters unimaginable to his peers.

Even his best friend Arvid Jansen—the main character of Petterson’s previous novels In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time—finds Audun an enigma. Arvid especially cannot understand why Audun is considering dropping out of school. But despite his desire to become a writer, Audun worries that he doesn’t belong in school. He asks, “Did Jack London finish school . . . or anyone else worth reading?” Despite Arvid’s appalled reaction, as the narrative slides back and forth through Audun’s teen years and the occasional childhood memory, Audun feels increasingly out of place in secondary school and unable to relate to his peers, admitting that without Arvid, he would “feel naked and cold and lost in this world.” From seventh grade through his employment as a worker in a printing factory at age 18, Audun uses a refrain of “It’s fine by me” to disguise his perturbation at the misfortunes of his life and the unfeeling actions of others, even from himself.

Out Stealing Horses was a huge success, and I suspect that this book will do really well with indie booksellers and literary readers as well. In addition to info about the book itself, Shelf Awareness included a short interview with Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae:

How does the process of selecting a translator work?

In the case of Per, the U.K. publishers make the selection. I think all of us who work in the field of translation go by reputation and trust. If we have worked well with someone, we look to repeat the experience. We get samples in advance to check that the translator has a good feel for the work, and then we often look at the work after a chunk has been translated, just to check for any repetitive glitches. We would rather read every language ourselves, but it is beyond us, so we rely on trusted readers and translators. It is quite exciting, waiting to read the first English draft of a book that we have signed up in a foreign language.

What is it like to work with an author who doesn’t write in English?

Foreign writers are mostly very excited to be published in America—it is an important market for them. Per Petterson has become quite close to Graywolf and has visited the States twice, so we have managed to spend quite a bit of time together. It is also very gratifying to connect with a foreign writer’s publishers across the world. In Per’s case, we had a dinner at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair and invited his publishers and editors from about six or seven different countries. We were all connected by our enthusiasm for this one writer.

Can we expect further Graywolf/Petterson collaborations?

I gather he is just finishing up a brand-new novel, which will be out in Norway later this year. We are also planning to publish an early collection of short stories and some essays. I have not read them in English yet, and I can’t wait.

29 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin

Language: Norwegian

Country: Norway
Publisher: Seven Stories Press

Why This Book Should Win: Reasons 1-5 listed below.

_Today’s post is by Larissa Kyzer, a regular reviewer for Three Percent and L Magazine. She has an interest in all things Scandinavian, which is one reason why it makes sense that she’d be writing about this book.

When we meet 29-year-old Mattias, the narrator of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, he is happy and satisfied with his life. He loves his girlfriend, Helle, who he has dated for twelve years. He loves his job as a gardener at a local nursery—so much that he often comes in early to just sit in the quiet of the garden alone. Idolizing Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Mattias only wants to “be a smooth running cog in the world. To do the right thing. Nothing more.” Instead of seeking recognition for his talents (he’s a wonderful singer, for instance) or trying to distinguish himself in an impressive career, Mattias instead hopes to blend into the background, “to vanish into the commotion out there, to be number two, a person who made himself useful instead of trying to stand out, who did the job he was asked to do.”

The simplicity of Mattias’ world is upended in short order, however, when Helle leaves him for another man (someone who “wanted to be seen in the world”), and he loses his job at the now-bankrupt nursery. Depressed and hopeless, he follows his friend’s band to a music festival on the Faroe Islands. The next thing he remembers is waking up face down in the rain, in the middle of a dirt road in the Faroe countryside, with 15,000 kroner in his pocket.

Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? was, without a doubt, one of the best books I read last year. Won over almost immediately by just the title, I picked up the book on a whim and then spent the next few days delightedly underlining each wonderful sentence or clever bit of dialog until I realized that if I didn’t stop, I’d soon have underlined the whole book. As I read it, I talked about the book incessantly, reading bits aloud in bars, and generally recommending it to every third person I met on the street. The book is extremely well written, it’s funny, and it’s affecting without being trite. But as is so often the case with books that I’ve truly loved, it’s hard to go back and objectively critique it. What’s easier—and more fun—is to give you a short list of reasons that Buzz Aldrin is a fantastic book that you should go read now, and a great contender for this year’s BTBA:

1. It’s wonderfully written. Johan Harstad is an incredible prose stylist who pays particular attention to natural details. (All due credit to translator Deborah Dawkin that the language reads so fluidly.) Harstad has a knack for intermixing delightfully odd observations (“Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day.”) with fantastically long, melodic trains-of-thought which fully immerse you in Mattias’ perspective. The opening paragraph of the book has a great example of this:

I bend over the tulips, gloves on my feet, small pruning shears between my fingers, it’s extremely early, one April morning in 1999 and it’s beginning to grow warmer, I’ve noticed it recently, a certain something has begun to stir, I noticed it as I got out of the car this morning, in the gray light, as I opened the gates into the nursery, the air had grown softer, more rounded at the edges, I’d even considered changing out of my winter boots and putting my sneakers on.

2. The Faroe Island Setting: A write-up in Kirkus Reviews embarrassingly referred to Buzz Aldrin as “the long-awaited Great Faroese Novel,” by which they probably meant not to discredit the brilliant (and actually Faroese) novels by William Heinesen, but rather to point out that the Faroe Island setting is as much a character in this book as any of the people. As described by Harstad, the Faroese landscape is not only evocative and otherworldly, it also provides an important counterpoint for Mattias’ isolationist worldview. There are less than 50,000 people living on the Faroe Islands, so it’s impossible to blend into the background as Mattias would like. As he comes to realize, “ . . . for each person that died, there was one less inhabitant, one less person to meet on the road, one less person who spoke the same language.”

3. The Cardigans: Never has a book paid better homage to this Swedish pop band (you know you loved them, too). One of the book’s main characters listens exclusively to albums by The Cardigans because “. . . everything I need is in this band.” Also, each of the book’s four sections is named after a different Cardigans album. (Funnily enough, Harstad said in an interview that he isn’t really a big fan himself. “I chose the band because I couldn’t figure out who would love such a band.”)

4. The Cultural Collage: Harstad brings together a variety of historical and cultural reference points (beyond The Cardigans)—from Radiohead and Top Gun to the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, the start of Bosnian War, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Challenger space ship explosion—not just to prove his zeitgeisty prowess, but also to create a fully contextual background for his characters and their general sense of unease and displacement. The main action of the book takes place between the mid-eighties and late nineties—not so long ago, and yet, long enough to be able to reflect back now on what a unsettling couple of decades it was.

5. The Epic Thor Heyerdahl-esque Escape: Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer and anthropologist who sailed roughly 8,000 km from Peru to Polynesia on a homemade raft (the Kon-Tiki) in 1947. After a particularly unexpected plot development, Mattias and his companions make a similar voyage from The Faroe Islands to the Caribbean. It’s awesome.

27 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As noted on the Dalkey Archive website, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken took his own life this past Tuesday.

Sæterbakken was the author of the novels Incubus, The New Testament, Siamese, Self-Control, and Sauermugg (the latter three constituting the “S-trilogy”), and two collections of essays, Aesthetic Bliss and The Evil Eye.

Siamese was published by Dalkey a couple years back in Stokes Schwartz’s translation. It was reviewed in the New York Times by fellow Dalkey author Jim Krusoe (whose Iceland is most hysterical), who had this to say:

First published in 1997, “Siamese” is Saeterbakken’s third novel and the first of his “S” trilogy (because they all start with the letter S), and while the level of barrenness here is fairly stupendous, it seems also to be earned. Edwin, the co-narrator and the former director of an old-age home, has himself come to the end of his life. He is blind, paralyzed, incontinent, self-centered and stuffed with unpleasant opinions that he’s only too happy to share with us and with his wife, Sweetie, the other narrator.

Seated in a chair in a dark room of his apartment on an island of Orbit gum wrappers and dried gum (chewing Orbit is the one pleasure he has left other than torturing his wife), Edwin fulminates and decays. Sweetie comes and goes. There is rumored to be a servant. The building’s superintendent arrives at the start of the book to replace a fluorescent bulb (he also fixes the light in the fridge, gratis, and adjusts the freezer setting). He will return at the end to become a lodger. In between is the struggle between Edwin, fixed like a stone in his chair, and the fluid, ridiculously accommodating Sweetie. Each defines the other.

In other words, we are traveling here though the bleakest territory of Beckett, the haunted compulsions of Thomas Bernhard, the desperation of Saeterbakken’s countryman Knut Hamsun. But missing are Beckett’s closely reasoned wit, Bernhard’s rigor, even Hamsun’s frantic grasping. Instead, Saeterbakken holds up for our edification a nasty and petulant individual who never was all that much fun in the first place.

As it turns out, Kerri Pierce, a recent Rochester transplant and fellow Plübian who has translated five books for Dalkey, including Assisted Living by Nikanor Teratologen, which contains an afterword by Sæterbakken. Since Kerri was a friend of his, I asked her to write something up for us about his passing:

When I got the news that Stig Sæterbakken had committeed suicide, my first thought was—the world is a less interesting place. Although I never met Stig personally, I worked with him on a number of projects. He wrote the Foreword and Afterword to two works I had the joy of translating, Tor Ulvens Replacement and Nikanor Teratologen’s Assisted Living respectively. He was always ready to help if I had a question about a word or phrase and I, in turn, had occasion to help him when he needed someone to proofread a text in English. Over time, I came to consider him a colleague and a friend, as well as a brilliant writer in his own right. It’s strange to think that his last e-mail to me will be left unreturned.

For more information about Sæterbakken, check out this essay he wrote for Eurozone, this profile in Transcript, and this press release about his last book.

11 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In most of us there is the secret (or not so secret) desire for greatness, to be shortlisted for the Nobel or the Pulitzer, to be the answer to the freebie question on a 5th grade history exam. With the advent of YouTube, it seems any ten-year-old with a half-decent voice is on the fast track to virtual fame. Everyone wants their fifteen minutes, no matter how fleeting or ill-merited they are. Which is perhaps what makes the hero of Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin so refreshing and fascinating: He shies away from fame or recognition of any sort.

Harstad’s debut novel (the entire title of which is Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?) chronicles Mattias, an unassuming gardener with a stellar voice and no intention to make anything of it. His idol is Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, who has long gone unnoticed. So we follow this man who wishes not to be followed, tracing him through Harstad’s delectably light but nonetheless impactful prose.

After growing up under-the-radar in his native Stavanger, Mattias finds himself in the middle of a road in the Faroe Islands with a large wad of cash in his pocket. He is picked up by a man named Havstein, who runs a psychiatric half-way house. There, Mattias (recovering from a debilitating break-up) joins a quirky but lovable bunch who make wooden sheep to sell in tourist shops, get drunk and climb mountains, and listen to nothing but The Cardigans.

A large part of the novel takes place in the 90s, a time that, although it exists in recent memory, is now crossing into history. The timeframe allows Harstad to masterfully weave into the text issues of memory, identity, and permanence (especially for readers like this reviewer who grew up in that decade): Will I be remembered? Or, more critical to Mattias, will I remember the places and people I have left behind?

For someone who wants no lasting evidence of his existence, Mattias has a deeply vested interest in what he calls “Kodak moments”, or mental snapshots. Harstad aptly captures our desperation to hold on to moments, especially through digital preservation. In a particularly resounding passage, Mattias listens to The Cardigans over and over again, searching the audio tracks for anything to recall the presence of someone lost.

The novel is steeped in pop-culture: lava lamps, the moon landing, IKEA, H&M, etc. Despite the flood of these moments, objects, and places of cultural vitality, Harstad plaintively and subtly resolves that nothing can fully or even satisfactorily revive the past as we remember it.

Mattias has a peculiar fascination with the almost imperceptible changes of the universe. Every year the ocean rises four millimeters, as he constantly reminds us. From the opening sentence––“The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks”––to his nightmare of the ocean rising and sweeping him away, there lies the restless fear of the impermanent:

The microscopic cells that formed your face in the photograph your parents have hanging in their living room are gone, exchanged for others. You’re no longer who you were. But I am still here, the atoms may swap their places, but nobody can control the dance of the quarks. And the same applies to the people you love. With almost stationary velocity they crumble in your arms, and you wish you could cling onto something permanent in them, their skeleton, their teeth, brain cells, but you can’t, because almost everything is water, impossible to grasp.

The novel’s finest moments wrap you up in communion with Mattias, as if you are spending a quiet afternoon with an old friend, chatting but mostly thinking. Something makes you want the book, like its narrator, to slip quietly into the forgotten with the crunching of time, to be something that you managed to touch at one point but exists somewhere unattainably, contentedly.

8 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated by Charlotte Barslund and the author

Language: Norwegian
Country: Norway
Publisher: Graywolf
Pages: 224

Why This Book Should Win: Because it was written by Per Petterson, arguably one of Scandinavia’s finest living writers. The book has already won a slew of prizes. In Norway, it won the 2008 Critics’ Prize and the 2008 Brage Prize. And in 2009 it won the prestigious Nordic Council’s Literary Prize. Why not give it another one?

This post was written K.E. Semmel, a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, World Literature Today, Best European Fiction 2011, and elsewhere. His translation of Karin Fossum’s next novel will be published by Harvill Secker in the UK in 2011 and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US in 2012. And he’s a St. Louis Cardinals fan.

When Per Petterson burst onto the international literary scene in 2007 with his novel Out Stealing Horses, the English-speaking world got a glimpse of what readers in Scandinavia have known for quite a while: Petterson’s work is special. On the dust jacket for this new novel is a quote from Richard Ford: “Per Petterson is a profoundly gifted novelist.” That Ford is a fan of Petterson’s work can be no surprise to readers of each author. Like Ford’s narrators, particularly Frank Bascombe, the narrator of I Curse the River of Time, Arvid Jensen, is a self-reflective man whose story unfolds most powerfully as a kind of internal monologue.

This long passage, in a lively translation by veteran translator Charlotte Barslund, is an example of Petterson’s power as a reflectionist. With a few deftly chosen words he tells us a lot about Arvid Jensen:

And then I entered the hall and walked into the kitchen, the living room, where everything was as it had been for almost ten years, the same posters on the walls, the same rugs on the floor, the same goddamn red armchairs, and yet not like that at all, not like it was in the beginning, when there were just the two of us against the world, just she and I, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, there is just you and me, we said to each other, just you and me, we said. But something had happened, nothing hung together any more, all things had spaces, had distances between them, like satellites, attracted to and pushed away at the same instant, and it would take immense willpower to cross those spaces, those distances, much more than I had available, much more than I had courage to use. And nothing was like it had been inside the car either, driving through three or four districts in Romerike, in eastern Norway, east of Oslo. There the car was wrapped around me, but up here, in the flat, things fell out of focus and spun off to all sides. It was like a virus on the balance nerve. I close my eyes to true up the world, and then I heard the bathroom door open and her footsteps across the floor. I would have known them anywhere on earth, on any surface, and she stopped right in front of me. I could hear her breath, but not close enough to feel it on my face. She waited. I waited. In one of the bedrooms the girls were laughing out loud. There was something about her breath. It was never like that before. I kept my eyes closed, I squeezed them tightly shut. And then I heard her sigh.

