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


“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.


Sunday Movie Review: Headhunters

It used to be when I thought of Scandinavia, I thought of crystal-blue fjords, aromatic forests, statuesque blondes, and a palatable wholesomeness.

That’s before Stieg Larson gave us his girl with the dragon tattoo, and Jo Nesbø, his various riffs on Scandinavian violence.  Now when I think of Scandinavian, it seems a place of outrageous torture, imaginative violence, and not a little repressed fascism.

Headhunters (Hodejegerne) is Mortin Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s slick, stylish novel of a professional headhunter who is also a major art-thief.

Roger Brown (played by Aksel Hennie who has a striking resemblance to a young Christopher Walken) is a very successful headhunter–he brings talent to very powerful and influential corporations.  In interviewing potential clients, he discovers their routine, the artworks they own, and whether they have a dog.  In this way, he is able to case his next heist in the luxury of his offices. Roger tells us that he is only 1.6 meters tall (about 5’3″) and that he has to “compensate.”  He does this by buying his stunningly beautiful wife (Synnøve Macody Lund ) everything he thinks she desires: A house right out of the glossiest of architectural magazines, expensive and rare jewelry, an art gallery to run.  He can afford none of this–which is why he must steal art, and even that income is proving to be too little.

We begin by seeing him steal a lithograph by Munch.  (Is it just me or is Munch the most stolen artist of our time?  I don’t know how many versions of The Scream have been stolen in the past thirty years.)  Anyway, the print that he steals is called “The Broach” but it looked very much like one of Munch’s Madonna paintings.

Munch’s lithograph “Madonna”

But even the Munch is not enough to silence Roger’s creditors, so he has to go after a really big score–a long lost Rubens that is in the apartment of a man who he is recruiting for a major position.  In the interview, we learn that the man, Clas Greve, (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a former mercenary, a world expert at tracking people and deposing of them–aha, the plot is setting itself up. He is also ruthlessly ambitious.  We also soon learn that he is sleeping with Roger’s wife.

I will not spoil how it all plays out except to say that there is an enormous amount of bloodletting and creative violence. We move from Roger’s sleek house to Appalachian-like cabins, where the patina of civilization has been long ripped off.

Headhunters is very taut, fast moving, and exciting.  It works very well as a slick thriller, a clever heist movie, with surprising twists and tense, rapid moments.  It also aspires, it seems, to be a good-old-fashion “slasher movie.”  This is where it fails.  The blood is overdone.

And along with trying to be a heist movie, a thriller, a slasher-movie, it also makes periodic stabs at being comedic.  There are very fat twin cops protecting Roger’s hospital room who bungle everything–although their very large size might be what saves Roger’s life.  There is a nonsensical bit with a Russian prostitute and Roger’s partner in crime (which has to be introduced for a technical reason, but it is mostly nonsensical and more irrelevant than essential.)  Heist, thriller, slasher, comedy–perhaps Tyldum is trying to juggle too many balls at once.

In truth, however, Headhunters is a very good way to spend an hour and forty minutes.  Fast-paced, handsome, and clever, if it does nothing else, it is sure to drive more people to reading Jo Nesbø.  And that’s a good thing.

Check out the trailer below: