Professor Andersen's Night by Dag Solstad

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Professor Andersen's Night by Dag Solstad

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A more caring and considered Kafka, where a professor witnesses what seems to be a murder – and does nothing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 160 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099578420

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A Christmastime in Norway. Spending his Christmas Eve alone, yet celebrating the age-old occasion the traditional way just by and for himself, is Professor Andersen. While taking time to muse on the party-hosting neighbours lit up in their own apartments across the way, he sees a young woman get roughly manhandled by what he thinks is a young man, after which their curtains are closed and suspicion is allowed to mount in the Professor's mind. He attends a dinner party – arriving far too early, to have the opportunity to talk the case over with his best friend – and goes away, spending many hours with his colleague, yet carries on doing nothing about reporting what he is sure was a murder. He and the relationship to the criminal in his mind are the basis of this short novel.

From past experience, Dag Solstad is firmly in the modernist-revival camp, and even though this early work, in English for the first time, could have been different, it isn't. What little dialogue there is, other than the Prof talking to himself, is lumped together with everything else into page-busting paragraphs, although there is an inherent readability in this work and its translation. It's important to note it dates from 1996, as a lot of the novel is about the then imminent turn of the millennium. The dinner party guests were once cutting-edge, absorbers of avant garde art and proponents of reactionary politics; no more. At work the Professor, who teaches literature, is forced with equating his reactions to the classical Norwegian canon of Ibsen and not much else, with the response it gets from people a century away from that author. As he himself points out, his generation know nothing about the one three removed – great-grandparents are unknowable with our modern considerations and lack of looking back.

But before screeds of that turn you away from considering this, there is the very traditional modernist case of the mysterious crime. And that, of course, brings with it its own problems, as enjoyable as that may be. We crest the wave of generational angst only to find us happily back with the mystery of why this man does not ever report what he saw, and we immediately think of Kafka. Kafka, of course, would long ago have taken this Professor away and make him accused of the murder, or at least lock him up until he does proceed to give his testimony. With this more tender variety of Kafka, in a book that packs the state of the nation for the older, educated generation of reader in amongst so much more, any imprisonment is done to Andersen by his own mind. There is only his own conception of himself, and his self-awareness – remember the Christmas celebrations nobody else is ever party to? The man's character comes across strongly in his talking to himself, especially when we get to the nuts and bolts of why he remained silent, why he still watches the flat and the man he would accuse, and how this mystery – even to himself – makes him feel.

However the book has a problem when it comes to its own singular kind of conclusion. (I do baulk at discussing endings, but as this one is in the back-cover blurb, I'll let it swing.) Here there is too much talking to oneself, and the answers don't really tally with what went before – they're certainly a lot less enjoyable. I'm not asking Solstad to be more Kafkaesque than he has been – the fact he takes a beat from that author and puts it gently into a much more realistic world, and looks at that with a mature, measured eye, does not make this the best of the new crop of modernistic writers, but does stretch the style. Professor Andersen – if not his students – might approve. If it weren't for the last twenty pages, I know I would have.

I don't have any generational connection to modernist writing, I just like it when it succeeds, and I think this did, if not throughout. But like Andersen I could well be in a minority – appreciating what really is old-fashioned, and even with this example a more staid variety of what was once, like Ibsen, something to really stagger the audience. This won't stagger its audience, and it really won't be for many people, but for those of us with the taste for such things, this is – up to a point – quietly fascinating.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Novel 11, Book 18 remains this author's best in English. For denser, possibly purer, modern modernism you might enjoy Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

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