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A Bright Voice from a Dark Place

Out Stealing Horses

by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born
Graywolf, 258 pp., $22.00

In his great essay “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson has some famously cool things to say on the warm subject of grief. In January 1842 Emerson and his wife Lidian lost their much-loved son, five-year-old Waldo, to scarlet fever. On the morning after the death Emerson wrote to various of his friends and poured out his sorrow:

My boy is gone…. The world’s wonderful child…has fled out of my arms like a dream. He adorned the world for me like a morning star…. All his wonderful beauty could not save him…. I cannot in a lifetime incur such another loss…. Shall I ever dare to love any thing again?”1

Not very long afterward, however, in “Experience,” he was writing in quite another vein:

In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous.2

For the literary artist grief is at once a productive and a perilous theme. A deathbed scene and all that follows may seem guaranteed to win the reader’s empathy, but it can turn to bathos in the twinkling of a tear. As usual, the ancients knew how to do it—“About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters,” as Auden ruefully acknowledged—and certainly the Greeks had many a word for it. Antigone’s weeping for her dead but unburied brother still dampens the page, and Dido’s lament echoes plangently down the ages.

However, the nearer we come to our own disenchanted times the harder it is to write convincingly of large emotions, or to be convinced by what is written of them. The sorrows of young Werther seem preposterously overdone, while the demise of Dickens’s Little Nell, at which Oscar Wilde was not stony-hearted enough not to laugh, leaves us queasily embarrassed. Has something essential gone from our emotional lives? Have the horrors witnessed by our age, if only at a televisual remove, destroyed in us that aptitude for vicarious grieving which our forefathers enjoyed? “The only thing grief has taught me,” the hardheaded Emerson confesses, “is to know how shallow it is.”3

Per Petterson’s latest novel to be translated into English, Out Stealing Horses, is thoroughly grief-stricken, though not so sodden with tears as its predecessor, In the Wake (2002), to which it is not a sequel, exactly, but certainly a companion piece. Petterson, a former librarian and bookseller, is one of Norway’s leading contemporary novelists, and Out Stealing Horses has won many accolades, including the London Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and this year’s IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, at #100,000 one of the world’s richest book prizes. Yet Petterson’s novel is not an obvious prize-getter. It is muted and contemplative, suffused with autumnal tones, and infinitely sad in its intent. It burns palely, and although it is not perhaps the instant classic that many admirers have claimed it to be, it is a subtle, richly wrought, and tough-minded novel, one that Knut Hamsun himself would not have spurned.

The story has two distinct chronologies, woven skillfully into and around each other. In November 1999 Trond Sander is sixty-seven—though his tone, perhaps intentionally on the author’s part, is that of a much older man—and has withdrawn from the world to “a small house in the far east of Norway.” The little house is set in the woods close to a river that flows into a nearby lake. There is a village not far away, though the coming winter snows will make it hard of access. Down by the river there is a cabin where another hermit lives, whose name, we will learn, is Lars Haug. Trond has a dog, Lyra, to keep him company; he listens to the BBC World Service; he plays Billie Holiday records on an old gramophone; he has plans to put in a new floor, and make other improvements to his lair; he is, he tells us, content: “All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this.”

It is a mark of Petterson’s skillfulness and control as a storyteller that although we know there must be large revelations to come, we do not chafe to have them at once, but are content to trust the tale and allow it to give up its secrets in its own time. In the opening pages Trond has a nighttime encounter in the forest with his reclusive neighbor. Lars Haug is a hapless fellow whose own dog refuses to come to heel and even growls at him, which leads him to tell of how, when he was eighteen, he had been compelled by his mother to shoot an Alsatian dog that had been chasing deer. Although it comes rather too precipitately in the narrative, this torchlit scene—we can almost see it, as if painted by an unbenign Georges de La Tour—is aptly unsettling, and in its understated way institutes the pattern of violence, guilt, and unassuageable regret that shapes the book.

Although we are not apprised of the fact straightaway, Trond recognizes Lars Haug as a significant, and tragic, figure out of his far past. The forest meeting releases a torrent of memories from the summer of 1948, memories that Trond is not at all sure he welcomes. Then, too, Trond was lodging in a cabin in the forest, but only for a summer holiday from his home in Oslo, in the company of his beloved and hero-worshiped father. One morning his friend Jon, who lives nearby with his ten-year-old twin brothers, Lars—yes, the same—and Odd, comes to the cabin to suggest that the two of them should go “out stealing horses.” The horses in question belong to Barkald, a local farmer. The two boys do not intend actually to steal the animals, only to borrow them for a morning’s wild bareback riding. Trond notices, or perhaps it is only elderly Trond noticing in hindsight, that Jon is behaving in a strangely withdrawn manner. It turns out that earlier that morning, while he was supposed to be taking care of his brothers in the absence of his parents, Jon had carelessly left his hunting rifle in a corridor of the house, the twins had found it, and one of them, Lars, had shot his brother with it by accident, killing him instantly.

The above account of the tragedy is only a little less spare than Petterson’s own. In his unadorned yet forceful, mutedly poetic prose—handsomely Englished, as Nabokov used to put it, by Anne Born—one finds echoes not only of Knut Hamsun and Jens Peter Jacobsen, but also of Hemingway’s tight-lipped protagonists, of the quietly self-reliant narrator of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and, given the pastoral setting, of Thoreau and Robert Frost:

…My skin smelled of resin when I lay in my bed at night. I went to sleep with it and woke up with it and it stayed with me all the day long. I was forest.

In places, too, one is reminded of other novels of childhood and adolescence, such as Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island and Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, and even The Catcher in the Rye. Yet Out Stealing Horses is less about the past than the lingering effects that the past has on the present, less about childhood than age and the process of aging. Above all, it is about loss, and what tragic loss does to the soul of the survivor, writhing in sorrow, anger, and guilt. Petterson, for all the diffidence and restraint of his tone, is a threnodist, and Out Stealing Horses and its predecessor, In the Wake, are sustained laments for the death of loved ones.

It is always dangerous to extrapolate from the life of the writer to the plots and themes of his novels, yet in this case it is impossible not to take note of the fact that Per Petterson lost a number of close relatives in the Scandinavian Star disaster of 1990, when the passenger and car ferry, en route from Oslo to Frederikshavn in Denmark, caught fire, with the death of 159 passengers. In the Wake is an almost unmediated account of the aftermath of that appalling tragedy as it affected one man, forty-three-year-old Arvid Jansen, writer and former bookstore worker, whose parents and two younger brothers perished aboard the blazing ferry.

As the narrative opens it is six years after the disaster, but Jansen is still in a state of seemingly incurable grief: gin-soaked and unwashed, he suddenly becomes violent one morning, kicking the locked door of the bookshop where he worked as a sales assistant years before. He notices that the newsstand next door is still operating, where he used to buy his tobacco and newspapers and an occasional Kvikk Lunsj bar. He recalls himself and his brothers when they were young, preparing for a ski trip, with “two oranges apiece and perhaps a Kvikk Lunsj chocolate bar if we were lucky,” and immediately the projector in his head begins to whirr:

I remember an office on Drammensvei with a red cross on the door, a fireman is showing a video from the inside of the boat with a landscape of half-naked, prone bodies: THE CORRIDOR OF DEATH, the front page of Verdens Gang said, that video was on the inside of my eyes; skin, I see skin, velvety dull in the flickering light of a lamp moving onwards, restless shadows between elbows and hips, shoulder blades and necks, a sea of hushed softness where nothing moves but the light which brings life to what is not living.

In the Wake is a less subtle but, in its raw and seemingly unstudied way, more immediately satisfying work than Out Stealing Horses. It is the record of a wounded soul taking its first, faltering steps toward recovery. Not the least of Arvid Jansen’s torments is the fact that he should have been on the ill-fated ferry but had declined to accompany his family. Now his last-remaining relative, his architect brother David, recently divorced, has attempted suicide, something that fills Arvid less with sympathy than anger. As the book closes the two men engage in a cathartic and blackly comic fistfight, and pour a glass of whiskey and toast each other in the almost cheerful acknowledgment that they have reached “rock bottom.”

Arvid has already encountered harbingers of faint hope. There is the Kurdish refugee upstairs, Naim Hajo, to whom, even though he knows only three words of Norwegian, Arvid can speak about the difficult relationship he had with his father when he was alive and which continues even now when he is tragically dead. Another neighbor, Mrs. Grinde, a single mother, offers Arvid succor that is more direct and more intimate, and that, in a faintly clichéd way, seems even to offer the promise of happiness ahead.

He also has his writing. Near the start of the book, when he finally gets himself home after his crapulous early-morning assault on the bookstore, we find him at his desk, before his “veteran Mac,” writing, word for word, the opening paragraph of what will become Out Stealing Horses. “I am,” he informs us, “writing myself into a possible future,” and one of the deeply buried tropes of both these novels is the redemptive or at least restorative power of the written word and all that it is capable of conjuring: hope, balm for a wounded spirit, even, indeed, a future.

Though Arvid Jansen’s future, happy or not, seems set to be full of problems, Trond Sander’s, in Out Stealing Horses, is far more uncertain—if, that is, one discounts the certainty of the death that he intuits will be, for him, not so far off. Like Arvid, Trond has suffered grievous losses. Three years previously his wife was killed in a car crash that he was lucky to survive, if lucky is the word, and in the same month his sister whom he dearly loved succumbed to cancer. The circumstances of these losses are not dwelled on, and the effects of them are not presented as overly traumatic; the scar tissue that has grown over Trond’s wounds is thick and tough, though the pain is still there, deep within. Unlike Arvid Jansen, Trond has, intentionally or not, allowed the urge toward spiritual self-preservation, which is so strong in all of us, to harden him if only a little against the depredations of loss and grief.

Out Stealing Horses is at one level an interrogation of death, not death as Thanatos the terrible, but as a commonplace inevitability. Wittgenstein held that death is not an experience in life, but Petterson apparently does not agree. In a fine passage, young Trond, brooding on the tragedy in which Jon was involved, wonders what it would be like actually to die; it must feel, he thinks, “as if you held an egg in your hand, and then dropped it”:

There was a narrow opening there, like a door barely ajar, that I pushed towards, because I wanted to get in, and there was a golden light in that crack that came from the sunlight on my eyelids, and then suddenly I slipped inside, and I was certainly there for a little flash, and it did not frighten me at all, just made me sad and astonished at how quiet everything was.

For all the book’s brevity and restrained tone, there is a lot of plot here. Early and passing mentions of the war and the German occupation do not alert us to how large a part Norway’s violent fate in the early 1940s will play in the lives of Trond and the other characters. Even the title phrase, “out stealing horses,” will have a pivotal significance, as a password. Trond’s father and Jon’s mother, we learn, were deeply involved in the resistance movement, as couriers of messages and, in one tragic instance, of human cargo, to and from Sweden. The partisan whom they attempt to smuggle across the border by boat is shot, after a betrayal by Jon’s jealous father, and the two activists barely escape with their lives to neutral territory. Three years later, in the summer that Trond recalls, when the shooting by Lars of his twin brother takes place, Trond’s father and Jon’s mother reunite and make a second, and final, escape to what to them is freedom.

Yet none of these novelistic alarms and excursions carries the dramatic weight of the two most momentous yet least obviously dramatic events in the book. The first is an unexpected, and unsettling, visit to the cabin in the woods by Trond’s adult daughter Ellen. When he fled his old life to come and live in the forest Trond had told no one where he was going, and Ellen has had to call “all the town councils for eighty miles around and more to find out where you lived.” The visit lasts only a few hours, and in that time very little happens: Ellen admires Lyra the dog, and takes her for a walk; she advises her father to get a telephone, which he promises to do; Trond spills coffee on the tablecloth; they talk, desultorily. Yet when at twilight Ellen leaves, Trond’s place in the woods is no longer quite the refuge and sanctuary that it was before her coming:

I go up the steps and turn off the yard light and walk through the hall to the kitchen. Lyra is at my heels, but even when she is behind me the room feels a bit empty. I look out at the yard, but there is nothing but my own reflection in the dark glass.

