Book Review: Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad

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“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.

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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.

Review: My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes

Book cover of the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See

Cover for the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See

The narrator of Alfred Hayes’ novel works in Hollywood. That is all we know. He is semi-separated from his wife; he lives alone for months at a time in L.A. and for months in New York with his wife, though his marriage, from his perspective,  is a failed and sad relationship.

In fact, the narrator finds his life and work as a failure. He sees no value in the work he does, although, as he says, the studio pays him handsomely. (He states that he is a “writher” rather than a “writer.”) He condescendingly (and somewhat snobbishly) observes the people around him, their vanities and egos, their manipulating and positioning, their theatrics and ambitions.

At a party one night, the narrator–bored with this gathering at an expensive beach house–steps outside for a smoke and sees a young woman walk into the sea. When she goes under, he rescues her and resuscitates her. And thus begins a relationship that he did not want to happen. That the woman is disturbed is revealed gradually, and she is much more than simply a young girl with unrealized Hollywood dreams.

Initially, it is her cynicism towards the business, towards love and towards life that draws him to her, that allows himself to give in to what he is also trying to hold back from. And as the two become more closely entwined–and as more of her anxieties are displayed–it becomes apparent that the two of them are very similar, a realization that is devastating to the narrator. In truth, it may be that it is the narrator whose face is now “for the world to see.”

The narrator’s deliberate and reflective thinking, his cool, detached observations, his knowing emotional cover-up, all work to create a modern anti-hero, an existentialist who is “forced” to live and work in a world that celebrates the superficial and is built basically on the dissemination of lies. It is a taut and harrowing read, a tale of self-discovery, acceptance, and angst.

My Face for the World to See was originally published in 1958. At the time, Hayes was more known as a scriptwriter. He had twice been nominated for an Oscar, had written successful screenplays for films directed by Fritz Lang, John Huston, and Fred Zinnemann, and also wrote many pieces for television including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.  As a novelist, he was most celebrated for The Girl on the Via Flaminia,  and as a poet, for “Joe Hill” which was later put to music and became an anthem for workers’ rights. (Joan Baez famously sang it at Woodstock. See below.)

The New York Review of Books re-issued My Face for the World to See in 2013, with an introduction by the film critic, David Thomson.  But this novel is by no means a Hollywood novel. Apart from the brief description of the initial party where the narrator rescues the suicidal young woman, there is no glamor, no behind the scenes peeks, no tabloid scandals. There is simply a couple of apartments and the narrator’s self-examination and his lover’s revealed past.  It is discrete yet raw, fast-paced yet thoughtful.  It is memorable novel that deserves this re-issue.

And here’s a treat. A sweetly innocent Joan Baez singing Alfred Hayes’ “Joe Hill” at Woodstock. Enjoy: