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.