Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories (trans. by by Seán Kinsella). Dalkey Archive Press. $11.95, 100 pp.
“Yes, said Bernhard, that’s the done thing, I suppose. He continued over to the shed, put down the watering can, lit up a cigarette, went back to the table, and sat down. . . . His wine glass was full, he drank. It had grown darker, their faces weren’t completely distinct, he felt almost unseen. Almost free.”
—Kjell Askildsen, “The Unseen”
Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of “The Unseen,” experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to entertain a few guests at their family home after their father’s funeral the following day. Moments later, after allowing himself to be subsumed by the night, Bernhard is brought out of orbit and back to life when a stray cat brushes up against his leg: “the sudden anguish returned, as if to humiliate him.” He kicks the cat, hard, then paces uneasily across the lawn for several minutes, chanting his own name, realizing all over the boring hell of being embodied.
“The Unseen” is one of the eleven works comprising Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories, and its ennui is contagious. Askildsen’s characters are caught in cycles of dispirited action, suffering through ordinary lives and keeping dirty secrets. Together, these stories spanning just twenty years from a career over six decades long, read like material gathered from a men’s support group, just without the yelling or emotional breakthroughs. First- and third-person main characters are invariably men, each one struggling to surpass the last in misogyny and self-hatred. Those qualities shape their private deviances, but the aforementioned secrets are wholly grounded in strange thoughts, not acts. Sexual fantasies wander from teenage girls, to sisters, to sisters-in-law, while slightly more chaste thoughts involve punishing nagging wives by burying the fetid corpse of a dog in the vegetable patch and refusing outright to lower the Norwegian flag come nightfall at a country house. Recuperating from the car accident that killed his wife, the featured monster of “A Great Deserted Landscape” is a triple threat, suggestively leering at his sister from his sickbed, resenting his mother’s existence, and admitting to a mixed reaction of disinterest and glee regarding his recently deceased wife.
Fortunately, for the women, Askildsen’s men remain, ultimately, impotent. They might dream of punishing the world and wives that make their lives so banal, but they never act on their desires. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, this means that the work is as dreadful and plodding as the realities the protagonists spend their time longing to escape. That we are spared scenes of sexualized violence—the obvious undercurrent of these males’ subconsciousnesses—is a blessing. Instead, Askildsen dirges on the will to become “unseen,” to cast off from being and stand apart as a universal observer. These are men in modes of existential crisis who know that neither they nor anyone/anything else really matters. In the absence of real moral conflict (these men are all unwavering in their psycho-intellectual supremacy, therefore interpersonal infractions are assuredly moot and meaningless), and unable to escape their lot in any true way, the grand malaise building up beneath the surface just results in a lot of trips to pubs and subsequent cover-ups.
When the pub isn’t nearby, wine bottles are. Thus, in place of Chekhov’s gun, there is Askildsen’s glass: if one is full in the first sentence, it will be emptied in the second. Each story becomes fueled by a seemingly endless supply of alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee. Substances become substitutes for emotions: these men can never adequately express themselves, but at least they can still get tipsy. The author’s trademark spare lines, which, along with his overtly male enunciation often garner him comparisons to Ernest Hemingway, read as flat and choppy, and manage to break from the sense of realism usually inherent in succinct sentence texts. Though Seán Kinsella’s translation is true to its source he cannot breathe life into these words. Askildsen lacks the subdued vitality inherent in Hemingway’s novels.
In some ways, Askildsen is the strange heir to Knut Hamsun, who died the year before the Askilden’s first publication. Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize in 1920, was Norway’s most celebrated author in his time, a distinction now often given to Askildsen. In his later years, Hamsun’s extremely problematic political affiliations (he wrote a eulogy to Hitler), overshadowed the skill and accomplishments of his earlier work which had heralded styles of modernism and explored the tensions between man and nature, man and society, reality and the subliminal. Conversely, Askildsen’s family was active in resistance efforts during the Second World War, and two of his older brothers were imprisoned in the Grini concentration camp. After the war, Askildsen spent time in the British zone of occupation in Germany. His earliest short stories appeared less than a decade after the end of World War II.
However formative these experiences were to Askildsen’s private life, the terror and disruption of war are transformed into interior imbalance and listlessness in his written work. The world created in this prose is, ultimately, a distillation of bourgeois, male boredom, and though its denizens hate their fate, they do relatively little to extricate themselves from it. The men who populate these pages are ultimately all the same single recurring man, whose deepest wish is to achieve absolute disassociation—to dissolve into the darkness, to become unseen. By the end of the final story replete with the same dread, one can only hope they get their wish.
Daniel Barnum is a writer and translator whose poetry has been featured in the St. Sebastian Review and Long River Review. He lives in Philadelphia.
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