“For Christ’s sake, Arvid,” she said. “Please stop that. It’s so childish.”

Much like Out Stealing Horses, I Curse The River of Time is a novel in which time itself takes on the role of a character, bending backward and forward. The novel interweaves three strands of time:

  • a youthful Arvid meeting the girl who would later become his wife versus a thirty-seven year old Arvid whose marriage is in tatters. The above passage comes at a time when Arvid’s marriage is crumbling, but some of the most tender moments of the novel come when the young couple first meet and fall in love:

‘Do I have a tan now?’ she said.

I laughed again. ‘You and I,’ I said. ‘Just you and I.”

‘Isn’t it fun,’ she said and she smiled. I let the oars rest in the rowlocks. The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust.

  • a youthful Arvid—a staunch Communist—versus a later, disheartened Arvid following the collapse of the Berlin Wall:

At a kiosk that was still open, there were newspapers stacked on a stand outside, and in large bold typeface on every front page it said THE WALL TUMBLES, and I could not breathe, where had I been? This was bad, I had not paid attention, it was really bad, and I started to cry.

  • Arvid’s mother—or Arvid’s youthful memories of his mother—versus her later self. Sick, dying of stomach cancer, she returns to her native Denmark for one last trip. And because Arvid idealizes his mother in the same way he idealized his political views or his feelings for his wife, he follows her there like a child:

I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it. I pulled some straws from a cluster of marram grass and put them in my mouth and started chewing. They were hard and sharp and cut my tongue, and I took more, a fistful, and stuffed them in my mouth and chewed them while I sat there, waiting for my mother to stand up and come to me.

The various strands loop together to form a bold and smart novel, one that portrays the complex relationship between a son and his mother, between time and memory, and finally between the individual and his struggle to find his place in society. Taken together, the novel’s structure may seem deceptively simple, but it is extremely powerful on the whole. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is that the novel doesn’t telegraph what is to come next; like time and memory, it does not flow in a straight line: it jumps from A to D and back to A. As such, it’s a novel that invites the reader to ask questions. Why are we back here, at this point in time? What does this have to do with his mother’s journey to Denmark? These are simple questions, but they are certainly not simple answers, and, at times, you may find yourself wondering where Petterson is going with his story. Yet it’s precisely this which makes I Curse the River of Time so special: In this novel, Petterson writes with venerable authority, like a master unafraid to try new, ever-bolder moves. By the end of the novel you know exactly where he’s going with his story, and you know exactly where you’ve been. And it’s quite a trip.

8 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece Larissa Kyzer wrote on Stig Sæterbakken’s Siamese, translated from the Norwegian by Stokes Schwartz and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press.

Larissa Kyzer is one of our regular reviewers, in part because of her great interest in Scandinavian lit. (Click her name above for a list of all her reviews.)

Siamese sounds pretty intriguing. And I wonder if the rest of the so-called “S-Trilogy” will make its way into English . . . (BTW, what is is with Norwegians and trilogies?)

Since his literary debut at the age of 18, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken has made a name for himself by challenging convention. At times, this challenge has manifested as an interrogation of the Norwegian nation’s sense of identity and its relationship to Europe. At others, it has revealed itself more questionably, such as during the 2009 Norwegian Literary Festival on “Truth,” when Sæterbakken, the festival’s artistic director, invited universally reviled Holocaust denier David Irving to be a speaker at the event. (In his New York Times review of Siamese, author Jim Krusoe suggests that Sæterbakken might have been reasonably motivated in this instance, inviting Irving in order to “see what would happen when an agreed-upon truth was forced to confront a pernicious, stubborn falsity.”)

More than simply igniting controversy, however, Sæterbakken has established himself as an accomplished poet, essayist, translator, and fiction writer with more than a dozen publications to his credit. His novella Siamese, which was translated into English earlier this year, is the first installment in Sæterbakken’s “S-Trilogy” (so-called because all three titles begin with the letter ‘s’). Sparsely narrated in unadorned, clipped prose, Siamese tells the story of Edwin and Erna, an elderly couple whose relationship embodies a sort of degenerating symbiosis, a mutually antagonistic and passively spiteful codependency from which neither can escape.

Edwin, the former administrator at a retirement home, is now almost completely blind and living in self-imposed isolation in his and Erna’s apartment bathroom. Subsisting almost entirely on gum and flat cola, Edwin has forced his body into the most fetid deterioration, a squalor sustained—and in some respects, supported—by his hapless, nearly deaf wife whom he harangues and berates as a matter of sport. Isolated as he is—dependent on Erna for everything from changing his catheter to spoon-feeding him the occasional meatball—Edwin takes every opportunity to exert the substantial control he has over Erna, and by extension, his waning life. “It’s my world in here,” he states proudly.

8 April 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since his literary debut at the age of 18, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken has made a name for himself by challenging convention. At times, this challenge has manifested as an interrogation of the Norwegian nation’s sense of identity and its relationship to Europe. At others, it has revealed itself more questionably, such as during the 2009 Norwegian Literary Festival on “Truth,” when Sæterbakken, the festival’s artistic director, invited universally reviled Holocaust denier David Irving to be a speaker at the event. (In his New York Times review of Siamese, author Jim Krusoe suggests that Sæterbakken might have been reasonably motivated in this instance, inviting Irving in order to “see what would happen when an agreed-upon truth was forced to confront a pernicious, stubborn falsity.”)

More than simply igniting controversy, however, Sæterbakken has established himself as an accomplished poet, essayist, translator, and fiction writer with more than a dozen publications to his credit. His novella Siamese, which was translated into English earlier this year, is the first installment in Sæterbakken’s “S-Trilogy” (so-called because all three titles begin with the letter ‘s’). Sparsely narrated in unadorned, clipped prose, Siamese tells the story of Edwin and Erna, an elderly couple whose relationship embodies a sort of degenerating symbiosis, a mutually antagonistic and passively spiteful codependency from which neither can escape.

Edwin, the former administrator at a retirement home, is now almost completely blind and living in self-imposed isolation in his and Erna’s apartment bathroom. Subsisting almost entirely on gum and flat cola, Edwin has forced his body into the most fetid deterioration, a squalor sustained—and in some respects, supported—by his hapless, nearly deaf wife whom he harangues and berates as a matter of sport. Isolated as he is—dependent on Erna for everything from changing his catheter to spoon-feeding him the occasional meatball—Edwin takes every opportunity to exert the substantial control he has over Erna, and by extension, his waning life. “It’s my world in here,” he states proudly.

Here, my word is law. I know this room like the back of my hand. It’s as though I have a map of the room in my mind, and I’m intimately familiar with all its sounds, I hear even the slightest movement…It’s true, nothing that anyone does in here escapes my attention. I need to know their positions and what they’re doing at every moment. And whenever anyone else is here, anyone aside from Sweetie, that is, I immediately have the upper hand, immediately score a decisive victory over nature, over what nature’s taken away from me, now wholly at ease, empowered. It’s me who dominates the situation.

Despite all her slavishness, Erna too finds ways of exerting her dominance over Edwin. While her husband opts for more obvious aggression and emotional abuse, Erna’s manipulations and quiet acts of defiance remain almost entirely undetected by her husband. For instance, Edna’s deceit about Edwin’s trusted physician, Dr. Amonsen. Although the doctor has long since moved away, Erna continues to pass along medical advice to Edwin under Amonsen’s authority. “He’s always seen Dr. Amonsen as his savior. His faithful defender.” she explains.

. . . I’ve always lied to Edwin when he asked about Amonsen. I didn’t know what else I could do . . . When Edwin asks me to ask Dr. Amonsen about something, I always let a few days go by before I tell him what Amonsen’s reply was. And as long as I say it was Amonsen who told me this or that, Edwin accepts it immediately.

In the course of tracing Edwin and Erna’s increasingly confrontational power struggle, Siamese explores the truly elemental fears and desires that motivate all of us—the fear of death or inadequacy, the frailty of the body, the need to feel in control, the desire for power. The couple’s relationship is one that also has the potential to be read as a larger, historical allegory. Consider a speech called “My Heart Belongs to Europe. Therefore It is Broken,” that Sæterbakken gave in 2005, during which he discussed the former Norwegian alliance with Denmark. “Our union with Denmark lasted over 400 hundred years,” he said. “The Danish rule is often referred to as the ‘400-year-night,’ an expression taken from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt”:

Recent research, however, has cast doubt over our conception of this long lasting oppression that we, obviously being the weaker half of the Siamese twin Denmark-Norway, experienced during the union…[A] considerable part of the culture we think of as being fundamentally Norwegian, as symbols of Norway as a nation, has been given us by foreigners, Danes mainly, the influence from Danish culture, especially through trading, goes much further back in time than those 400 years of Danish reign.

Without delving too far into Sæterbakken’s assertions about Norwegian cultural history, one can still appreciate the symbolism that he seems to allude to here, and apply it to Edwin and Erna’s relationship in Siamese. The metaphor of two mutually dependent and mutually destructive countries can perhaps expand the scope of this hermetic novel and give it more resonance for readers familiar with Scandinavian history. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Sæterbakken’s novel presents a challenging and frequently disturbing portrait of the balance of power and wages of control in any codependent relationship.

4 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next twelve days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



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.

16 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II and here for Part III and here for Part IV.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

They were shown round the rest of the factory, saw the storage room and the cabinetmaker’s workshop in the basement where the great machines were housed and the façades, wind chests and wooden pipes were made. “See this, Jonas, cherry wood. And over there: ebony! This is a far cry from whittling willow flutes, eh?” They proceeded to the first floor, to the pipe store and the tuning room where the pipes were given their first rough tuning. His father’s face lit up, he picked up pipes and blew into them. Each pipe had a life of its own, was an instrument in itself. Haakon Hansen was looking more and more happy, chatting incessantly to their companion about matters which went way over Jonas’s head, about the Principal and the Octave Bass, about the importance of the choir organ to the tonal quality of the instrument. Jonas watched as a man made a notch in a pipe with a knife and rolled back a tongue of metal with a pair of pliers, much as Jonas would have opened the lid on a sardine tin. He wished his mother could have been there, she would have loved this, working as she did at the Grorud Ironmonger’s. Jonas always got a great kick out of places which combined ironmongery with music, uniting his mother’s and his father’s work—in such situations he could well understand why two such different individuals came to be married to one another. He heard his father and the strange man talking about the German factory which had supplied the stops. Jonas loved all the secrecy surrounding the metal alloys for
the pipes, it smacked of alchemy. I’m not in an organ factory, he thought. I’m on a visit to a wizard’s cave.

Then, to crown it all—a well-orchestrated surprise—their guide flung open the doors of the assembly hall, a room the size of a medium-sized church, and there, standing against one wall, all ready for playing, was Grorud’s new organ. A shimmering palace. Jonas’s father bounded over to the organ, looked back at the others, his arms outstretched to the gleaming façade, like a child unable to believe its eyes, while people stood there nodding, as if to say: “Yes, it’s yours, you can have it.” Haakon Hansen switched it on, set the stops and began to play. He played the only fitting piece of music: Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude in E-flat major, pro organo pleno, he played so resoundingly that he all but raised the roof. And as his father played, Jonas tried to grasp how everything he had seen, all those separate elements in so many different rooms—there were thousands of pipes alone—could conjoin to form such a palatial instrument, one capable of producing such glorious, polyphonous music—a whole that was so much more than the individual parts which he had seen. A sound which caused the body to swell. It was true, it was alchemy, gold was made here, but it was gold in the form of music.

Jonas knew, of course, that with this visit his father was trying to tell him something important, and on the way home Haakon did indeed say something, although it was no more than a single sentence: “Remember, that was just an organ.” That was all. His father did not say another word on the drive home. Haakon Hansen never said too much. But in his mind Jonas could hear the rest: “So just imagine how everything in life fits together.”

And that was why you had to save lives. In his mind’s eye, Jonas sometimes pictured people as being like walking organs. The first time he saw a dying child on television he realized what a tragedy this was, because what he beheld was a mighty organ into which no air, no spirit, no life was being breathed, one which, in all its senseless and ghastly complexity, was breaking down into its individual parts.

Jonas Wergeland sat in Grorud Church, playing an organ which he had, so to speak, seen unveiled; he was playing Bach, the fugue which accompanied the prelude in E-flat major, marveling at an invention which enabled him, with just ten fingers and two feet, to produce music so splendid, so powerful, that it penetrated right down into the foundations of the building. Perhaps, when his life was over, this is what would be cited as his greatest achievement: that he had, at one felicitous moment, succeeded in playing Bach’s prelude and fugue in E-flat major. He felt the tears falling, realized that he was crying, as if the music had also penetrated to his foundations. He did not know whether he was weeping out of grief or at the thought of an experience shared with his father or because of the beauty of the music, a beauty which reminded him of having his head inside a crystal chandelier sparkling with light and shot with rainbows.

The fugue came to an end. Jonas Wergeland altered the stops, struck up the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light,” and how he played: played joyfully, played wistfully, played as if he were a lifesaver, someone capable of breathing life into people. And from the church beneath him the song swelled up, the singing truly hit the roof, with a force unlike anything Jonas had ever heard before. Because he was not alone. The church was full. He had got there in good time, but the church was already packed when he arrived. That was why Grorud had seemed so deserted. Everyone was here. Well over a thousand people. It had come as a surprise to him. Who was his father? Were all of these people really here to honor Haakon Hansen, to pay him their respects?

Jonas played. Down below, in front of the altar rail, lay his father. Not as if dead, but dead. Haakon Hansen had died “on the job,” as they say. Jonas was playing at his own father’s funeral, a funeral which some would describe as scandalous, others as baffling, while his mother, who had more right than anyone to speak on the subject, simply said: “No one would understand anyway.”

Jonas played “Lead, Kindly Light,” Purday’s lovely melody, he had the urge to improvise, introduce some provocative chords, produce innovative modulations while moaning and humming along like Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett. His father would have liked that. Jonas was always nervous when playing for his father. Now too. Even though Haakon Hansen could not hear him. He lay in his coffin, dead. Yet Jonas played as if he could bring his father to life, was amazed to find that he still possessed it: the longing to be a lifesaver.

He had trained so hard, so resolutely. Particularly during the year when he turned ten it seemed to him that he was more in the water than out of it. At Frogner Baths, at Torggata Baths, out at Hvaler, this was his main pursuit: practicing staying underwater for as long as possible. Building up his lung capacity. He could swim underwater for longer than any of his chums, had no difficulty in swimming across Badedammen or the length of the Torggata pool. At Frogner Baths, where you could look into the upstairs pool through round windows, he scared the wits out of spectators by diving down and goggling out at them as inquisitively as they were peering in, rather like a seal in an aquarium—except that he stayed there for so long, on the other side of the window, that people began to shout and bang on the glass in alarm. These daredevil dives did not escape the attention of the lifeguards either: “Any more of your tomfoolery and you’re out on your ear,” they bawled at him from their high stools.

