Perhaps it is the darkness that swallows the Scandinavian sun come November of every year. Perhaps it is the snow, which blankets a landscape as threatening and rugged as it is beautiful. Perhaps it is his own personal tragedy, but whatever the cause, few modern authors can so eloquently, so simply, and so hauntingly write about death in a manner that is both as timeless and as profoundly pertinent to our present circumstance as Per Petterson.
In a recent interview conducted by James Campbell of England’s The Guardian, Petterson recounts part of his final conversation with his mother, in which she stated—referring to his recently published novel Ekkoland— “Well, I hope the next one won’t be that childish.” A week later she, along with Petterson’s younger brother and father, were counted among the 159 passengers who lost their lives when the ferry Scandinavian Star caught fire. That was in 1990. Not surprisingly, a pall hangs over much of Petterson’s subsequent work. Happiness is sparse. When it appears, it is bittersweet, and though his world is not hopeless, it’s certainly bleak, as if overseen by a greedy Old Testament god eager to make his wrath known.
Petterson’s publishing career began in 1987 with a collection of short stories (Aske I munnen, sand I skoa) as yet not translated into English, and though working contemporarily with the likes of such American giants as Palahniuk and Chabon, Petterson’s world is completely isolated from that of his popular American counterparts, writers of a comic book generation who seem to refuse to leave adolescence behind or to tackle, with any vehemence, the notion of what it means to be a “man” in the 21st century. The idea, in itself, is a tricky one, for the word “man,” singular and wrought with connotations that often elicit a snicker from today’s sarcastic, hip and ironic intelligentsia, has almost become a taboo topic. It is as though this umbrella term must be sub-divided into categories before it can be thoroughly addressed, if it is still even possible to focus on this insular aspect of life in a post-Feminist world. Haven’t many—both men and women alike—been working to break down the male hegemony that has dominated society, and, to a certain extent, literature? To render obsolete all those nasty undertones elicited by the masculine moniker? So then why has Petterson’s fiction, which is steeped so deeply in the “masculine experience,” resonated so positively and strongly with American critics and audiences alike?
Petterson, whose work calls to mind the reserved nature of such “masculine” (and occasionally maligned) writers as Knut Hamson and Richard Yates, and whose prose style echoes Hemingway, makes a more difficult target than the host of present-day male writers who choose to explore the masculine question through worlds of hyper-violence and hyper-reality. They are the men at the bar talking a good fight, while Petterson is the guy in the corner, who, with a single, quiet look, can curtail any looming scrap. He knows he has them beat before they even have the chance to step into the ring, and because of that he’s never going to, no matter how much they goad him.
Still, his characters are fighters. In In the Wake, the novel that in many ways is a direct response to the Scandinavian Star tragedy, Petterson’s narrator, Arvid Jansen, (an admitted “stunt man” for Petterson) recounts:
I try to remember when it was that I last saw my brother, face to face, but all that comes to mind is that once we fought in the hall at home when he was twelve and I was nine, and we were alone and rolled on the floor and punched and punched each other and tore the coats down from the hooks and knocked the chest over and tipped the vacuum cleaner out of the cupboard…and then we suddenly stopped because we realized both at the same time that we didn’t have anything to fight about.
They are men who brawl not because they have reason but simply because they must. Because they possess an animalistic quality they disdain but nonetheless accept. The singular moment for Petterson is paramount. The accidental shotgun blast which takes the life of a brother in Out Stealing Horses, or the forgotten photograph still clutched by To Siberia’s “Sistermine” as she watches her beloved brother Jesper flee Denmark under the cover of night can be described simply as the experiences that form the rest of one’s life. They are moments that if lived differently would have resulted in, as Petterson’s Trond of Out Stealing Horses claims, “different men.”
With rare exception, Petterson does not allow his characters any kind of meaningful camaraderie. Friendship is all past—chapters written and closed— relevant only in memory and in how they inform current, banal interactions. Still, Petterson is careful to steer away from the clichéd lone wolf narrative. His characters partake in no penance, for redemption was forfeited long ago, and it is quite apparent from the beginning that there will be no vaunted homecoming.
In In the Wake and Out Stealing Horses, Arvind’s and Trond’s isolation is both a self-inflicted wound and personal triage—a layman’s gauze where the exactitude of a surgeon’s hand is needed. And though Sistermine’s exodus from Denmark is rooted in a nascent wanderlust, it is less the romance of travel than the bleakness of her present situation that leads to her flight. All of Petterson’s narrators soldier on not because they are noble, but because there is no other option. Theirs is a singular path, yet Petterson never brings the traveler to the final stop. Instead, he makes the local rounds and visits each station along the way, pausing to get out and peruse the scenery before resuming a journey that is reminiscent, sometimes, of W.G. Sebald’s beautiful circumlocution.
But to discuss Petterson without discussing the role “the father” plays in his fiction is to ignore the seminal force behind his works. It is this psychology that seems, more than anything else, to inform his fiction. For Petterson, fathers are unfathomable, yet incredibly close. They cast shadows, and Petteson’s narrators bask in their inescapable shade. As Arvind recounts to a woman with whom he has just slept:
He was past forty when I was born, but he was different from the other men where we lived. He was an athlete. I mean a real pro. He had taken his body as far as it could go and filled it with a strength you would think it could not hold, and you could see it in the way he walked and in the way he ran, in the way he talked and in the way he laughed that there was a fire inside him that no-one could ignore . . .
Yet there is no trace of the heroic in Petterson. There is nothing to be celebrated. His heroes are not conquering, for that same father was “Good at everything and best at nothing. He was not fast enough. He could keep running in the tracks longer than most, but weaker men crossed the finishing line before him . . . he had the strength and he had the will, but he did not have the speed nor the imagination to give him that little extra. But that did not break him.” Likewise, in Out Stealing Horses, Trond’s father, a garrulous and capable resistance fighter during World War II is also an adulterer whose last letter to his wife offers no special greeting or mention to a son who has accompanied him faithfully throughout the entirety of the novel and who reflects, with feigned indifference, “I don’t know. I really thought I had earned one.”
Perhaps this is the reason for Petterson’s popularity in America, a nation that, in a strange way, has recently been forced out of its adolescent consciousness and must boldly confront its own “mortality” on the world stage. Petterson’s men do not exude the cocksure swagger of Nathan Zuckerman, Frank Bascombe, or Rabbit Angstrom, arguably the most recognizable American male protagonists in the last thirty years, and who, in a myriad of ways, mirror the myth of American greatness. Arvind and Trond are subtle and removed. They neither seek to be at the center of things nor do they possess the chauvinism of their American cousins, who smugly haunt similar dark locales, but for different reasons and with different outcomes. For Petterson, sex is not the ultimate achievement of the man, and it is rare to find it glorified. When it appears, it is more compassionate than passionate. The exchanges are vapid and short, reminiscent more of a well needed nap than an existential experience. And though To Siberia is narrated by a woman, it seems less concerned with the inner workings of the female psyche, and more an attempt on the part of Sistermine to understand her father, brother and the occasional, often nameless, lovers who circle around her. On the night of her brother’s flight, she spends the night in the boat of a fisherman to avoid the curfew imposed on Denmark by the conquering Nazis. “I still don’t know the fisherman’s name,” Sistermine recalls “or if he’s still alive, but I let him use my body that night in his boat. It gave me no pleasure, but he didn’t say ‘No, thanks,’ and then that was done with.”
Petterson’s work possesses a profound malaise, though it is not the malaise of nostalgia. He is not creating a better past to make up for what one might find lacking in the modern world. Instead Petterson’s fiction is an exploration of consciousness. His voice is reflective, as though his characters walk the fine line between life and death wholly aware that they are, in the grand scheme of things, nothing more than blips on a radar screen. He encapsulates their humanity in the most minute of moments, as evidenced by Arvind when he says, “I was exhausted and happy and fell asleep at once, and the few times I woke I looked straight up at the sky with its multitude of stars, and I knew the names of the biggest ones, and I saw the gas flame shining and heard it crackling and felt at home in the world.” Often, a reader of Petterson will wonder if, in fact, his narrators would truly mind never waking, because they tacitly concede there’s the real chance they wouldn’t be missed.
However, what is most interesting about Petterson is his completely unadorned approach to literature in a time when gimmicky, postmodern offshoots seem to dominate the Best Seller lists. And while his characters are insular, they remain, at the same time, aware of the world around them, for it is a world that frightens them. One whose transformations they do not necessarily agree with or understand, and it is from the chaos of this world that they wish to escape. To be able to call into question a world view and have success in a time when the vast majority of the readership seems more concerned with the “tell-all” memoir and “first hand” experience, is a rare feat in today’s literary scene. But Petterson is a rare writer. He is a fearless writer; one who has given voice, in his own small way, to the fears of a petrified age. Petterson is the type of author America has been lacking for a while, and maybe the greatest irony is that it took a Norwegian to highlight the unspoken demons which haunt a country all too eager to ignore them and childishly push them aside.
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, We Are Never As Beautiful As We Are Now, is forthcoming from Ampersand Books.
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