Existential is a word whose presence is common enough in present day literary discourse; especially fond of it are young students whose own liminal state draws them toward this questioning and metaphysical topography. And yet there is a rather poor understanding of the idea en masse. Existentialism is like anarchy or socialism—a term once steeped in radical social relevance but since stripped of its once powerful connotations. What was once an active mode of being, one that involved a life built around the desire to find answers to universal questions, has been replaced by an affected ennui that lingers in its own solipsism rather than bringing the larger world into discussion. Much of what claims to be “existential” discourse in contemporary literature is nothing more than a one-sided conversation on nihilism or inertia. Moreover, it is fair to argue that America has never, truly, produced an existentialist writer worthy of the term. Our closest attempts can be seen in the works of the Lost Generation, the suburban masters of the 1950s, and in Carverite minimalism of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, but even at their best they lack a certain je ne c’est quoi that permeates Kafka or Kundera or Beckett. And while some might be tempted to introduce the Beatniks into the discussion, claiming that the transience of Kerouac rightly dovetails with the notion of the existential experience, they should be reminded that there is a huge difference between self-aggrandizement and the aggrandizement of the self—the former of which he is guilty.
The existential novel is most at home on the European continent, where it has flourished repeatedly in the wake of two world wars, the brunt of Soviet communism, and the subsequent ethnic conflicts that have been exacerbated by all three of these catalysts. Today is no different, for it may be argued that the foremost existentialist writer working in contemporary letters (restricting the field to one who has been widely translated into English and widely available to English speaking audiences) is none other than Per Petterson, the Norwegian author best known in America for his 2007 novel Out Stealing Horses and his most recent endeavor, I Curse the River of Time, published by Graywolf Press in August 2010. Yet it is In the Wake, released in English in 2002, that most vividly articulates Petterson as existentialist and cements him back as heir to such old masters as Knut Hamsun and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
To understand In the Wake, which features Arvind Jansen, the same narrator to be found in I Curse the River of Time, one must first become familiar with Knut Hamsun’s epic, if muddy, Hunger. For those unfamiliar with Hamsun’s debut novel, Hunger is an annoying book. It frustrates and often is void of pathos. Modern readers will, in many instances, be left cold by its remorselessness. The voice of Hunger is a petulant one, as though its anonymous narrator is a child denied its favorite toy and made to sit in a corner. Hunger is not a good novel, but one should never confuse a good novel with a revolutionary one, for if one is to side with Kundera’s argument in The Curtain, that the novel should only exist to further promote its form, then Hunger succeeds where many a safe and middling work that revels in the tired conventions of novelistic discourse fails. Moreover, Hunger, like Casablanca, is a victim of its own success. Having not come to it first, many readers will find it filled with tired clichés not realizing that each over-wrought and tired moment was first seen here, and subsequently copied ad nauseam. Secondly, nothing happens, and readers raised on the pyrotechnics of plot will be hard put to follow a character whose chief task is to wander a city, starve himself, and rail against the notions of God and love, and yet this, again, strikes to the heart of the revolutionary nature of Hamsun’s form.
Often the existential novel will lack a traditional story because plot becomes secondary to introspection, to questioning the modes of being that dominate normal, bourgeois society, and the resulting actions of the novel are born therefore out of the character’s desire to test the varied hypothesis that have played out in his or her mind. Action will yield not further immediate action but a new series of questions to be mined by the consciousness of the character—which is to say that “character” in the existential novel is nothing more than a heightened sense of language used by the author as a vehicle by which he or she can examine the state of the world. Existential characters are often difficult to love because they are brash; they exist at the margins of society as observers whose role is to point out and comment on the minute absurdities that constitute “civilized” modes of being. In his 1970 essay “The Art of Hunger” Paul Auster writes of Hunger’s protagonist “[he] peers into the darkness hunger has created for him . . . reality has become a confusion of thingless names and nameless things, for him the connection with the world has been broken.” Thus freed from the constraints of society, he can more freely comment on it. He can move among people as though a ghost, just as Raskolnikov and the Underground Man do in Dostoyevsky’s early novels Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground. Like the protagonist of Hunger, they too are superfluous men who cannot find a niche in bourgeois society and thus either navigate the periphery or retreat entirely from view. Turgenev, a writer well known to and praised by Hamsun, also follows this mold, but despite these many overlaps with the Russians it is not to the east that we must look for the bridge that brings these men to Petterson but to Europe’s southwest.
In Camus’ L’Etranger, Meursault follows a similar path to Hunger’s protagonist, though one might assume that the first forty years of the 20th century forces Camus’ character to be even more nihilistic than Hamsun’s earlier creation. Created roughly a half century apart, these characters glorify the margins; their existentialism is one of destruction, though whether it is their own or that of others becomes meaningless. They simply wish to arrive at that point which is “end.” In a way, both Meursault and the protagonist of Hunger possess a strange type of strength, a bravery set at odds with the later Dostoyevsky notion, expressed in The Brothers Kamarazov, that man’s greatest ability is to continue on in the face of oblivion. For both Meursalt and the protagonist of Hunger, to destroy, to give into the nascent animalistic quality of man and not to suppress it, wins the day, and it is here that one must finally introduce Petterson into the conversation.