The second, extraordinary epiphany—for epiphany is what these passages amount to—occurs when young Trond accompanies his mother on a trip to Karlstad, in Sweden. Trond’s runaway father has written, out of the blue, to tell his wife that he will not be coming home, and that there is money owed to him in a Karlstad bank which she should collect. The letter is starkly businesslike, and carries no special greeting for Trond—“I don’t know. I really thought I had earned one.” The mother has to borrow money from her brother to finance the trip. When she and Trond arrive in Sweden they are immediately at a loss: “They talked differently here, we heard that at once, and not only the words but the intonation sounded foreign.” Mother and son wander the streets of the city in search of the bank where the money is lodged. Since Trond’s mother is too intimidated by the unfamiliar surroundings to ask for directions, Trond must do so instead. However, the first person he stops cannot understand what he is saying, and Trond, all his anger and bitter resentment welling up, threatens to punch him in the mouth.

When they eventually stumble on the bank, they discover that the account contains only 150 kroner, a pitiful amount, and furthermore that it cannot be taken to Norway but must be spent in Sweden. His mother decides that Trond will have his first grown-up suit, and on the spot they turn into a shop and buy it. The episode reads like the description of an initiation rite in a latter-day Norse saga, the mother leading her son forward into the magical realm of manhood. In the new suit, “I looked a completely different person…. I did not look like a boy at all”:

When we were out on the pavement and walked on down to the station and to a café, perhaps, for something to eat, my mother put her arm in mine, and we went on like that, arm in arm like a real couple, light on our feet, our heights a match, and she had a click in her heels that day that echoed from the walls on either side of the street. It was as if gravity was suspended. It was like dancing, I thought, although I had never danced in my whole life.

One would prefer not to close with a cavil, but the book does sound some oddly wrong notes. Novels about momentous and life-changing events in the far past are notoriously prone to bathos and cliché, and Petterson here and there lets his concentration slip. The reader will find it hard to suppress a faint groan when, after a wonderfully written scene of high drama, the narrator announces that “from this moment on, I thought, nothing will be as it was.” Has anyone, ever, in the history of the world, really had such a thought at such a time? Surely we pass through life’s most significant intersections in blithe obliviousness.

Occasionally, too, Petterson makes the grave mistake of owning up to the story-spinner’s embarrassment at the vulgar contrivances to which he must stoop. Pondering the strange fact that he and Lars Haug should find themselves by chance living in adjacent cabins in the wilderness, Trond declares disapprovingly that “that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept,” and goes on doggedly digging himself deeper into the same hole for a further half page.

Another unfortunate, small failure of nerve occurs after the scene when young Trond parts from his father for what the boy intuitively knows will be the last time, and describes himself going through all the motions of a scene of final parting “as if I had been thoroughly rehearsed in the film we have seen so often, where the fateful farewell is the crucial event and the lives of the protagonists are changed forever…”—this apologia, too, goes on for a good half page and more.

Yet these are small blemishes upon a finely fashioned and lovingly burnished piece of work. For all his grievous theme, Per Petterson’s is a bright voice out of a dark place. At the end, old Trond looks back with stoic resolve, which Emerson surely would have approved, upon that day when in his new suit he walked arm in arm with his mother along that Karlstad street:

My new suit fitted my body so lightly and moved with me every step I took. The wind still came icily down between the houses from the river, and my hand felt swollen and sore where the nails had pierced the skin when I clenched it so hard, but all the same everything felt fine at that moment; the suit was fine, and the town was fine to walk in, along the cobblestone street, and we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt.

  1. 1

    Carlos Baker, Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait (Viking, 1996), p. 185.

  2. 2

    Essays & Lectures (Library of America, 1983), p. 473.

  3. 3

    Essays & Lectures, p. 472.

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