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.

Most Anticipated New Books for 2018

In the first few months of last year I sampled rather more contemporary fiction than is usual for me. Frankly much of it wasn’t to my taste and ended up abandoned. Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre, so it wasn’t too surprising.

This year, my new book purchasing will be much more restrained. These are those I am most looking forward to.

It isn’t any surprise that Seagull Books dominates the list as they have impeccable taste in bringing forth newly translated treasures. I also expect to make some new discoveries through my subscription to the always intriguing Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Giorgio Agamben, Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children (trans. Kevin Attell)
Giorgio Agamben, The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)
Friederike Mayröcker, Requiem for Ernst Jandl (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)
Ilse Aichinger, Bad Words (trans. Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey)
Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia (trans. Chris Turner)
Rachel Cusk, Kudos
Claudio Magris, Journeying (trans. Anne Milano Appel)
Dag Solstad, Armand V (trans. Steven T. Murray)
Dag Solstad, T Singer (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
Peter Handke, The Great Fall (trans. Krishna Winston)
Jon Fosse, Scenes from a Childhood
Esther Kinsky, River (trans. Iain Galbraith)
Clarice Lispector, The Chandelier (trans. Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards)
Cesare Pavese, The Beautiful Summer
Alberto Manguel, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions
Joanna Walsh, Break.up
Kate Zambreno, Drifts (since confirmed for early 2019)
Ismail Kadare, Essays on World Literature Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Dante

Autumn Books

It is my favourite time of the year for book buying, when publishers release the highest volume of compelling books. Most of the books I buy during the year are older releases, filling gaps in my collection of the thirty or so writers I return to repeatedly (the ‘I Prefer’ list in my side-bar). Occasionally I am drawn in by a new writer on the scene (Teju Cole) or by newly translated writers. Here are some of the books I have pre-ordered and look forward to reading in the colder, darker months:

  1. The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters covering the war years and the period when he wrote The Trilogy.
  2. Impossible Objects – Interviews with the inspiring Simon Critchley, covering tragedy, poetry, humour and music.
  3. 1Q84 – The long-awaited Murakami which I won’t be reading until the noise has passed.
  4. Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror and The Roving Shadowsa writer endorsed by two great readers.
  5. All the Roads are Open and Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach. A new writer to me but both books sound deeply fascinating.
  6. Professor Andersen’s Night – Dag Solstad. I enjoyed Shyness and Dignity and the brilliant Novel 11, Book 18.
  7. Dukla – Andrzej Stasiuk (review).
  8. The Map and the Territory – Michel Houellebecq’s latest provocation, his books draw me in like a rubbernecker at an accident scene.
  9. Parallel Stories – Péter Nádas. Though I must read A Book of Memories (“The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” Susan Sontag) first.

Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad

Perhaps Novel 11, Book 18 really was (in 2001) Dag Solstad’s eleventh novel and eighteenth book; if not, the significance of the title is not readily apparent. The title implies the writer’s wish for distance from the narrative; not a story, but perhaps a case study, maybe one within the filing cabinet of the sinister Doctor Schiøtz.

Written in refined, free indirect style, or better, a term James Wood borrows – ‘close writing’, any space between the author and character Bjørn Hansen is dissolved. The style, a simultaneous feeling of distance and closeness to the character’s stream of consciousness, adds hugely to the sensation of being pulled into this excellent novel.

Bjørn Hansen brings to mind Sartre’s Antoine Roquentin (Nausea):

I think it’s I who has changed: that’s the simplest solutions, also the most unpleasant. But I have to admit that I am subject to these sudden transformations. The thing is that I very rarely think; consequently a host of little metamorphoses accumulate in me without my noticing it, and then, one fine day,  a positive revolution takes place.

Hansen’s existence is punctuated by these sudden transformations, but he remains haunted:

‘You know, I find myself in this town by pure chance, it has never meant anything to me. It’s also by pure chance that I’m the treasurer here. But if I hadn’t been here, I would’ve been somewhere else and have led the same kind of life. However, I cannot reconcile myself to that. I get really upset when I think about it.’

After unburdening himself to Doctor Schiøtz, another ‘host of little metamorphoses’ accumulate, leading to a  further revolution, one that in turn will provoke another sequence of metaphysical doubts.

More powerful and successful than Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity, this novel is reviewed more completely by John Self and Stephen Mitchelmore.

Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad

Dag Solstad: described in the blurb as Norway’s leading author, an icon among Scandinavian writers. This book Shyness and Dignity, described as one of Solstad’s major works. I suspect that there is depth here that I missed through my unfamiliarity with Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.

The first part of the book, Elias’ growing tension in his senior school classroom, is brilliant. The presence of this melancholic man, set against the bored, passive defiance of his classroom, whether real or perceived, is powerful. After Elias’ pivotal action, the novel is undermined to a degree by the lofty, romantic Johan Corneliussen, a heroic figure who’s use as a plot device is flimsy and clichéd.

It’s not all melancholic introspection, there is humour here, of a sort, as in the description of a downhill skiing race:

One after another, they turned up on screen, in helmets and Alpine gear, before they threw themselves down the mountainsides of (or among) the Alps. Henri Messner, Austria. Jean-Claude Killy, France, Franz Vogler, West Germany. Leo Lacroix, France. Martin Heidegger, Germany. Edmund Husserl, Germany. Elias Canetti, Romania. Allen Ginsberg, USA. William Burroughs, USA. Antonio Gramsci, Italy. Jean-Paul Sartre, France. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austria. Johan Corneliussen knew the strengths and weaknesses of all the racers and continually informed Elias that now, now, he had to watch out, for there, on that slope, Jean-Paul Sartre will have some problems, whereas now, just look how Ludwig Wittgenstein’s suppleness manifests itself in that long flat stretch …

It’s not Curb, but I chuckled.

The writer’s artistry, to the degree it survives translation, is palpable from the first part of this novel. The second part feels compromised. I do however plan to read Solstad’s other novel in translation Novel 11, Book 18.