Sitting at the heart of In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time, Arvind Jansen can most aptly be described as a character who is wretched in the purest sense of the word. Although tragedy has marred his life, he is not a sympathetic character and reader empathy towards him is lukewarm at best, yet we cannot detest him because he represents all that we might descend to should the stars align for us in the wrong manner. And Petterson’s skill is that even in Jansen’s darkest moments he retains shreds of humanity that are absent in both Hunger’s protagonist and Meursault. At his core, Jansen is immature and lost, a veritable man-boy whose emotional growth appears to have been stunted. He remains an adolescent in the body of a forty-three-year-old man; he is obnoxious and grating, yet he is a more fully realized creation than that of Hamsun’s Hunger. In Jansen we have a character whose life has been demolished from the outside, unlike Hunger,where the suffering is self-inflicted. Jansen is not an overt masochist nor is he a sociopath like Meursault; he is a regular man attempting to grapple with the fact that much of his family has perished in a ferry fire, that he is undergoing a divorce, and that his brother attempts suicide. With each trial, Jansen’s world continues to shrink until he is left with little more than his cell of an apartment and the streets of Oslo to comfort him, and he roams them much in the same way that Hamsun’s character wandered their cobblestones a century prior. Yet unlike in Hamsun’s book, Jansen is not afforded the easy out of ultimately being able to hop on a ship out of Christiania (Oslo) on what is nothing more than a whim at Hunger’s end.
There is nothing whimsical about Jansen, and though he has more than enough reason to renounce his humanity and join the rank and file of Hunger’s protagonist and Meursault, he fights to return to the normal human realm. Even on the margins, drunk and alone, he wants to retain his connections to the larger world, and his anger is the result of feeling that the world does not want him. Notably, one of the most telling and interesting moments for Jansen in In the Wake comes on the heels of his brother’s suicide attempt, during which Jansen visits his bed-ridden brother in the hospital under the auspices of caring. Here, he finds himself demolishing whatever tentative rapport they have by accusing “So you thought you could just go off and leave me on my own, did you?” For Jansen, the words are filled with disdain, frustration, and a grudging respect that his brother possessed the gall to down a bottle of pills in an attempt at attaining a freedom that Jansen knows he is incapable of achieving. His anger is a selfish one, and his concern is one borne only out of self-interest. He does not want to be left on this earth with nothing, and even though he seems only capable of alienating all of those who were once close to him through his deliberate and thoughtless actions, he needs thepeople that death continually conspires to take from him.
Death, and its many manifestations, is central to both the early and contemporary existential novel. Without the crisis of grand plot, it becomes the compass foot around which a story’s action will revolve. For some, like Meursault, meaning can only be found in death. For the protagonist of Hunger, to flirt with death is to experience an almost orgasmic rapture—a high he must constantly re-attain through his continued self-denial—for in death God is omnipresent, and with Him the notion of eternity, or at least solace.
God, or the notion of “God,” has always cut to the heart of the existential question, and even as His existence is continually renounced by Hunger’s protagonist He still maintains power over him, for to mock God is not man proving his power over Him, but rather reaffirming that God is still there. In curses and oaths the protagonist of Hunger validates the notion of the Christian God who suffers the malice of mankind’s abuses and weaknesses so that ultimately they might find strength and live; it is, ironically, his rage and his frustration at the idea of God that sustain the protagonist of Hunger during his most malnourished hours. But God does not pose the same nemesis for Jansen. God appears very little in Petterson’s works, and He is neither an external force to be railed against nor is he an internal foil to man’s baser instincts. In fact, God is palpably absent in In the Wake as anything other than an interjection or sudden phrase uttered in excitement or dismay. The word is hollow and weightless. It serves to highlight Jansen’s and man’s remove and isolation in a way that Hamsun’s constant railing and protestation never does.
With death constantly lurking in the eaves of In the Wake, it is not surprising that Jansen often recounts tales of when he is driving, or that he is in motion throughout the novel whether behind the wheel of a car of simply walking the streets of Oslo. His is a belief that “if I added one thing to the other until it was out of control and at the same time made myself numb and just looked straight ahead, that was a way of living I could manage.” For Jansen past is not prelude; it is a ground zero from which the character must flee, but despite his flight it remains omnipresent, and the great skill of Petterson is in forcing a man desiring a past-less nature to be all-consumed by his history. Yet even as he strives toward this numbness, Jansen cannot achieve it. He never becomes the sociopathic Meursault, and he never becomes as absurdly comic as the protagonist of Hunger. He still seeks a salvation, but for Petterson this salvation rests not in a singular, almighty God but in the gods of literature. It is on the page that one might cheat death and validate this present existence.
Unlike many present-day narrators, Jansen, even in his basest moments, is an elevated intellect—one that is above that of the reader and who requires the audience to rise to meet him. Petterson is not a democratic author and he does not write down to his readership. He assumes a baseline knowledge, and even though his characters are mostly laborers of the working class, they remain literate beings whose allusions run the gamut from Eastern Taoist thought to late Marxist philosophy to German magical realism. In Petterson’s work, literature not only offers these people a notion of escape; it usurps the role God played for his predecessors. Petterson’s pantheon is a unique one to which his characters continually allude, and it is in literature that one might live eternally, as Jansen (a published author in In the Wake) recounts dryly:
I remember myself at eighteen reading Keats and Shelley and Byron and dreaming of publishing one book, or maybe two, which would be on everyone’s lips and be everyone’s mirror and when they looked in that mirror they would see the people they might have been and they would have to cry, and after that I would just disappear, become one of the young dead and thus immortal, but now I am one of the middle aged forgotten.
Later, Jansen even goes so far as to imagine himself as Hamsun’s Glahn (of Pan) where he might “have a dog named Aesop or Lyra . . . retreat among the trees and watch them pass and the dog would sit there obediently at my feet. I could have had a gun and lived on what I managed to shoot . . . and lived in a cabin with the few things I needed.” But Petterson does not allow Jansen to stop there; In the Wake even includes a brief moment of Jansen’s writing transcribed, which includes:
“Early November. It is nine o’clock. The titmice are crashing against window panes. Sometimes they fly unsteadily off after the collision, at other times they fall to the ground and lie floundering in the fresh snow before they get back on the wing. I do not know what I have that they want. I look out the window across the field to the woods. There is a reddish light above the trees towards the lake. The wind is getting up. I can see the shape of the water.” I am writing myself into a possible future.
Seemingly this would be nothing more than an otherwise innocuous moment of character revelation through introspection—another rendering of Jansen’s possible life as Glahn—and yet, it is in fact, with a few subtle variations resulting from differences in translation, the opening paragraph to Petterson’s subsequent novel Out Stealing Horses, where the main character, Trond, does in fact live an almost Glahn-like existence alone in an isolated cabin with a dog named Lyra who joins him on the hunting and fishing exhibitions that sustain them both mentally and physically.
In a sense, Jansen, and by proxy Petterson, is a Romantic, which ostensibly should set him at odds with the basic tenants that form the building blocks of any existentialist work, for Romanticism, with its noble undertones and emotional outpourings and glorification of the natural world is steeped in the fantastic. But even as he flirts with fantastical notions of himself, Jansen refuses to be fully ensnared by the cloak of Romantic longing. He never lingers in these dalliances of thought; Petterson does not allow for it. Rather, he uses it to heighten the sense of loss inherent in Jansen because while at the outset these fantastic ideals might be things to which Jansen can aspire, it soon becomes clear that they will never be attained. Even the placid idyll of the isolated cabin that later manifests itself in Out Stealing Horses is not without cost, and once the veneer of the locale is stripped away, we are left with an interior world that is hollow and rusting. For Jansen, and for many of the characters in Petterson’s oeuvre, one place or one dream is no better or more fulfilling than another. They are only different, and happiness comes from their prospect, however grim, but never from their achievement.
Often, it is in the achievement of something—a goal, a trust, a revelation—that the existential novel will end. More often than not this realization will parallel the death of a character, who having grasped the greater goal, no longer need exist in the world anymore, but whereas Meursault dies, Hunger’s protagonist hops a ship out of Christiania and Dostoyevsky’s men seem to commune with the heavens, Petterson’s Jansen slinks away much in the same manner in which he arrived. There is no firing squad, fanfare, or grand departure. We understand that the journey will continue, and that only time has passed. New things have been experienced, but they have not brought with them anything of “value.” Events are simply events that will lead to further events.
The final line of In the Wake, as with all of Petterson’s translated novels, is both far reaching and a summation of all that has come before it. It is not the wisdom of a changed man but an aside—the quip of the man in the driver’s seat whose eyes do not leave the road as he drives onward towards whatever new scars are in store around the next turn. Petterson is not a nihilist, and for that reason neither is Jansen, and despite the darkness of his themes, they are not hopeless; still neither are they hopeful, for Petterson is carving a new ground between the two—a kind of hope no-man’s-land pockmarked by the craters produced by life’s bombardments. Thus Petterson has put a new spin on the existentialist novel for the modern reader. We will be scarred, and we will persist, but the scar is not a badge, and the memory of the wound offers no truth or solace. It is just another wound, as though Petterson is saying it is only our capacity to hurt that truly makes us human.
Adam Gallari is pursuing a Ph.D at the University of Exeter. An assistant editor for the Chicago-based literary magazine Fifth Wednesday Journal, he has an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside, and his debut collection is We Are Never As Beautiful As We Are Now.
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