Book Review: Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad

Journal Copy - 37

“The Quiet Christmas” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

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 DignitySolstad’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.

Pocket_fullbok

Book cover of the Norwegian paperback edition.

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.

Book Review: Broken Umbrellas and Ennui: Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad

FullSizeRender(2)

“Broken Umbrella” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

Dag Solstad, a novelist and playwright, has won numerous prizes for his writing, including the prestigious Nordic Prize for Literature. He is the only author to have recived the Norwegian Literary Critics Award three times. This is the first English translation of his work. Solstad lives in both Oslo and Berlin.
Back Cover copy of Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad

And most of us have never heard of him.

In general, we Americans are very ignorant of writers in other languages. It is not our fault (despite our staunch embrace of our mono-lingualism). American publishing houses take very few chances with translated works. Of course, there are exceptions. Publishing houses such as Europa Editions, Graywolf Press, and Vintage have been steadfast in bringing forth translated novels. And every so often they catch on. Elena Ferrante is a phenomenon; Jo Nesbo continues to thrill; and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series was a publishing behemoth.  But in general, we are isolationists when it comes to reading.

To wit, Shyness and Dignity, Solstad’s first novel to be translated into English, was published in Norway in 1996 and in the States in 2006. It was his first novel translated into English–thirty-seven years after his first book came out in 1969.

(One would think that his books covering each of the FIFA World Cups from 1982 on would have introduced him to Americans. But then again, we as a nation are just beginning to watch soccer; obsessive reading about it is probably a bit down the road.)

And so we have Shyness and Dignity. (As of now, there are three novels translated: Shyness and Dignity, Professor Andersen’s Night, and Novel 11, Book 18.)Shynessbookcover

Elias Rukla is a middle-aged teacher, teaching Norwegian Literature in a National high-school in Oslo. He is frustrated by his work, has lost belief in the relevance of what he professes, and feels useless in the new  educational arena. One day, after his last class, a class in which he felt he was being particularly trenchant, in which for the first time in a while he believed he had said something original, something worthwhile, and in which at his greatest moment of insight, he was interrupted by the bored groan of one of his students, Elias left the building for the day.

It was raining, he was prepared, but his umbrella would not open. Another moment of frustration. Many attempts at opening it escalated into a battle. He sliced his hands with the umbrella ribs,  threw the umbrella on the ground and began jumping on it.  As students gathered around to watch their teacher wrestle with this inanimate object, he lashed out, calling one tall blond student a “fat snout” and a “damned bitch.”

At that moment, he realized his career was over.

This scene is actually a very small part of the novel. The opening frame, if you will. As he wanders the streets of Oslo, considering the irreparable consequences of his actions, he thinks of how he would tell his wife.

And then he thinks of how he had met her. And then he thinks of the friend who had introduced them. And then he thinks of what he and she and the friend had once been and had now become.

It is a story of hopes unrealized, optimism and activism dampened, and life soullessly borne.

We follow Elias through his graduate school days and his fascination with a young philosophy student who is the darling of both his peers and his professors. Not only is Johan Corneliussen a prodigy in philosophy–particularly Kantian philosophy–but he is a prodigy in life. As Elias explains:

Johan Corneliussen moved without difficulty from ice hockey to Kant, from interest in advertising posters to the Frankfurt school of philosophy, from rock ‘n’ roll to classical music. Operettas and Arne Nordheim …  Music, ice hockey, literature, film, soccer, advertising, politics, skating.

It was this total immersion into life–so different from the shy and insecure Elias Rukla–that was Corneliussen’s attraction. And Rukla became his shadow, inseparable friend, partaking in it all and basking in the reflected adulation that was directed towards his companion.

As we follow the college students through their various interests and politics, their associates and lovers, we also see the crumbling of young certainties. Except that Elias retains his much further into life.

It is struggle with his umbrella that brought about this realization that all has changed, his career, his wife, his beliefs, his interests.

And with this meandering journey homeward, he has reviewed his entire life up to this very moment, this moment when he feared what he would say to his wife. All had changed and he was just realizing it now.

Solstad’s novel is an examination into what makes us act, what compromises we make, and what indignities we are willing to bear. It is an internal examination, not of conscience, but of consciousness. It is a somewhat dreary look at the dampening of hope, the degrading of cultural literacy, the momentum of capitalism. Solstad’s sentences are long and meandering, walking through a paragraph much the way the Elias walks through the streets of Oslo, but each one is perfect.

Each one brings us a few steps closer to the destination that Elias must ultimately reach.

Book Review: West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

Sketches - 296

“American Dreamer” 2016 by jpbohannon

In the May 17th issue of The London Review of Books, the historian Michael Wood asked this question about two current jazz biopics–Miles Ahead and Born to be Blue:

“Why can’t we see early success as anything other than a burden?”

While he was talking about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, the subjects of the two films he was reviewing, there are scores of others to whom we can reference.

And probably no greater example is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Always with high ambitions, Fitzgerald burst onto and into the literary scene in 1920 when he was merely 23 years old with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. The first printing sold out in three days, but more importantly it allowed him to marry Zelda Sayer–who a year earlier had broken off their engagement when she considered he couldn’t support her in the style she was used to.  They married a week after publication.

