Norwegian Mood

Norwegian Mood

Dag Solstad is widely considered Norway’s most accomplished living writer, in part because of how his writing has intertwined with the fortunes of the Norwegian left.

Dag Solstad (Hans Jørgen Brun)

Professor Andersen’s Night
by Dag Solstad
New Directions Publishing, 2019, 176 pp.

Norwegian author Dag Solstad’s second novel, Arild Asnes, 1970 (1971), chronicles the political growing pains of a young writer. Arild Asnes is twenty-eight years old. He has written books and essays, and he longs to do more for the socialist cause. Returning home to Norway, one of the world’s foremost social democratic welfare states, after a trip abroad, he initially finds the task impossible. He sees in everyone and everything only an insidious inertia. Asnes succumbs to it, too. “He lived in a capitalist society. He was a socialist. He was free,” Solstad writes. “That attached something absurd to him. This absurdity undermined everything he said, everything he wrote.”

Asnes becomes a communist and associates with the Socialist Youth League (Marxist-Leninist), or SUF(m-l), a radical, Maoist group. In the novel’s final scene, he travels to an Oslo working-class neighborhood to sell copies of their newspaper, Klassekampen. Now, he has the tools to combat his absurdity.

Solstad, like Asnes, was a twenty-eight-year-old socialist writer in 1970. Solstad, too, became a Maoist, and he joined the SUF(m-l). Today, Solstad is widely considered Norway’s most accomplished living writer, in part because of how his writing has intertwined with the fortunes of the Norwegian left. The SUF(m-l) begat the Workers’ Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) [AKP(m-l)] in 1973, and Solstad followed. These Maoist parties were an animating force in Norwegian political and cultural life through the decade. They were young, disciplined, and an early, organized voice of resistance to Norway joining the European Economic Community (EEC). Membership lists were secret, but many prominent artists and intellectuals joined and supported the AKP(m-l).

Other Norwegians found their homegrown Maoists shocking. The editor-in-chief of the conservative newspaper Morgenbladet called them “worse than the followers of Quisling.” Solstad, already a recognized writer, played his part. “I never held a political position,” he told the Paris Review, “but since secrecy was a top priority and my name was already well-known enough to be compromised, my local branch of the party chose me as their spokesperson. They signed letters with my name—I didn’t even read them—and I was okay with that. If you’re a member of a political party, that’s the least you can do.”

As the Maoists waned in the late 1970s, so did Solstad’s involvement. In an essay describing the Norwegian scene of his political youth, Solstad writes, “In the space of a brief instant it surfaced, before slowly dying down over a period of ten to fifteen years. What is most superficial of the surface is all that has remained. I still wear the same type of trousers as back then. I always have two pair, always the same brand: Levi’s. Everything else is gone. What I liked best, the reflectiveness of the youth, is gone.” As a Maoist he had spent the decade writing book reviews praising social realism and fiction that reflected revolutionary commitment. In historical novels, he charted the Norwegian working-class experience from before the Second World War to the formation of the welfare state to the repudiation of the EEC in 1972. Roman 1987 (“Novel 1987”), published in the titular year, follows a history teacher, from Solstad’s hometown, who quits his job to join the proletariat and become a factory worker. He eventually leaves the working class and becomes a history teacher again. Solstad has said that after 1987 he stopped writing about communism.

Solstad, who continues to write, has published more than thirty books, including a novel entirely in footnotes, five books of commentary on the World Cup co-authored with Jon Michelet, a genealogy of his family on his mother’s side, and an official history of one of Norway’s largest engineering firms (these last two books he considers novels). The Norwegian critic Ane Farsethås has compared Solstad’s stature in Norway to that of Philip Roth in the United States or Günter Grass in Germany. Like them, she says, he is “an unavoidable voice” in his home country.

Solstad’s growing reputation in the English-speaking world rests on just a small sliver of his oeuvre, after he “retired” the theme of communism. In the 1990s, he published four slim, disturbed novels, which Solstad said are “reasonable to view as a suite,” about men in contemporary Norwegian society who see themselves, wrongly and rightly, as drifting outside the bounds of conventional life. These novels—Novel 11, Book 18 (1992), Shyness and Dignity (1994), Professor Andersen’s Night (1996), and T. Singer (1999)—have all been translated into English. They are stripped-down, hallucinatory works, unsentimentally scrutinizing the male protagonists as they crack under the pressures of an increasingly consumerist and atomized social world.

Instead of grasping for political solutions to their problems the way Arild Asnes or some of Solstad’s previous protagonists did, these men appear to lack any political options at all. Solidarity is inconceivable. Instead, they think. They think endlessly. They talk to themselves, moving either toward or away from drastic, antisocial decisions. Solstad’s characteristic long, winding sentences, rife with hedges, conditionals, and feints, at times read like a blow-by-blow of the interior lives of these lonely men. In a typical section of T. Singer, which chronicles a provincial librarian’s life of strange social shame, the protagonist realizes that he has greeted one friend as if he were another:

Singer is mortified because he has mistaken K for B. K is taken aback but he doesn’t know that Singer is guilty of making an embarrassing mistake. At least he doesn’t know that he has been mistaken for B. What he heard was Singer speaking to him in an unnatural voice, which means that Singer now needs to be wary of him, and so he continues talking feverishly, in such a way that he won’t further draw K’s attention to what just occurred, because the thought that K might discover that Singer had actually mistaken him for B is unbearable.

The interaction is both ordinary and absurd. Singer seems to undermine himself. But is there a way out? At the end of the novel, Singer is left wondering how he’ll respond to a colleague if she catches him loitering in a theater lobby with no intention of seeing a movie. He formulates a contingency plan, which unfolds in a single, 246-word sentence that closes the book.

Professor Andersen’s Night, first published in 1996, is Solstad’s latest to become available in the United States. It may also be his bleakest. It opens with the protagonist, Pål Andersen, a fifty-five-year-old professor of literature at Norway’s oldest university, standing in his bachelor’s apartment in central Oslo on Christmas Eve. Though he is alone, he has set up a Christmas tree. “I must say,” Professor Andersen thinks, as if gearing up for a conversation. “Hmm, yes, what shall I say?” After dinner, he looks out his window and chews over thoughts about tradition until, through the window of the apartment building across the street, he sees a young man strangle a young woman to death. He picks up the phone to call the police. But then he decides not to call, though he doesn’t know why.

Over the following days, he finds he is incapable of talking with anyone else about the murder he’s seen. Speaking with a colleague, Andersen complains about literature and history rather than telling him about the murder. The murderer is not caught. Months later, by chance, Andersen meets the murderer at a sushi restaurant. When he notices who he’s talking to, he does not bring up the murder but makes sure to finish explaining that he is not a novice when it comes to dining at sushi restaurants. The two become friendly.

The action unravels most dramatically in lengthy conversations between Andersen and himself, as if reported by an unseen clinician. Andersen is the one person Andersen feels he can turn to. He rebukes himself for allowing the murderer to go free. Or, he lets himself off the hook. He toggles back and forth: “‘If it had been a murder committed for the pleasure of it I wouldn’t have hesitated in reporting it. Likewise, if it had been planned in cold blood. Oh no,’ he said in dismay, ‘I wouldn’t have reported a premeditated murder.’” The mental ping-pong is interrupted by the narrator, a near-omniscient entity one can’t help but think of as Dag Solstad, pushing his character aside to offer commentary. Solstad interrupts a Boxing Day dinner party Andersen attends to ask, “If any of those present had taken photographs of the dinner group, what would you have seen?” He then spends pages answering his own question.

Karl Ove Knausgaard is an avowed Solstad admirer, and the two writers share a penchant for ecstatic tedium and switching between interiority and detachment. But whereas Knausagaard’s writing is frequently loose, at least in translation, Solstad’s prose is intensely surgical, a bit like the short stories of Lydia Davis, who taught herself Norwegian by reading one of Solstad’s untranslated novels without a dictionary. Like Davis, Solstad plays with repetition and digression, yet one gets the sense that the text has been edited down to as few words as possible. If what you’re reading seems long-winded, blame the fickleness of these men’s minds; Solstad is merely documenting it. And if that makes the novels seem like parodies of the life of the mind, that’s certainly one way to read them.

This back-and-forth has an invigorating effect in part because the attempt at description becomes a vehicle for humor. The comedy arises from the way the pictures Solstad creates threaten to blur the more painstakingly he describes them. Solstad’s precision comes in tracing, perilously, the cracks in things. His prose often resembles a classic grade-school exercise on clarity in writing: list the steps for making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, then hand your instructions to the teacher, who is tasked with following them. The catch is that there is no way to be precise enough. The teacher, performing, makes mistakes, to uproarious effect. (You never wrote where to spread the jelly, etc.) You find yourself at the end of the exercise convinced both of the need for clarity in writing and of the impossibility of describing exactly how to make a sandwich. Solstad’s writing is simultaneously the list of steps and their performance.

What does Solstad prove too complicated and impossible in Professor Andersen’s Night? It has something to do with the capacity of the human mind, when isolated, to reason morally. Andersen senses this, and yet it does him no good. “Why do I say that it isn’t right to report him?” he asks. “I must mean it, after all, since I maintain it so strongly, without a proper argument.” Like one of Thomas Bernhard’s protagonists, Andersen’s talk about the social decay around him can be seductive. When Andersen laments to a colleague the consumerist culture he lives in, and his worry that it’s impossible to be “stirred” by any work of art from a previous age, these are not unpersuasive views. But this persuasiveness wilts when it comes to the murder. He aims to convince an audience of one: himself. His explanations are silly and limp, often made in bad faith. He avoids calling the police because his speech is slurred so they might think he’s drunk. Or maybe there’s something despicable about informing on another person, even a murderer? Solstad writes, “‘To report a murder one has seen isn’t informing,’ thought Professor Andersen, slightly taken aback at having to go to the lengths of putting himself right about such an obvious matter.” Andersen’s arguments are thin surfaces on which he skids.

Solstad maintains an air of respectfulness toward his characters. He always refers to Andersen as Professor Andersen, for instance. Still the book adds up to a damning portrait of a man who, despite his self-proclaimed interest in critical thinking and depth (of literature and history), stops at some rather shallow conclusions. Not only does he avoid reporting the murder, but most of the words Andersen uses to describe himself crumble under scrutiny: his radicalism in his student days amounts to having read avant-garde poetry and placed a “Ban the Nukes” button on a shelf in his room. He’s anti-careerist, but he chose Ibsen’s works as his area of study, a shrewd choice for a professor of Norwegian literature.

Solstad continually reminds the reader that Andersen is representative of the now-aging radical students of the 1960s and 1970s. “They themselves were only a small minority but were distinctive enough to constitute a whole generation,” Solstad writes. And these representatives of their generation, Solstad shows, have become successful administrators, whether in state, science, or culture, of a continually more corporatized society. They aren’t bothered like Arild Asnes was; they’ve made their peace, or, perhaps, surrendered.

In the book’s most compelling riff, the narrator pulls back from the scene of the Boxing Day dinner party to ask what makes Andersen and the other attendees, these successful Norwegians in their fifties, former radical students, so “typical” of their cohort:

They were strongly disinclined to regard themselves as pillars of society. Because they didn’t feel they conformed: not to the authority, or rather duties, which they enacted, nor to the social group to which they belonged. They denied being what they were. They didn’t feel that they conformed to their given status. They were consultants, heads of administration, senior psychologists, celebrated actors and professors of literature, but in their innermost thoughts they believed, every single one of them, that they had not adopted the attitude that was expected of them. . . . They just fundamentally did not conform in their own eyes, when all was said and done, to what they actually were.

The Boxing Day dinner scene, which stretches for many pages, has been read by critics as “satirical.” Solstad rejects that label. “I am trying to give a precise description of a certain stratum of society,” he told the Paris Review. Yet no matter how real it is, in the end, this quality—call it bourgeois self-delusion or just plain hypocrisy—is still not enough to explain why Professor Andersen doesn’t report the murder. Andersen, after all, still feels the “blast of society’s demands.” But society here has found its match in the man alone. In the novel’s final pages, after Andersen suffers a sickness that has him confronting the idea of God in a scene that recalls novels like Miss Lonelyhearts and Hunger, he discovers his “real” reason for doing what he’s done. He’s fulfilling the “secret wish” everyone has: to exercise “their own ability to snap their fingers, when the opportunity arises, so that the murderer can get up and flee from his misdeed, and in that way make an eternal protest against the unbearable cruelty of existence, indeed, its meaninglessness.”

Andersen has told himself that he’s found a way to cut through his hypocrisy, a new path to becoming the radical individualist he believes himself to be: through a nihilistic bowing out of the most fundamental kind of communal obligation. The seemingly offhand “I must say” that passes through Andersen’s mind on the opening page, looking at his Christmas tree, becomes a thesis statement of sorts to support the professor’s final rationale. A man stripped of all other means, at the very least, must talk to himself. He must explain the things he’s done. And where there’s explanation, there’s often excuses and lies. Andersen is an example, in one sense, of what someone can become when such dissonant self-speech goes unchallenged. In Arild Asnes, 1970, the final sentence is “He began to speak,” but, crucially, Arild Asnes isn’t alone. He stands in a doorway in front of another person. He wants to interest the man in his newspaper. He hopes to be convincing.

Matt Weir is a writer based in New York.