But it wasn’t tomfoolery, it was conscientious training. Jonas Wergeland was preparing for his great undertaking: that of saving a life.

15 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II and here for Part III.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

How could anyone have missed it? All those books, a whole sea of articles and reports on Jonas Wergeland—and no one has mentioned the real prime motive behind everything he did. Because the fact is that Jonas made up his mind in the spring of the year when he turned ten. As he saw it, the answer to the question of the fundamental reason for living obviously had to be related to life itself: it was, quite simply, to save lives. Jonas made the sort of secret, solemn decision of which only a child is capable. One day, he vowed, he would save someone’s life. Most children do not give much thought to what they will be when they grow up. Even when coming out with the expected “A policeman!” or “A ship’s captain!” they are really not that interested. It is too abstract a concept. But Jonas meant it with all his heart when, in response to the grown-ups’ questions, he declared: “I’m going to be a lifesaver.”

From the very start he knew it would have to do with water. With drowning. He could not picture himself reaching out a hand to stop a runaway pram from careering downhill onto the electrified rails of the new subway line, all but stifling a yawn as he did so, or nonchalantly sticking out a foot to prevent some brat on a sledge from sliding into the path of a big truck. No, it would have to be something more spectacular. A real act of heroism. Preferably with masses of spectators. Grandstands full. He toyed for a while with fire as an alternative; in his mind he saw himself rescuing a woman from the licking flames in a burning building; pictured himself dashing out, coughing, his eyebrows singed, with the woman in his arms, just as the fire engines drove up with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring and the whole edifice collapsed in a deadly inferno behind him. In his imagination, the woman was always wearing lacy underwear and had her arms wrapped tightly around him, a reward greater than seeing his name—inscribed in letters of fire, so to speak—on any “Norwegian Fire Protection Diploma of Honor.”

But training for such an eventuality was not easy, and Jonas realized that it would have to be water—even though this was several decades before television series about lifeguards would become such a hit. For Jonas, this conviction went hand in hand with the knowledge that he was in possession of an extraordinary gift: it could not be for nothing that he had been endowed with his almost uncanny ability to hold his breath. Some day, possibly a cold winter’s day, in front of a stunned crowd, he would have to dive off a quayside to save a child that had fallen in and was lying many meters below the surface. There might even be ice, and he would have to find his way back to a little hole in it, like a seal. Shouts and cheers. Banner headlines. His name in shining letters. “Boy risks his own life.” The classic life-saving exploit. The sort of thing for which people were awarded the Carnegie Medal. Some day the call would come and he had to be ready. In his daydreams the child was usually a girl, a lass with wet hair and lacklustre eyes which, nonetheless, were turned up to him in a look of eternal gratitude.

Jonas trained with single-minded determination. Held his breath on the walk to school, held his breath in the classroom, held his breath before he went to sleep. He thought the hour of his great deed lay far in the future, that he would have to be patient. And then, only a year after he had made up his mind to be a lifesaver, with his basic training barely completed, it was upon him. The accident occurs on a day when he is totally unprepared for it, a day when he has almost forgotten about it or is, at any rate, thinking about something else. A day when the aim is not to save a life, but to see as many naked women as possible.

Jonas Wergeland sat on the organ bench. Remembered a dream he had put out of his mind, rejected as being far too naïve. Of being a lifesaver. The first time his father had taken him behind the organ and shown him the fan and the bellows; it had reminded him of breathing, of being able to control your breath. Jonas thought, wove, his playing suddenly more inspired, as if he really could save lives, breathe life, spirit, into something that was dead; manipulated the stops as if he were Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory. There, in Grorud Church, he played Bach, the exquisite “little” Prelude in E minor, a piece which starts out sounding like an improvisation, a playful exercise in runs and harmonies, but gradually slips into a more definite pattern, following a more distinct theme. Jonas had spent a long time practicing to get it right, but now he simply sat there, weaving, or leaving it to Bach, the great weaver of the Baroque. Every musician knows that sometimes—on mysteriously blessed days—one can exceed one’s own musical and, not least, technical skills. For Jonas, this was one of those days. It felt good to play. There was something special about the contact between his fingers and the keys, an unusual sureness to his touch; even his feet seemed to dance of their own accord.

Jonas did not know that a woman clad in bright orange was about to enter the church beneath him and, indirectly, change his life. He was playing the organ, and because he happened to be playing Bach on the organ, a piece of music resembling a network within which everything was connected in a comforting and meaningful fashion, his thoughts kept revolving around his father. His father and him. Always these two, Haakon and Jonas. He knew he was the apple of his father’s eye, thought it might have something to do with a talent they shared, that his father saw something in Jonas which he recognized. He had the feeling that his father was trying to shield him from something, though he never knew what.

As a small boy, Jonas could have appeared on Double Your Money, answering questions on his father. He knew his every wrinkle, every scent, every story. He could describe the way his father ate grapefruit, or his virtual addiction to the National Geographic; he could detail his father’s method of cutting his toenails or repeat word for word the minutes-long spiels he recited every morning in bed as he stretched his limbs until they cracked. Jonas was the only one, so he believed, who knew of the great pleasure Haakon Hansen took in being able to paddle, edge, his kayak in and out of the little islets around Hvaler. And then there were father’s breakfasts: bacon and egg every morning when there was no school. Instead of bawling out the standard “come-and-get-it” refrain their father would sit down at the ivories of the piano in the living room and wake them with a rendition of Bach’s Goldberg variation no. 6, a piece which is only thirty seconds long, but which Jonas felt was the closest one came to the perfect work for the piano. His father played
that same piece every Saturday and Sunday morning, year in year out; the pleasure of it stayed with Jonas for ever, that of waking to Bach’s Goldberg variation no. 6 and the smell of his father’s breakfast. “What more does a man need than Bach and a bit of bacon?” as Haakon Hansen would say, thereby making his contribution to the great debate on the meaning of life. It was a weekend in itself: Bach and bacon. And bacon, mark you, that was as crisp as the music of Bach.

Jonas would be well up in years before he understood that even though you knew someone, you might not know them at all.

One day in April they went for a drive in his father’s Opel Caravan, these two, always just these two, Haakon and Jonas. A journey of discovery his father called it. Jonas had been given the day off school; he thought they were going to Gjøvik, but they had carried on past it and taken a road away from Lake Mjøsa, running inland. Jonas stared out of the window as they drove through a valley, feeling rather disappointed. Nothing but farms, a few scattered houses. Could anything be discovered here, in such a lonely spot? Just at that moment his father pulled up in front of a large, yellow-painted building at the head of the valley. On a sign on the façade tall, white letters gleamed in a rainbow arc: The Norwegian Organ and Harmonium Works. Jonas found it hard to believe that something as thrilling as this could be hidden away deep in the forest. A man greeted Haakon Hansen courteously when he stepped out of the car, as if he were a visiting prince. “Welcome to Snertingdal,” the man said. Snertingdal—to Jonas it sounded as full of promise as Samarkand.

First they were ushered into the workshop where the pipes were bored. Jonas knew a fair bit about organs, but nothing about how they were made. He was so taken with the carpentry skills of a man working on a console with a manual keyboard that he had to be dragged away to the drawing office, from which they also had a grand view of the valley and the mill next door. To the accompaniment of a droning saw his father pored over the drawings for the new organ for Grorud Church—since that was, of course, why they were here; his father had been informed that work on the instrument would soon be finished. Enormous charts on a tilted drawing board showed the organ from different angles. His father nodded and smiled, traced lines with his fingers and enquired about details which meant nothing to Jonas. To him it looked like a cathedral, or the designs for some fantastical machine.

14 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

After a while he began to discover crossover points between lines, eventually he even found one line that ran in a circle. He would have liked to stay down there for days, becoming part of the network, until he realized that he had reached Kievskaja station, a short step from his hotel. Later he would study the patterns on the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral and visit the Kremlin with all its undreamt-of treasures; he would see monasteries and churches with incandescent icons and glittering domes, but for Jonas Wergeland nothing could compare with what he had experienced, the sights he had seen, in the underground: a maze of sunken palaces. “In Moscow,” he would later say, “I learned that sometimes you have to go down into the depths in order to see the light.”

As he left Grorud station behind him, something told him that the Moscow experience was about to repeat itself, that something which had until now lain hidden awaited him. His current job with NRK was also the happy outcome of a story about going astray. In many ways it was the tale of needing a bathroom and making, therefore, a bit of a detour only, when all but sitting on the toilet, to be offered the chance to fill a vacancy. Now, though, he suspected that there was a sequel to this story, that his job as an announcer was merely the first—possibly dull—stage along a path that might almost have been said to lead to sunken palaces.

This suspicion was confirmed a moment later when he pushed open the main door of the church and that lofty room lay before him, suddenly much warmer, much brighter, much richer in scents and sensations than before. Myrrh, the thought flashed through his mind. Like a child in Sunday school, sticking goldfish onto a drawing of a fishing net in a book. Like Christmas Eve, he thought, in the days when the church was still a place filled with anticipation, with swelling organ music and colored light from stained-glass windows. In the days before anyone told you there was no God.

Jonas Wergeland was playing the organ. Or rather: not playing, but weaving, playing Johann Sebastian Bach, causing transparent worlds to pour from the organ casing, causing a succession of veils to drop down over the lofty room. His thoughts flew in all directions. Forward in time. Back in time. Often, on his way home from school or from piano lessons he had popped into the church, where his father was the organist. On a couple of occasions—during serious crises in his life—he had lain on the red carpet in front of the altar, feeling as though he were dead. Then his father had played, usually fugues, and he had walked out again like a soul resurrected. To Jonas it seemed that his father played life into him. Blew life into a dead thing. “This is a control center,” his father had said, pointing to the instrument’s complicated keyboard. Jonas was more inclined to call it a rescue center. He did not think of his father as an organist, but as a lifesaver. Maybe that was why, at an early age, he decided that this was what he, too, would be.

Jonas Wergeland sat on the organ bench in the church of his childhood, playing, weaving music into being, weaving thoughts into being, smiling as he pictured his mother’s horrified face, the look that met him when, as a boy, he shot up from the bottom of the bath gulping for air. She never spotted Daniel—a reassuring element—until it was too late. His brother would be perched on the toilet seat in the corner with the stopwatch they used when they went skating or lay in front of the radio listening to broadcasts of various sporting championships, as if they did not trust the lap times and final results quoted by the commentators.

“Blast!” Daniel always exclaimed, in dismay and delight—heedless of his mother’s stricken expression. “He flippin’ well did it again. A minute and a half.”

“You owe me five krone,” Jonas would gasp, his face tinged with blue, not altogether unlike the image of Krishna in Indian paintings.

Åse Hansen, normally the most even-tempered member of the family, remarkable for her stoic composure even when Rakel did not come home from parties or some ill-mannered relative ruined a Christmas dinner, was for a long time worried sick every time Jonas sneaked off to the bathroom and she heard the water start to run. It played merry hell with her nerves to know that if she peeked round the door she would see her son lying at the bottom of a full bathtub, holding his breath until his lungs screamed for oxygen. One day, when she could no longer turn a blind eye, she flung open the door just as Jonas’s head burst to the surface, with him coughing and spluttering from all the water he had swallowed. She gave him a telling off, asked him why on earth he was doing this.

“I’m practicing,” he wheezed.

“For what?”

“To save lives.”

Well, there was really no arguing with that. His mother sniffed some remark or other and closed the door, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. But Jonas was in deadly earnest. Ahead of him lay a summer during which he would establish his goal in life. He practiced with all the perseverance of the perfectionist. And he became very good.

Some people go through life without sparing the most profound existential questions more than an occasional heavy sigh. They want simply to live. Not to live for anything. For them it is enough just to scrape some money together, to seduce someone. And if that doesn’t do it, you can always go parachuting. To what extent such people are fortunate is not something we will go into here, because Jonas Wergeland belonged to another branch of humanity, to that group who from a very early age, possibly a little too early, begin to reflect on the purpose and the meaning of life. This question was as obscure for Jonas as it was crystal-clear for Daniel: as far as his older brother was concerned the whole point of life was to be the best. At everything, no matter what. Daniel belonged to that category of Norwegian who from the moment they were born seemed intent on dedicating their lives to proving the truth of Gro Harlem Brundtland’s later assertion that “it is typically Norwegian to be good.” For Daniel, the whole point was to be able to ascend the winner’s rostrum, be it a high one like Mount Everest or a low-lying one like a woman’s mount of Venus.

Jonas, on the other hand, had come to the conclusion that the purpose of life was to make a name for oneself—the reason for this need be nothing more mysterious than that he was distantly related to the people in the Book of Genesis. Although, it could of course also have had something to do with the fact that he liked to walk around town looking at all the shop signs: Ingwald Nielsen, Thv. L. Holm. At night some names, such as that of Ferner Jacobsen, were even written in neon. He could stand for ages on Egertorg, staring at the jeweller’s where Aunt Laura had begun her career, admiring the lettering proclaiming david andersen. More than fame itself, Jonas longed to see his name in lights. The world would read his name and know that it stood for something of great worth, right up there alongside silver, gold and precious stones.

Jonas considered many different options. For some weeks—apropos this business with the names—he was quite convinced that the whole purpose of life was to have a dish named after you. He had long been used to hearing people refer to such culinary delights as Janson’s Temptation or beef à la Lindström: names which might not conjure up images of silver or gold, but which certainly made the mouth water. His mother was surprised by the interest displayed by her younger son in the kitchen. But after several unsuccessful, scorched attempts at what he called a Jonas cake: a concoction involving bananas, cardamom and liquorice gums which had Daniel, his guinea pig, hanging over the toilet, throwing up—he started to think bigger.

13 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

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 the discoverer 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.

As his eye was drawn to a couple of solitary clusters of rowan berries, two rosy, bright spots in all the greyness, he found himself thinking of another grey day in his life. The year before, off his own bat, he had gone to Moscow with a friend and colleague from the NRK purchasing department who was attending a television conference there. They had stayed at the Hotel Ukraine, one of Stalin’s seven so-called “wedding-cake” buildings from the fifties, all of which looked like squat, bulky versions of the Empire State Building. One morning he had crossed the grey River Moscow, meaning to walk to the Kremlin. Ahead of him lay Kalinina Avenue, broad and surprisingly empty-looking, despite the cars. The weather was clear, but a haze still managed to leach everything of color. The distances seemed enormous, and almost in order to escape from those vast, empty spaces thick with the fumes from low-octane gasoline, he took a right turn which led him into some narrower streets. Here he found more people. Women in headscarves, carrying baskets. And there were lines. Two in one short stretch. For eggs, perhaps, he thought. Or toilet paper? To these people, even the magazines he had bought at Fornebu airport, with their glossy adverts, would be objects as rare as rocks from the moon. He walked along, looking and looking, trying to take in the dreariness around him. Brown, grey, black. Hulking, homogenous buildings. Everything covered in a thin layer of grime. He fancied that he was wandering through a sort of populated desert. Always, when he came to a new place, he went exploring. As a small boy he had transformed every house he visited into an unknown continent. He was a Columbus, stepping ashore. The threshold was a beach. The hallway a jungle, the stairs a mountain, every cupboard a cave. But Moscow: so gloomy, so dispiritingly vast. This was obviously not a city one simply strolled through. Best be getting back, he thought, before I am engulfed by all this greyness.

The problem was, however, that he no longer knew where he was. And as if that weren’t enough, he desperately needed to go to the toilet. He cursed his bad habit of drinking too much coffee at lunchtime, while casting about in hopes of finding some building that was open to the public. He fell in with a stream of people who seemed to have been caught by a current and were being swept towards a façade with a large M over the doors. He had always liked the letter M, took this to be a good omen. He was not prepared, however, for the sight which met his eyes, for the way the stony desert gave way to a shimmering oasis.

In his mind he was in Moscow, in reality he was approaching Grorud shopping center, casting a nostalgic glance in the direction of Wolfgang Michaelsen’s garden where every autumn as boys they had gone scrumping for glossy, green apples so juicy and so sweet that they even merited running the risk of the Michaelsens’ Rottweiler getting loose. There was a slight haze in the air, the sort of autumn mist that quickens the senses and which, rather than concealing things, seemed to bring them closer, even things that were a long way off. Chet Baker weather, he thought to himself. He felt nervous. Before him lay a sight which triggered memories of childhood theatricals, packed gym halls. The fluttering in his stomach might otherwise have been attributed to his own misgivings, a dawning sense of having come to a dead end. In his life. The problem had to do with his work at NRK TV. He was an announcer, and popular. And yet he wasn’t happy. He did not understand it. At some point in his life he had abandoned all of the goals he had set for himself as a youth. He had thrown in the towel halfway through a course in architecture, having previously dropped out of a course in astrophysics. By chance—and not really caring one way or the other—he had allowed himself to be led into a tiny television studio. For many years he had been more than happy with his good fortune, with having found a job where he could do so little, and yet, it appeared, mean so much to so many. But now it seemed that an old ambition was once more stirring. Something he had forgotten. Wanted to forget. His conscience still pricked him. He caught himself looking for a loophole, a way out, a way forward. Which may have been why now, on this day especially, despite his sense of confusion, he suddenly felt optimistic. He had a strong feeling that something awaited him. That it was only minutes away. That something, a curtain, would be pulled back and something else, he did not know what, would be revealed.

As in Moscow. Because, when he penetrated beyond the grey façade with the steel M over the doors it was like stepping into the foyer of a theatre. As though someone up in the flies had dropped a richly hued stage set into place right before his very eyes. He walked along broad, brightly lit corridors, gazing round about him in disbelief; found a toilet without any problem. He had always set a lot of store by mazes and the possibilities these presented. You set out to sail to India, and wind up instead on an unknown continent. You go looking for a toilet and stumble upon a metro station, a veritable treasure house. He seized his chance, followed the crowd, popped a five kopek coin in the slot and passed through the barrier. Moments later he was being transported down into the bowels of the earth on the steepest, longest escalator he had ever ridden, a wooden one, at that; then he found himself in a vast, glittering white chamber hung with magnificent chandeliers. A sunken palace. He was Alice in Wonderland, the victim of a supernatural occurrence. He took the hall in which he found himself for a glittering ballroom until a train came rushing in and stopped right in front of him.

Out of sheer curiosity he hopped on, only to alight at the next station—Plostsjad Revoljutsii, he later learned: Revolution Square. It was like entering a museum. The station concourse was full of bronze sculptures. As far as he could tell, they represented the different trades. He was about to take a closer look at a statue of a sailor when he almost bumped into a shabby-looking character sweeping the floor. The man stopped, leaned on his brush and examined Jonas. The look he gave him contrasted sharply with his down-at-heel appearance. Keen eyes studied the small Norwegian flag which Jonas was wearing in his lapel while in Moscow, a badge intended to serve much the same purpose as the tag on a dog collar: indicating which embassy to contact were he to collapse in the street. The cleaner stood for a while staring into space, as if deep in thought. Then: “Gustav Vigeland,” he said at length, extending his arms to the statues round about them. Jonas nodded. There were certain similarities. “Gustav Vigeland,” he responded. These two words pretty much said it all. Forged a bond between them. Encapsulated a whole story. Or so Jonas thought, until the Russian leaned towards him: “Fascism!” he hissed, pointing eloquently at the sculptures. Jonas smiled uncertainly, tried to nod politely before continuing his tour. This man could easily be a professor of art, he thought, but now here he is, sweeping railway platforms for holding certain incorrect opinions on art.

Jonas was right underneath Red Square, but he was not interested in taking the escalator up, out. Why see Lenin’s tomb when he could see this? He wanted to stay down here in this brilliantly illuminated secret. Here, in Moscow, they had built their sculpture parks underground. Jonas wandered on and off trains for hours, endeavoring to see as many stations as possible. A subterranean grand tour, he thought to himself. Proof that man had evolved beyond the caveman stage. He strolled through halls faced with every sort of polished stone, a genuine geological museum. Everything was spotlessly clean. Jonas walked upon gleaming tiles, down colonnades, amid copper and steel, surveying all manner of ornamentation: mosaics, reliefs, stained glass, statues of pilots and scientists. All of this decoration sprang from the ideal of bringing art to the people. He thought of his brother’s favorite writer, Agnar Mykle: “Socialism is clean bodies and classical music in the factories.” And art in the metro stations, Jonas might have added. During his visit, Jonas came across nothing that told him more about the Soviet state and, not least, its part in the last war. He had seen something like this before: the Town Hall in Oslo. He went on walking and thinking, considering. What, today, was the greatest public space? Might it not be television, the box, the square common to all? In other words: wasn’t that the place for art—in palaces of a sort, beamed into
people’s living rooms?

12 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair starts tomorrow, and in a few short hours I’ll be on a plane to Germany. (Hastily preparing for a Tools of Change panel I’m going to be on a mere six hours after I land . . .) Anyway, I will be blogging for the FBF site, and hope to update Three Percent with that info, but in the meantime, I thought we’d offer up a special treat this week and serialize the first few pages of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife.

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

Jupiter

Behold this man. Behold this man, as he feels three tugs on the rope and slowly, after smiling uncertainly, proceeds to traverse, to edge out onto those dauntingly airy galleries. Behold this man as he inches across the rock face; see how with the caution of the novice he feels his way forward using all of his limbs, his whole body in fact, before shifting his weight from one foot to the other. I can sense how frightened, how truly terrified he is, and yet how full of the determination to do this, to see it through, make it to the top. And then, suddenly, as if something has ground to a halt, he freezes. He shuts his eyes. He looks as though he is listening to the wind, while at the same time concentrating hard, trying to place the scent emanating from the rock against which he is pressed. The bright sunlight glitters off the cliff face, sparkles in the runnels of meltwater. As far as I can see he is holding his breath. I have known it all along. This is the moment of truth. On a ledge, with a drop of hundreds of meters into the abyss only a step away. Here you live, or you die.

“This is a second I shall remember.”

