“[N]EARLY ALL OF the books he liked were merciless books that showed life to be impossible and contained a bitter black humor.” This statement, attributed by the narrator to Bjørn Hansen, protagonist of Novel 11, Book 18 (1992), comes as no shock to Bjørn’s longtime friend and hiking partner, Herman Busk. At this point in the novel, we’ve just chainsawed through the 14-year history of Bjørn’s failed marriage to Turid Lammers in a mere 70 pages. What the bookish Bjørn now wants to read, he confides to Herman as the story settles into the more leisurely present, is “a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humor, black or otherwise.” Realizing he has confided this bleak thought to the wrong person, a dentist with middlebrow tastes in literature, Bjørn relents: but such a book would be boring!
Novel 11, available in a new edition from New Directions, is not the mercilessly bleak book its protagonist wants, but it is a bitter pill to swallow. Fortunately, the bitterness is helped down with a dose of Dag Solstad’s droll, self-mocking humor. The Norwegian novelist descends, if that’s not too unfair a word, from Knut Hamsun, the Nazi sympathizer whom Isaac Bashevis Singer credited, along with Dostoyevsky, with inventing the internal monologue novel. Of the two co-inventors, Hamsun was the funnier one. Consider these lines from Hunger, which issue from the lips of the starving protagonist of the novel: “I simply couldn’t take food, I wasn’t made that way; that was one of my characteristics, a peculiar thing with me.”
In an interview with The Paris Review, Solstad said that his goal as a novelist has been “to write books that could do what Knut Hamsun’s books did to me” when he read them at 16. Solstad’s comedy is not as uproarious as Hamsun’s could be — his sense of humor is so dry as to be at times imperceptible — and his protagonists generally find themselves in easier circumstances, swaddled as they are in the comforts of middle-class life. But they are lonely, misanthropic types, prone to arguing with themselves, either isolated because of their preoccupation with existential questions or driven by isolation to take them up, which probably amounts to the same thing.
Bjørn knows how ridiculously out of step with the times his literary existentialism makes him, which is part of the fun. He holds the position of treasurer in the provincial town of Kongsberg, a job Turid had encouraged him to apply for, almost on a lark, after he’d abandoned his first wife and two-year-old son in Oslo to start a new life with the dazzling drama teacher in her hometown. So, Bjørn becomes a “stern servant of the State,” just like that. Again at his wife’s urging, Bjørn becomes involved in the amateur theater company that orbits around Turid’s magnetic presence. For a while he is content to play minor roles in the crowd-pleasing comic operettas the company stages year after year, and to allow Turid her flirtations with the younger theater lovers — “Kongsberg’s avatars of homo ludens” — who are in thrall to her, intense flirtations that always stop just shy of consummation. So long as Bjørn, too, is enthralled by Turid’s beauty and her powers of seduction, he is content to play second fiddle to her socially, to bask in her modest stardom.
Two developments bring an end to this holding pattern. By Bjørn’s misogynistic calculations, Turid’s appeal has plummeted as she has aged. At the same time, the theater company is attempting to stage a challenging tragedy by Ibsen, which was Bjørn’s idea, and for the first time he dares to take a leading role. The play is a disaster, the acting by turns “tedious” and over the top. Turid, contenting herself with a minor role, “betrays” Bjørn on stage by campily mocking the tanking production, to the delight of the audience and Bjørn’s eternal humiliation.
Here, as in Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity (1994), we have the “moment of the minor character” that, ending in humiliation, unmoors its protagonist and spells the end of his life as he knows it. Divorced and adrift, Bjørn now sees the whole chain of causality that led him to this moment as arbitrary and absurd. During a medical visit to the offices of Dr. Schiøtz, an associate from Bjørn’s theater days, he unloads his troubles. “Nearly everything is totally indifferent to me,” he tells the detached, drug-addicted doctor, who flutters his eyes in agreement.
“Existence has never answered my questions,” he added. “Just imagine, to live an entire life, my own life at that, without having found the path to where my deepest needs can be seen and heard! I’ll die in silence, which frightens me, without a word on my lips, because there’s nothing to say,” he said, hearing the desperate appeal in his words. Spoken to another person who had long ago ceased to function as a human being, who was nothing but an empty shell in his relations with the society in which he had a high and important position. Oh, that sun shining in through the municipal curtains on the window of this doctor’s office at the Kongsberg Hospital!
In Dr. Schiøtz, Bjørn has found a confessor for his most bleak thoughts, and vice versa. The two malcontents devise a plan together whereby “Bjørn Hansen would actualize his No, his great Negation,” through an “irrevocable” act, and the doctor would get a cut of the insurance money.
Even couched in existentialist terms, Bjørn’s problem still smacks of the classic male midlife crisis. He doesn’t pursue a younger lover — that would be too obvious. But, as with Elias Rukla’s crisis in Shyness and Dignity, he experiences his social irrelevance as inseparable from what he perceives to be the declining desirability of his wife, whose beauty formerly inspired him to worshipful heights and sustained his marriage. As usual, Solstad pulls no punches regarding the waxing and waning of his characters’ desires and the baseness of their motivations. This ruthlessness has perhaps not won him many female readers, but it is one of his virtues as a novelist.
Another of Solstad’s virtues is his supreme confidence in dispensing with the traditional conventions of the novel form. He is “fearless of error,” to borrow a phrase the art critic Peter Schjeldahl recently used to describe Cézanne. Novel 11 moves from crisis to crisis, episodically, unevenly. Narrative balance — with the exception perhaps of Shyness and Dignity, an uninterrupted monologue that can be read in one sitting — is not a condition to which Solstad’s later novels aspire. What is lost in terms of a satisfying overall shape is made up for in sentences that revel in repetition and a straightforward description of facts — sensorial, historical — giving many passages a hypnotic quality.
Solstad began publishing in 1969, the same year Beckett won the Nobel Prize. Like Beckett’s anguished avatars, Solstad’s protagonists’ existential doubts lead them not into liberation and redoubled social commitment but to endgame scenarios, where the prevailing mental weather is a doomy quiescence with a decent chance of self-immolation. Such emotional terrain, however, has not been an impediment to Solstad’s output. He has published 30 books, including 18 novels. Five of his later novels, written between the 1990s and the present, have been translated into English, starting with Sverre Lyngstad’s critically acclaimed version of Shyness and Dignity in 2006 (Lyngstad is also the translator of Novel 11). Each of these later novels is driven by the self-examination of an inconsequential, middle-class, middle-aged man in the grip of an existential crisis. Novel 11, Book 18, as the title suggests, is a variation on a well-worn theme.
There is something exquisitely Bartlebyan about a novelist writing the same novel about a comically doubt-stricken man over and over and reaching the same grim conclusion: even in a modern, prosperous country like Norway, there are men for whom life is impossible. Bjørn’s crisis involves more than the dissolution of his second marriage. It is also the crisis of an entitled man who one day realizes, far too late and to his horror, that his life is insignificant and he is not fully in control of it. Chance has played a much larger role in his life trajectory than he had previously understood. Of course, these are inevitable discoveries, and the only decent reaction to the inevitable — as Professor Freud once counseled a young Carl Jung — is humor.
Just as I was beginning to despair that Novel 11 really is the kind of book that shows life to be impossible, but without the consolation of laughter, Bjørn’s estranged son Peter shows up. Solstad takes his time here, suspending the development of the narrative at the brink of the point of no return. Set to attend the local engineering school in the fall, Peter has asked and been invited to stay at his father’s bachelor pad until he finds a place of his own. The pairing is sitcom-like. The first thing Peter does is put up a poster of a Ferrari in the living room. Peter takes a step back to admire the poster, inviting his father to do the same.
The image was purely commercial, displaying the car’s dimensions and its gorgeous appearance. There was no trace of irony in the expression of the man next to it, a rarity in modern advertising, just as the image as a whole was totally devoid of irony. It emphasized the expensiveness of the car and, consequently, the power of the man who could lean against it. Nothing else.
Baffled by Peter’s literal-mindedness, Bjørn holds his tongue. Peter offers no explanation, “probably because he thought it spoke for itself.” When Peter returns from classes, the divorced town treasurer is reading Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread. Cue the laugh track. For the next 80 pages, we hear nothing more of the “irrevocable” act supposedly in the works. Solstad gives Bjørn a chance to be a father, to find a reason to embrace life. Bjørn idolizes Peter’s “hectic youthfulness” and belief in his destiny, however arbitrary such a destiny seems to Bjørn (Peter is studying to become an optometrist). But to his dismay, Bjørn comes to dislike the arrogant son he didn’t raise: “When a twenty-year-old tells his father that we live in a tough world, what does it mean?” He searches his soul: perhaps Peter’s preachiness and the loneliness he tries to conceal are expressions of his suppressed desire to be recognized by his father. Alas, the father cannot give his son this recognition — the curse cannot be lifted. The rest of the novel concerns the resumption of Bjørn’s plan, its execution and aftermath, which I will leave to discerning readers to puzzle over, as Solstad intended.
In Solstad’s novel T. Singer (1999), the writer, in one of his occasional authorial asides, declares: “[I]n every novel there is a big black hole.” Bjørn’s refusal to examine his limitations as a father is only one of Novel 11’s brood of black holes. We learn nothing of Bjørn’s upbringing, nothing about what might have made him the kind of father he is. The eponymous protagonist of T. Singer and Elias Rukla of Shyness and Dignity both share this fundamental reticence toward their children, a passivity that veers into indifference. In Professor Andersen’s Night (1996), the narrator doesn’t know why he protects a murderer from criminal culpability. Solstad sets up these arbitrary boundaries to self-knowledge to generate intrigue and thus propel the narrative forward. Bjørn doesn’t know why he stopped loving Turid, who was once his raison d’être as well as his reason for making a life in Kongsberg, or why he cannot put the brakes on his march toward the “irrevocable” act. Though there are tantalizing clues to the latter mystery, the solution lies beyond Bjørn’s pay grade.
In the end, nothing — love, marriage, children, status, social life, literature, philosophy — can assuage the doubt that gnaws at Bjørn Hansen, town treasurer of Kongsberg, Norway. The radical doubt of Solstad’s aloof, Kierkegaard-reading bureaucrats places them firmly in the tradition of their 1950s existentialist forebears. Bjørn is haunted by the seeming arbitrariness of life. But instead of saying yes to the vagaries of fate, as Camus and others urged, he retreats into isolation, becomes a Bartleby, attached as much to his own impotence as to anything living and vital. There is humor in this despairing over one’s insignificance, to be sure. But this time, I’m afraid, the joke may be on us.