Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad
|Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A petite modernist novel in three thirds, which successfully intrigues with its humdrum hero having an unusual goal in life. It is not quite flawless but for the right reader (like me) is very entertaining.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 192||Date: November 2008|
|Publisher: Harvill Secker|
If someone were to ask me to define a 20th Century modernist European novel, I would suggest several elements it would probably need to have several of. It would have an urban setting which would probably be nice enough to visit in this day and age, but not to live in for as long as the characters do. Here the setting is a pleasant enough Norwegian town, with no delusions of grandeur – the only sign of City hereabouts is that on top of a supermarket by that name.
There would probably have to be an element of bureaucracy. Our main character here, Bjorn, is a town treasurer, which equates somewhat to a civil taxman and bailiff combined. He would probably have to know a female he felt inferior to. Bjorn has run away from his bride and young child to chase adventurous romance with Turid, who has gifted him a decade and more of loving companionship. She is the popular and successful light of many people's lives, although happily monogamous.
There really should be some failure, probably of the public kind – Bjorn and Turid are in the town's amateur dramatics, where he urges them to break from years of musical drudgery to try Ibsen. It is a complete and utter flop. There might be a character or situation the hero does not understand – here, this is Bjorn's now-adult son, who comes to stay with his single-again father while he studies.
There might have to be a famous transformation, although that would be telling. And there really ought to be a change to the style we normally get with our novels – the paragraphs might well be too big to fit on one page, there could be very sparse dialogue, the narration would definitely be on the omniscient side, and any comedy would have to be the darkest possible.
All the above is present and correct, although I should reassure you that the advance proof copy I received of this was such a weeny little paperback it was no surprise the paragraphs could stretch from one page to a third. And I don't think this is a hardship at all. In fact I can find very little at all disagreeable with the style or content of this book – it ticked all my boxes for modernist fiction very nicely.
It was unusual to read a book set out in one chunk of writing that was so easily split into three thirds – Turid and the drama, the son's lodging, the third section (which for me was the most fun, even with the theatricals early on). The breaks between the sections might jar with some people, for they can be rather abrupt. I don't think I'd be alone in finding the second third a page or two too long, as it and elsewhere has the author give us the smallest of repetitions – we are shown or told things two or three times over, when the precise, concise style has already clearly got the message across.
It was more than a surprise for me to find this book coming out of contemporary Norway. If I were to come across it blind I would have definitely said it was part of the modernist style I read a lot of at sixth form and uni – it would have been written in the 1930s, and was translated from the original German.
And while on that subject, what a translation. It feels exactly what was needed – a style that is unshowy, yet spot-on, with a chatty aside now and again, and the Norwegian lifestyle terminology translated into things like VAT and A-levels, so it is a very enjoyable book turned into a very enjoyable English (not American) book. It is a compact little work of art, and the modernist trope of chuntering along to itself is not present at all.
It is not a novel for all, and I would have to beware of recommending it to everyone, but for the right audience this is a little pleasure, and a most agreeable surprise. I hope this author, more than noted at home in Norway, more than ignored in the English-speaking world (check the incomplete and out-of-date Wikipedia page), crosses my path again soon.
I would like to thank Harvill Secker for sending the Bookbag a copy to review.
This book sent me to the library to seek out the only other Solstad book to be published for the British market – Shyness and Dignity.
A literature teacher has a flash of revelation while going over a standard text with a class of sixth formers. But seeing how little this, his telling of it – and him himself – means to his class, he flips and takes it out on his umbrella. A huge flashback proves this has not been the first time he has been adrift from other people.
This however is the flipside to the modernist coin – an author lathering himself up into a frenzy regarding one aspect of life, with huge, eighteen-page paragraphs, tautology, and sentences with huge amounts of clauses. (Now you know where I get it from.) Two and a half stars, proving again the prior book is a gem to relish.
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