Then he does the one thing I have begged him not to do. He half turns, while apparently hanging on tight with both hands. He looks out. Looks down. As if intent on defying something. Proving something. For a moment he seems to be completely dazzled by the Slingsby glacier far below. Or no, not dazzled, but stunned, panic-stricken. Psyched out, as they say. I refuse to believe it. That this man could be afraid of anything, a man who brought thousands of cars to a halt on Oslo’s Town Hall Square and who, by his mere presence, drew a cyclone to himself; a man who has been with three fair maids at once and who would not hesitate to dive to a depth of fifteen meters without an oxygen tank. Yet he hangs there, rigid. Still holding his breath. Or am I wrong? Does he bend down ever so slightly? I think—I know it sounds strange, but I almost believe he is trying to kneel.

One hand fumbles with the knot, as if he means to undo himself from the rope. “Sit!” I call sharply. “Don’t look down.” But he goes on staring, seeming more mesmerized than frightened now. Or infuriated perhaps, contemptuous. As if this were a set-to with Norway itself, a confrontation for which he has waited years—to stand on the edge of an abyss, without a safety net. I can see temptation written large on his face. He could let himself fall. He could realize the cliché which will forever be attached to his story: that of his downfall. The final, glorious headline.

“You’re perfectly safe,” I shout. “It’s all in your head.” I’m jittery too now, I check that the coil of rope is securely fixed around the sharp rock next to me. I know I can trust Martin, who has led the way, hammering in pitons at regular intervals, and is now out of sight behind some large boulders, a short rope-length from the bottom of the chimney. Martin has climbed everything from the Bonatti pillar to Ama Dablam. But never with such a partner, a man who—according to the newspapers—lost his head and shot a woman straight through the heart. I am uneasy. The uncertainty of the figure huddled against the rock face radiates towards me. I may have miscalculated. Perhaps I should have said no after all. Then he turns to me. His face is calm. I can see that he is breathing, drawing the cool mountain air deep into his lungs, hungrily. He smiles, even raises his hand in a wave, traverses onwards.

Behold this man. Behold this man, the bearer of a mystery.

The rest of the climb went well, remarkably well. Down by the stone cottage at Bandet earlier that day I had been worried. A couple of times on the way up the ridge, on the toughest, most exposed stretch, I had considered turning back. I could see that he was gasping for breath, he looked a little lightheaded. The air was keen and thin. Over one stretch we secured our passage with a length of rope—mainly for his sake—and when we started climbing again he dislodged a rock which went clattering down the mountainside, leaving a whiff of gunpowder behind it. An omen. His fleece clothes and the harness made him look like a child—truly, in this situation, like a helpless child. And, funnily enough, I felt responsible for him.

“Aren’t you a little afraid of heights?” I had asked him when we set out from Turtagrø that morning.

“I used to be. I’m a different person now,” he said.

We reached Hjørnet—the Corner, slipped off our rucksacks. It was early in the season, and there was more snow than I was used to. Wetter and dirtier. We wouldn’t be able to switch to climbing shoes. It went fine, though, with no great problems—even over the few meters of real climbing up the Heftyes Renne, transformed now into a chill, slippery, icy chimney.

We reached the top around midday. I shall never forget the look of triumph on his face, the way he stretched his arms up and out. To the spring sky. All those years inside. Down. And now, only a couple of years after that first intoxicating taste of freedom: on the roof of Norway. Right at the very top. Everything below us seemed much lower, markedly so. I heard him murmur, partly to us, partly to himself: “I never thought I would make it.”

And a moment later: “But I knew I had it in me.”

We sat down beside the little cairn. He studied the commemorative plaque fixed to the stone as if expecting to find his name inscribed there. There too. I took the landscape shots I needed. He said not a word, just sat there looking at the view, could not seem to get enough of this, the most spectacular panorama in Norway. The massive Jostedal Glacier, Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind and all the other peaks of Jotunheimen. Alpine forms with peaks and crests, carved and gouged out by the ice. “Organ pipes,” he muttered suddenly. “This has to be the world’s biggest organ, listen to the wind!” From the massif on which we sat, two jagged ridges wound off like petrified vertebrae. “What are they?” he asked. “Kjerringa og Mannen,” I said—the Woman and the Man—and instantly regretted it. A strange look came over his face.

Behold this man.

We prepared for the downward journey. Just as I was wondering how he was going to cope with the abseiling, he turned the wrong way, towards the sheer drop to Skagadalen. I was about to call out, but the cry stuck in my throat. He stretched his arms out to the sides, as if about to do a swallow dive.

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 wistful 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 power 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.”

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The call for submissions for the 2010 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation was posted last week, and this year the focus is on translations from Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic.

This prize was launched two years ago to encourage the development of young literary translators. Applicants must be under the age of 30 on the date the prize is announced (in this case May 14, 2010) and if selected, they are expected to be able to complete their translation by October 2010.

Every year the Foundation chooses a different language/region to highlight: in 2008 it was German, and last year was Spanish. Personally, following my trip to Iceland and the grand success of Jan Kjerstad’s books, I’m very interested to see how this year’s award turns out. (Coincidentally, of the winner and two honorable mentions named in 2009, we’re publishing both Juan Jose Saer and Sergio Chejfec, although we have yet to sign on either Roanna Sharp’s or Emily Toder’s translations.)

Applications are due by February 13th, 2010, which gives interested translators a decent amount of time to get all the necessary materials together . . .

18 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I referenced this book in my earlier post about “The Conqueror galley giveaway”: but in introducing the spring Open Letter titles, it definitely deserves it’s own entry.

The Discoverer is the final volume in the “Wergeland Trilogy,” a collection of three books—The Seducer and The Conqueror being their other two—by Jan Kjaerstad that focus on the life of Jonas Wergeland and the death of his wife Margrete.

In Kjaerstad’s universe, Wergeland is an ultra-famous Norwegian TV producer who created a series called “Thinking Big” about famous figures in Norway’s history. Everything’s going really well for him (more or less) until he returns home from a trip and finds his wife dead on the floor.

The three books in the series can be read independently of each other: each title recounts stories from Jonas’s life from a different person’s perspective, weaving together small events in hopes of explaining what happened to him. The Seducer builds up to the moment that he arrives home and finds his wife dead, and The Conqueror recounts his life story in light of the fact that he admitted in court to killing Margrete.

The Discoverer opens years later, after Jonas has been released from prison. The novel is narrated by both Jonas and his daughter, who are together on a voyage down the great Sognefjord with a group of young people working on a multimedia project to encapsulate all the history and importance of the Sognefjord. Which is interesting and relevant, since taken together, the three books in this trilogy attempt to create a new way of looking at the world, of processing information.

This novel is a bit different from the others—the chapters are much longer and tend to weave together a number of stories first encountered in the earlier books. One of Kjaerstad’s great strengths is his ability to sequence stories in a particular way to create a mosaic of Jonas’s life. If The Seducer is arranged like a fugue, and The Conqueror like a spiral, The Discoverer is most like a set of concentric circles. Not that it’s necessary to pay attention to this—each part is incredibly compelling and immediately draws the reader into Jonas’s complicated, fascinating life.

It’s hard to choose a favorite of these three books, but I agree with the translator Barbara Haveland that this novel is mindblowing, and alters everything that came before . . . And it’s not surprising that it won the Nordic Prize when it was first published in Norway.

Our entire spring catalog will be online in the very, very near future, but in the meantime, here’s an excerpt of The Discoverer, and you can find write-ups of four other spring titles by clicking here.

....
Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

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Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

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The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

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Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

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Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

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Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

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The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

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