The Fitzgeralds’s fame was as pyrotechnic as the ‘twenties themselves.  More than the fact that Fitzgerald’s stories  were regularly appearing  in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s (and were providing Scott with a very handsome income), their lives were the stuff of tabloids and gossip, of excess and extravagance.

d73a3dd6fb0b84a190cabfd946d81115

Scott and Zelda on the French Riviera/gettyimages

He was the King of “the Jazz Age” (a term that he coined) and Zelda was the Queen of the Flappers. Their escapades in New York, in Paris, in Rome, in the South of France were the stuff of legend. They burned brightly and largely.

In deed and in myth, the Fitzgeralds put the “roaring” into the “Roarin’ Twenties.”

But then like the decade itself, it all came to a crashing halt. Each of Fitzgerald’s subsequent novels were less and less successful. The Great Gatsby garnered little critical or commercial attention and Tender is the Night even less so. Beset by  financial problems–exacerbated by his alcoholism, deteriorating health, and Zelda’s mental instability–Fitzgerald focused on writing “commercial stories” for the drying-up magazine market. Ultimately he headed to Hollywood, contracted to write screenplays for MGM.

10589221-1-e1437674520633

Cover of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

And it is here, just as he is about to leave for the West Coast, that Stewart O’Nan picks him up in West of Sunset, a poignant re-telling of Fitzgerald’s last three years.

 

It would not be a spoiler to say that the main character–F.Scott Fitzgerald–dies in the end. At 44 years of age. Nor to say that Dorothy Parker has the best lines (e.g. “She’s slept with everyone in Hollywood except Lassie.”) This is all common knowledge or is expected by anyone slightly aware of the literary world of the 20s and 30s.

But what is not commonly realized or considered or witnessed is the emotional pain, the loss of confidence and the genuine anguish that Fitzgerald suffered in those final three years of his life. This we glean from reading West of Sunset.  In O’Nan’s novel we see a Fitzgerald struggling financially–his wife’s sanitarium fees and his daughter’s tuition are constants–as well as struggling with the seeming inanity of Hollywood productions and his own demons. Getting a “screen-credit” is essential and far too often projects are cancelled, rewritten beyond recognition, or given to another writer–writers that a once confident Fitzgerald had looked down upon at the height of his career. (Ultimately, he ended up with only one screen credit.)

At first, I felt that O’Nan was taking the easy road.  Characters such as Hemingway and Bogart, both who enter the story early–are overlarge and don’t need much development. But they get it anyway. Bogart proves to be  a good friend though an enabler to Fitzgerald’s alcoholism. (Despite Fitzgerald’s having split Bogart’s lip in a fight long before the book begins.)  And Hemingway, enters the story early, asks a favor of Fitzgerald, and disappears, though never quite gone from Fitzgerald’s mind. We see the struggling and “washed-up” Fitzgerald, often wondering about Hemingway’s reaction to something he did or did not, to his successes and his screw-ups. The Hemingways and Bogarts, the Shirley Temples and Joan Crawfords, the Selzniks, Mankiewiczes, and Mayers, they are all extras, mere shades flitting by as Fitzgerald battles against the currents of rejection, failure,  physical weakness and his past. Even Sheilah Graham, the strongest and most able of those around him, could not get close enough to save him from himself.

F. Scott Fitgerald and Sheila Graham

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham/Princeton University Library

I anticipated –and enjoyed–the Hollywood gossip and the “inside” view of the golden days of the big studios, but what O’Nan has done so well in West of Sunset was to capture Fitzgerald as he struggled to deal with his wife Zelda’s madness, his daughter’s growing independence, his love affair with Sheilah Graham, and  his debilitating alcoholism. (It seems every time that Fitzgerald leaves Hollywood to visit Zelda back East, he returns either sick or beaten-up as a result of his excesses.)

In the end, the novel is not solely about a famous American artist who burned out and died early. That story is almost hackneyed. (Take your pick, David Foster Wallace, Robert Bolaño, John Kennedy Toole. The list goes on for much too long.)  Instead, it is a moving portrait of a man, a talented man, trying to keep his head above water while the world–and the fading hope of the American Dream– keeps dragging him under.

At times, O’Nan’s prose is evocative of Fitzgerald at his very best. The keen observations,  the golden descriptions, the accurate judgement is richly reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s writing. But O’Nan is no mere parodist, and West of Sunset is not a pastische. It is a wonderful novel–it would have been wonderful even if we didn’t know the protagonist so well.  As the writer George Saunders described the book, it is “one brilliant American writer meditating on another.” And that is very true.  O’Nan’s West of Sunset is intelligent, imaginative and thought-provoking. It is a novel that echoes in one’s mind over and over again.

•       •       •       •       •       •       •

This spring I have thought a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have taught Gatsby in three separate courses,  I have read Fitzgerald’s notebooks written during the last years of his life, and I have read Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset. (This all sounds more deliberate than it actually was–more coincidence than good planning.)

So much has Fitzgerald and Zelda and Sheila Graham, and Gatsby and Daisy and Nick Carraway been on my mind these days, that I have come to see our spring itself as a mirror of Fitzgerald’s career. Spring 2016 started out unseasonably warm in March, with records high temps, middled off in April, and has been abysmally cold and wet through most of May. It has followed the arc of Fitzgerald’s life.

However, the exception is that after his death, both he and his works have skyrocketed in estimation and entered the pantheon of American Literature.

Who knows what this summer will bring.

Quote #57: “Then the big elm shot up ahead…”

“Elm Tree” illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

 “Then the big elm shot up ahead, lying in wait for them at the bend of the road, and he said between his teeth: ‘We can fetch it; I know we can fetch it–‘”
                                                        Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome