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.

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.

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