Shyness and Dignity

An aspect of blogging that is often disconcerting is being unable to recognise, or agree with, one’s earlier opinions of a book. Have I become more sensitive during the nine years of writing on this blog? A better reader? It is an unanswerable and rhetorical question. I certainly read different books, in a different way. I re-read Dag Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity, which I read almost eight years ago, missing entirely the unique force of Solstad’s story. The urge to delete or rewrite old blog posts is never stronger than such moments.

What Solstad captures so well is the strangeness of relationships, the way we form bonds with others. What I once saw as a pivotal moment in the novel is nothing of the sort, a mis-reading of what is in effect a decidedly powerful but trivial incident. Why do we decide to pursue a relationship of any depth with a particular person, and what is it about us that persuades that person to reciprocate?

“[…]he fully realised that, to the others, he was a person who lived in the shadow of Johan Corneliussen. But anyway, since it pointed to the obvious fact that Elias Rukla was Johan Corneliussen’s friend, it had to mean that there must be something about him too, in the eyes of the others. Elias Rukla himself often wondered what it could be. There must be something about him that caused Johan Corneliussen to prefer his company to that of others …. he had better not worry too much about what it could be, he thought – for if I discovered what it was it would either disappear or change into its unsympathetic opposite, insofar as I then would show it in a completely different way than I do now when I do not know what it is.”

Identity is shaped in context of our relationships with others. How do we form ourselves and how is our unique “I” nurtured by relationships? For those trying to live a reflective life, thinking too deeply about why our relationships exist can lead to feelings of imposture. As Solstad writes, “[…] his sullenness was, of course, only due to his trying to hide that he was overwhelmed with gratitude because Johan Corneliussen was his friend and to his having such warm feelings for him that he felt shy and miserable when this warmth swept through him.” However intimate we become, our separative, egocentric self is always present. But that self is never fixed, morphing and changing with every moment. It becomes a different self, as the self who read Shyness and Dignity eight years ago adequately demonstrates.

The narrator, Elias Rukla marries: “Yes, she’s Eva Linde, and I will never get to know why she wants to live with me, But her wanting is enough, actually more than enough; I’m delighted that she wants to, in spite of the fact that I will never know the reason why she wants to, and it is not certain that the reasons are the same as I wish they would be.”

Is there a better summary of the strangeness of long-term relationships, especially marriage? The concept of identity can seem so precarious. The power of Shyness and Dignity is its intriguing scrutiny of how two egocentric selves fuse together in a relationship and how their relationship of each other to each other depends on their self’s self-relation.

I re-read Dag Solstad’s book as there have been two new translations into English of later works, but before I get to them I plan to re-read his earlier translated novels.

8 thoughts on “Shyness and Dignity

  1. This post really hit home. As another person who has blogged for years, I often look back at earlier posts with puzzlement. Did I really say that? Was I so naive then? Although on occasion, I surprise myself and actually like what I said years back. But, probably like you, I have always blogged because I believe it makes me a better writer and a more focused reader. I never used to read books a second time. But when I write about a book now I almost always re-read it (or most of it) and I always find out how much I missed the first time around. I think every book tells you how it wants to (or needs to) be read; but it often takes me fumbling around for a while before I catch on – and sometimes that can take most of the book. Cheers!

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    • I often re-read immediately after finishing but it isn’t often I re-read a book that I read several years ago (except for a few old-time favourites). Being able to look up my opinion of all those years ago is usually disconcerting, but, like you, occasionally I surprise myself positively. Writing about my reading experience has undoubtedly made me a better, slower, more careful reader and I also think I retain more of the texture and atmosphere of the book. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. The urge to go back and revise my opinions is often so strong that it kicks in the moment I hit “Post.” To some writers I feel I owe a great apology. But I won’t delete what I’ve written; hopefully, though, a re-read – or an assessment of a another of a particular writer’s books – will give me a chance to make amends.

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  3. You’ve hit a nerve there, Anthony. I had occasion to look at some of my earlier posts recently and couldn’t remember writing them and wondered whether I’d react to the books in any kind of similar way. I think blogging does influence you as a reader because you have to actually define your reaction to a book more formally, rather than letting it just settle in your brain. And I imagine that is an ongoing process. I certainly think the way I read and respond to books is competely different now from how it’s ever been.

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  4. I kept a reading journal way before I kept a blog, but that just means I have even more iterations of re-reads to be confronted with. And my reviews have got longer and more “mature” over the years, so sometimes I look for a review of something and am horrified by the naive one-liner I find!

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