Readers of the Norwegian writer Per Petterson will already know him to be a master of strenuously achieved economy. Like a painter working with a restricted palette, he evokes a considerable, urgent range of emotion and experience from his intimately known surroundings: just as Alice Munro knows her territory of western Ontario down to bedrock, Petterson, too, knows each tussock and divot of his native Norway. His subjects are the intense and ineffable relationships within families and between boyhood friends; his settings are working-class apartments or row houses, or log cabins in the expansive forest, with occasional forays over the water to Denmark. Into and around this intractable matter flows the river of time itself, with its flotsam of nostalgia, pain, and regret: the unforgettable title of his 2008 novel I Curse the River of Time could serve for almost any of his works.
This spring sees the publication in English of two works by Petterson: one, his most recent novel, I Refuse (2012); the other, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, his first story collection, originally published in Norway in 1987. Both are beautifully rendered in English by Don Bartlett, who also translated It’s Fine by Me (1992). While firmly distinct in tone, style, and subject matter, the two books are nevertheless both emphatically Pettersonian; and both succeed in allowing us, in different ways, glimmers of something like light.
Many of his novels take as their protagonist Petterson’s alter ego Arvid Jansen, whose progress from boyhood to the crises of middle age—divorce, loss, and death—provides an emotionally powerful cumulative portrait. By now, we’ve traveled with him (albeit not chronologically) from the comparative brightness of It’s Fine by Me, the account of a thorny adolescence in which Arvid plays a supporting role to his best friend, Audun Sletten; to the bleached disenchantment of I Curse the River of Time, in which Arvid’s marriage is disintegrating and his mother receives a terminal diagnosis; to the naked grief of In the Wake (2000), in which a forty-three-year-old Arvid struggles to recover from the loss of his parents and siblings in a ferry accident (a tragedy that in fact befell Petterson’s own family, killed in the 1990 Scandinavian Star disaster).
Each of these books carries its own measure of violence and dread; even in It’s Fine by Me, the boys’ suburban coming-of-age is punctuated by a brother’s accidental death, by beatings, abandonment, and, for Audun, memories of family brutality and the near-ghostly menace of a murderous father. Until now, for English readers, Arvid’s has been a world in which Eden is already long lost; in which hope is stringently tempered by bleak experience.
With the belated publication of Petterson’s first book, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a short collection of stories about Arvid’s childhood in the 1960s, we are granted a glimpse of Arvid in a state of bemused wonder, trailing his Wordsworthian clouds of glory, engaged in the adventure of understanding his world. The English version is understandably dedicated to Petterson’s father: the book opens and closes with Arvid’s dad, and with Arvid’s complex and evolving love for him.
“A Man Without Shoes,” the book’s first story, begins thus:
Dad had a face that Arvid loved to watch, and at the same time made him nervous as it wasn’t just a face but also a rock in the forest with its furrows and hollows, at least if he squinted when he looked.
Almost offhandedly, Petterson conveys a small child’s apprehension of his own passivity before his father—the face “that Arvid loved to watch”—and of the man’s metaphorical stature as a monument of nature, and an austere one at that.
Once we grasp that this face—this rock in the forest—is Arvid’s earliest and abiding understanding of manhood, then the recurring importance in his later life of mastering nature becomes suddenly obvious. Arvid’s is a world in which actions must speak, because words are in short supply. As Petterson notes in a later story:
Dad had a strong back. He was always doing stuff, as often as not with his back to Arvid, and it lived its own life inside the blue T-shirt with its large patches of dark sweat in the sun and the heat. Arvid could watch it for ages and feel at ease.
In all the Arvid Jansen novels to follow, whether they are fishing, rowing, building, or chopping down trees, Petterson’s men are most admirable in their physical competence, their ability to transform the natural world.
“A Man Without Shoes,” brief and delicate, is a story about the event that strips Arvid’s Dad of his rocklike divinity, and reduces him forever, in his son’s eyes. Frank Jansen has worked in various shoe factories, and been promoted to a job in Denmark, leaving the family in Norway. The family is proud of his trade, and of his professional ascent; but he returns home just six months later out of work, a bit drunk, with some gifts from the duty-free. His brother Rolf procures a job for Frank in his own workplace, a local toothbrush factory, a demotion for which young Arvid scorns his father:
There were limits to how much you could say about something as stupid as toothbrushes.
