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.)
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.
“I see myself forever and ever as the ridiculous man, the lonely soul, the wanderer, the restless frustrated artist, the man in love with love, always in search of the absolute, always seeking the unattainable.”
Henry Miller, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
I first published this post in February 2014. But I thought I’d re-post it in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, 2016. If nothing else, scroll down to the video at the bottom to see Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners recite Flan O’Brien’s grand old poem.
“The Workman’s Friend”
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.
When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.
When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.
When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.
In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlin’ plan
You still can turn to a brighter life –
A pint of plain is your only man.
— Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)
As far as drinking is concerned I am a very simple man. I like my “pint of plain,” a glass of whiskey every so often, and a bottle of wine. That’s about it. I’ve never tasted a margarita or any of its offshoots, the great variety of martinis does not interest me, and anything blended or frozen seems more a dessert than a drink. And if a pint of Guinness is not available, I drink whatever stout is …or a simple lager.
So, I took my trash to the curb last Thursday night, a raw and a frozen night, and afterwards walked the three doors down to the corner taproom. Across the bar, two people were downing shots of a “Fireball.” The woman on my right told me it was a cinnamon flavored whiskey. “It tastes just like Big Red chewing gum,” she said.
Now that’s the problem right there.
I don’t want my whiskey to taste like cinnamon chewing gum. I want my whiskey to taste like whiskey. There are vodkas now that taste like cupcakes and chocolates, and mixed drinks that capture the delights of a sweet shop. I know what is going on. But I’m against it. It’s the infantilization of alcohol and it is a very lucrative business.
So fast forward a few days and I am in another city sitting in the hotel bar. I have no obligations for a good four hours, so I sit in a snug with a good book and a large glass of Jamesons. Life feels very good.
There must be a convention of sorts at the hotel because a number of similar young men come walking in, all at once. I’ll have a “Black and Blue” says the one. Make mine a “Black Apple” says another. The bartender guessed that the “Black and Blue” was a Guinness and Blue-Moon. And he was told that the “Black Apple” was Guinness and Cider. (I later learned that a “Black Apple” is also called a “poor man’s Black Velvet” which is a century-old mix of Guinness and champagne.)
But there was something in me that bristled at their orders. Leave a drink alone, why don’t you, I wanted to say. Why must you always be fussing with it?
Maybe I am getting old. (Actually no “maybe” about it!) And maybe I am getting crotchety. But for me, as the wonderful Flann O’Brien once wrote, “a pint of plain is your only man.”
Here’s Ronnie Drew and the rest of the Dubliners reciting Flann O’Brien’s poem, with pints of plain in their hands: