In Camus’ iconic novel The Stranger, a man murders another and spends the second half of the novel trying to understand and rationalize both his actions and their consequence. Despite Camus’ distancing himself from the term, The Stranger is the quintessential “existential” novel.
As is the Norwegian writer Dag Solstad’s novel Professor Andersen’s Night.
But unlike Camus’ Meursault who kills an unnamed Arab on a beach in Algiers. Professor Andersen does not kill but witnesses a murder, on Christmas Eve night in the apartment across from his. And his internal struggles are every bit as Sisyphean as Camus’ protagonist.
In Solstad’s novel, a literature professor in Oslo who specializes in Ibsen is a loner who enjoys both his solitude and communal traditions. (Shyness and Dignity—Solstad’s first novel translated in English–featured a high-school literature teacher who had his moment of crisis while teaching Ibsen.) Thus on Christmas Eve night, Professor Andersen dresses in a suit and tie, cooks a traditional Christmas dinner and opens the two gifts under the fully decorated, full-sized tree while enjoying his after-dinner coffee and cognac. It is the perfect traditional Christmas Eve… except that he is willfully alone.
To compensate, he draws the curtains of his apartment window and stares out at the festivities in the windows across from him. In the various windows, he sees people sitting at meals, standing convivially with drinks in hand, sitting around distributing gifts.
And one man strangle a woman.
Naturally, Professor Andersen is shocked. He reaches for the phone, dials the police, but hangs up before he is connected.
He cannot make the call.
Through the holidays and for the next month after, he is obsessed with the murder and with his decision not to call. He searches the various newspapers for mention of the murder or mention of a missing woman. He goes over to the apartment building and discovers the man’s name. He watches from behind the curtains the man’s comings and goings.
At a dinner party, he considers telling his friends, all radicals when they were together in college, but now quite comfortable in their professions. He knows that they would not understand his decision, that their advice, concerns, discussion would be far off the mark.
And so he examines his every thought–past and present. Is he committed– as a member of a civilized society–to tell? Or does his championing of the individual commit him not to tell? He considers his options, his mental growth, his expertise in literature (where, after all, he is consistently analyzing men who are put into crisis and must act). He examines his soul, his basic beliefs, to a degree that most of us do not.
And then he meets the murderer–unintentionally, in a sushi restaurant. Afterwards, he invites the man in to his apartment for a drink.
Even this encounter, does not quell his internal wrestling. He has a quasi-religious experience, believes he has received some sort of divine grace. And yet still he must ponder the consequences of both his acting and not acting.
Professor Andersen’s Night is a short, but dense, novel. The internal dialog that Professor Andersen conducts is wrought by philosophical quibbling, rich in existential anguish, and accessible in its “everyman” applicability.
Like Elias Rukla in Shyness and Dignity, he too comes to doubt all that he has believed and professed, to second-guess his career and all that it purported to do. And he too must fathom, exactly what it is he stands for and where he goes from here.
Professor Andersen’s Night is a thoughtful novel–a novel of ideas and questions. It is a novel that stays with you for the better.
And makes one consider where any of us actually stand.
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