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

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“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: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

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Book cover for the Europa edition of The Days of Abandonment

A very good friend of mine—an Italian woman—has lately been going through a very rough patch in her marriage. These last few years have been filled with much drama and melodrama, with betrayals and reconciliations, with threats and recriminations, and with lots and lots of pain.

I know much of this because she is also a very good and honest writer, and, at times, I have been a sounding board/early reader for her essays as she finalizes them prior to sending them out. With these, I am a bad critic because I cannot separate the raw, emotional writing from the woman I know and care about. The quality of the writing seems secondary to the pain being displayed.  So I can’t focus on the writing as I should.

This was also the case when I first began Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Immediately, it too draws you in with the story of an intelligent woman–a writer–blindsided and abandoned by a careless husband. It too draws you in with the raw pain, the self-doubt, the self-incrimination of one who has been abandoned.

And Ferrante’s writing is such that we forget easily that this is all a fiction–we believe we are reading the true story of a real woman who is in pain and confusion and despair.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave,” reads the very first sentence.

And thus Olga, the narrator, is demolished. Her sense of self-worth is destroyed, her understanding of her past is shakened, her hope for the future vaporized. And through Ferrante’s words we feel that abandonment greatly.

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Book cover for the audio-book edition of The Days of Abandonment

Like one grieving at a death, the narrator experiences all the varying emotions of loss: she is in turn defeated and determined, angry and frustrated, confused and clear-minded.  Besides the trauma of her husband’s leaving, she must also deal with the business of raising two children and running a household.

At times, Olga can also be quite funny in her frustration and anger. Once when she goes to the telephone offices to complain that her service has been cut off, she is told that all complaints must be phoned in. Where do I  go, she asks “if I want to spit in somebody’s face”? And her attacking her ex the first day she sees him in the street with his mistress is very funny–and satisfying.

There is a sex scene–one that ends prematurely and unsatisfyingly for Olga– in which Olga attempts to grasp some sense of self-worth, and while sad and pathetic, it also highlights Ferrante’s skill as a writer for it is well-written and unique and believable–never an easy thing to do when describing sex.

There are sick children and dying dogs and grumpy natives and the usual manipulations that accompany a formal separation between couples. And through it all we see Olga hit bottom, recover and then survive.

At one point, Olga says, “In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.

And this is what Ferrante herself has done with her novel–she has stripped away the “superfluous,” she has asked the essential questions, and she has written from the very depths.

One reviewer wrote that The Days of Abandonment could have been written only by someone who has experienced the pain and despair of sudden separation, and implied that this is Ferrante’s own story.  I don’t know if that is true or not.

I do know that such an assumption is a critical fallacy, and it demeans the artistry that Ferrante possesses. The Days of Abandonment is a novel; it is a piece of fiction. Whether Ferrante has drawn on her own experiences or not does not matter. She has created a work of art that stands on its own.

Olga’s story is ours to read, to think about and to empathize with.  And in the process, she becomes someone we care about and worry about and celebrate with.

It is like having a good friend tell you her story.

The Days of Abandoment by Elena Ferrante
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005