Shoes, on the other hand, there was a lot to say about them…. Dad talked a lot about shoes, and he knew what he was talking about. But now it was over. Now you couldn’t even say the word “sole” aloud. If you did Dad would lose his temper.
Before long, Dad throws away the “rolls of leather and the shoe samples” and the “huge basket of shoe lasts, lasts of all sizes, elegant and shiny with their varnish,” that he’d kept at home to work on in his spare time, and that had excited his son’s admiration. Frank Jansen’s only comment, as he burns the lasts in the stove, is: “Now I’m a man without shoes!” His young son’s riposte—“I know…. Now you’re a man with toothbrushes!”—marks the moment in which the man is shamed before his boy, and his diminishment acknowledged.
“The Black Car” gives us Arvid’s grandfather’s death, seen from young Arvid’s perspective: the extended family is at their country cabin for the weekend, ostensibly relaxing but in fact waiting for the news: “The only person who had done anything of any importance apart from Dad was Granddad, and he was going to die this Sunday, he was probably dead already, but they didn’t know that yet.”
Arvid and his older sister Gry are about to go swimming when Granddad’s neighbor arrives by car to relay the information: “Arvid turned away, for there was something so strange about his dad’s face that he couldn’t look.” When he turns back, his father is inside the car, heading off. Their mother’s only comment is: “Be good children now, because your Granddad has died.”
The echoes of that death spill into “The King Is Dead,” set on the day of Granddad’s funeral, in which young Arvid’s imagination conflates the deaths of Norway’s king (in his bathtub!), of a bullfinch in the garden that he has held in his hand, and of his grandfather. With a child’s irrepressible awareness of comedy, he notes the priest at the funeral: “his cassock swirling round his legs like a ball gown, and everyone could see his green-checked socks”; and with a child’s ebullience, he insists upon life in defiance of his new understanding of death: “It didn’t matter because Dad was alive and Arvid was alive and he started to jump up and down, he was smiling all over his face.”
Arvid’s spontaneity and quixotic child’s logic shape these pieces. When he wets the bed, he uses “his secret trick and it always worked. Every time he had wet himself he put the clammy underpants under the dresser and the next night they were gone. It was like magic….” When a local man known as Fatso cries in front of him, Arvid reflects: “He had never seen a grown man cry. It was something you stopped doing around the time you were confirmed, the way you stopped wearing nappies a little earlier.” We learn that “he imagined that the world was once completely flat and the bombs that fell during THE WAR, in his mind like big heavy bumble bees, had formed the landscape the way it was now.”
Arvid’s childhood is shadowed by death and the legacy of World War II and also by the threat of nuclear annihilation; but his leveling exuberance for life enables him to see all threats as surmountable. More than that, it enables him to console his felled father when, in “Before the War,” on a fishing trip to the cabin with Uncle Rolf, his father slips in the water while attempting, drunkenly, to launch their rotten canoe:
Dad landed with his head in Arvid’s lap…. He saw for the first time that Dad was turning bald. He stroked the thinning wet hair and said:
“Shhh, Dad, it will be fine, everything’ll be fine, right?” Dad turned his head up to look at him and then he was sick, it gushed from his mouth and down Arvid’s legs.
“It’s OK, Dad,” Arvid said.
This, in the collection’s final story, is the moment of reversal in which the son becomes father to the man, accepting him in his weakness, offering succor and consolation. Even to spell this out seems tediously heavy-handed; it’s enacted precisely so that it doesn’t need to be said. Herein lies the true pleasure of these sweet, brief stories: they aren’t novel, or even especially subtle—a child’s discovery of death, or of his father’s limitations, is the stuff of first fictions everywhere—but they are, indeed, deceptively simple, each incident or image meticulously selected and evoked so as to reverberate fully, each bringing us back to the discovery, bewilderment, and joy of childhood.
The distance is considerable from this early work—in which much is presaged but much, too, is yet to come—to I Refuse, Petterson’s new novel; but this new book affords, if not a return, then at least a frisson of the first collection’s buoyancy. More than in almost any of his other novels, there are here openings to exultation. This may seem ironic, in a book called I Refuse; but the refusals in the narrative, manifold and diverse, are positive assertions of the will to live. (The implicit refusal located beyond the book’s open end—the refusal of one friend to let another go—allows for the possibility of the most upbeat ending of any of Petterson’s books.)
Broadly, I Refuse has more in common with Petterson’s twenty-first-century fiction than with his earliest books, structurally and thematically. It keeps us, as Tim Parks has suggested of Petterson’s work in these pages, “spellbound and anxious.”* Like Petterson’s masterpiece, Out Stealing Horses, this novel, too, shifts between a tightly focused single day in the near present (September 2006) and remembered events over a number of years in the 1960s and early 1970s. Whereas Out Stealing Horses has a single protagonist, Trond Sander, whose childhood recollections are prompted by the realization that his current neighbor is the brother of his close childhood friend, in this novel the narrative divides (not quite equally) between two men, Jim and Tommy, who meet for the first time in decades in the early morning on a bridge outside Oslo, where Jim is fishing and Tommy driving by in his fine Mercedes.
Petterson then follows both men through their respective days, in which their paths all but converge again at a shopping mall, and may potentially cross again the next morning. In between, he weaves the stories of their close childhood friendship, and of its unraveling. Tommy’s sister Siri is also given voice in several sections, rather like the third melody in a fugue; and her perspective further illuminates Jim’s and Tommy’s lives.
At its simplest, the novel’s premise can be summarized by Jim’s reflection and Tommy’s comment in their initial encounter: “he was so important back then,” Jim recalls, “We went through thick and thin”; and Tommy observes, awkwardly, “Isn’t it strange…. The way things can turn out. The opposite.” By which he means that he, Tommy Berggren, whose childhood saw violence, abandonment, and isolation, has emerged triumphant in his expensive car; while Jim, in his ancient reefer jacket, has lost all of his youthful charm and élan. (Tommy’s prosperity has not, however, made him superficially appealing: as Jim amusingly observes, “He was the same, and yet he looked like Jon Voight in Enemy of the State.”)
In the 1960s, in their town of Mørk, almost a hundred miles from Oslo, Jim is the lad with prospects, strong in school, reflective and intellectual, from a stable, devoutly Christian home (although without a father), the sort of boy for whom “the old lady at the kiosk sat behind the window all dolled up and ready, with her make-up on, waiting for the good-looking Jim at the same time every week.”
His friendship with Tommy Berggren is in some ways unlikely: for Tommy, in Mørk, nothing is easy. The eldest of four (his sister Siri is close to him in age; the twin girls are younger), he finds by the age of fourteen that his entire family has been dismantled. Tya Berggren, the kids’ mother, abandons the family one night in 1964 when Tommy is twelve, leaving her children to contend on their own with their brutal father, a garbageman who “used his boots” on them. “I hated my father,” Tommy recalls. “Everyone knew I hated my father.”
One afternoon after suffering a beating, Tommy breaks his father’s leg with a baseball bat. His father flees, leaving Tommy and Siri in charge of the household. Young Tommy and Jim discuss this act of violence, and it is Jim who absolves his friend: “Maybe I don’t have a soul,” Tommy worries. “Sure you do,” Jim replies. “But then what you did wasn’t terrible. It was something you had to do. I know you…. I am the most Christian of us, so I must know.”
Before long, the Berggren children are separated by Social Services: the twins are taken in by neighbors across the road; Siri is sent to a strict family in a nearby town, who consider Tommy a bad influence; and Tommy goes to live with his one adult friend, Jonsen, who runs a local lumber mill. Jonsen proves his saving grace:
The way he talked to people and the language that he used was the same whether the person he spoke to was a child or a teenager or somebody well into his years. The difference didn’t even interest him.
Tommy doesn’t know that Jonsen was his mother’s lover, and that he orchestrated her escape; but Jonsen is the friend and mentor who will support him, employ him when he drops out of school, and then give him the business, enabling Tommy to build success upon success, leading, over the years, to his life of wealth and comparative ease.
Jim’s trajectory and his undoing hinge, apparently, on a nighttime skating expedition to Lake Aurtjern. The boys are eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood, and the night so beautiful that Jim, who has abandoned God for socialism, observes that “you could get religious for less.” There is a near-mystical bliss about the evening: Jim, considering his friendship with Tommy, thinks,
He felt so happy, for what would the future have been without Tommy, what would life have been, and they could talk in this way only because it was night and the light was different and they had their caps on….
But Jim worries, too, about whether he is good enough for their friendship: “Maybe it was more like you had to be worthy.” As they are skating, the ice, with a great noise, seems to crack beneath them, and Jim, in his panic, pushes Tommy to the ground. The events of the evening, it’s implied, will force Jim so profoundly to doubt his worthiness that eventually his sanity is shattered. Within months, gravely depressed, he is hospitalized following a suicide attempt.
The two men’s recollections of the murky time that follows beautifully illustrate the uncertainty and subjectivity of memory, and the ways in which each of us constructs narrative differently. As readers, we will trust Tommy’s version of events more than Jim’s, for obvious reasons; but quite aside from Jim’s woolly recollection, Petterson captures, too, the distinctness of their temperaments, the way in which Tommy, who would have the most to forgive, harbors no grudge; while Jim, whose imagined judgment by Tommy has plagued him, cannot in fact see his own actual fault. Petterson knows that, as Epictetus observed, it’s not what happens but how you react to it that matters; but the event, the reaction, and the individual will eventually come to seem intractably conjoined.
Jim’s fall into darkness has repercussions even thirty-five years later, in 2006, when he has been on indefinite leave from his post as a librarian for a year. His dreams are of death—“Deep down in his sleep he was going to die”—and his waking hardly better:
When he woke up he was still going to die. It was over. It was all over. From the kitchen table he had swept any future he might have into a bucket that he carried out and emptied by the hedge. His life was at half-mast. He barely reached his own hips. He dragged himself along on his knees, the cross was heavy and sharp against his shoulder. I’m so thirsty, he thought and they give me only vinegar to drink.
It is tempting to infer that Jim has been felled as much by his mother’s imposed Christianity as by any weakness in his own nature: the implication, in the novel, is of a willed and fruitless Christian masochism. Petterson, whose own sympathies appear to lie with left-wing politics inimical to religion, may have constructed Jim’s trajectory thus either consciously or unconsciously. But then Petterson, like Jim-as-socialist, still carries unacknowledged Christian freight; because the novel’s shimmering open end allows for a Road to Emmaus encounter, in which Tommy may serve as the unlikely Christ figure.
Tommy’s day, after the two men meet on the bridge that September dawn, is far busier than Jim’s: he goes places, and meets people. He recalls Jonsen’s recent death: the old man says to him, “I hold life dearly…. I don’t feel like it’s over,” simple words the agonizing resonance of which we all can appreciate. Jonsen then suggests, in passing and with beautiful futility, that he could simply refuse to die—“You could refuse, of course.” Tommy takes this up, almost like a chorus: “Of course you can refuse,” and again, “Goddamnit, of course you can refuse.” In this fighting spirit, when Tommy is unexpectedly called to retrieve his long-lost father from a police station up north, he is able both to go and to keep his distance; “No peace, I thought, nothing that binds us together. I refuse.”
What this journey grants him is the summoning of his youth, and the certainty of his bond with Jim:
I felt like ringing Jim. He could have gone in with me. We could carry that weight together. He knew what my father was like. How easy it was to think of Jim now. How difficult it had been, but when I saw him on the bridge and knew him at once despite the dark, the woollen cap, it came so suddenly I didn’t have time to be anything but happy.
After contending with his dad, Tommy returns to Oslo, stopping for a bite at the same shopping mall in which Jim has recently visited the Social Security office. They dine in the same cafeteria a short time apart, and are unwittingly compared by the same cashier, a woman named Berit. She prompts in Tommy a life-affirming realization—“I could see her skin too, and it was as though I knew it from before and had touched it before, and it filled me with homesickness”—that will enable him to celebrate “her sensational, warm, living breath.”
There is perhaps a degree of stylized contrivance to this novel—the organization of events on this extraordinary day in September 2006 is about as naturalistic as that of a Greek tragedy—and this structural control may initially seem at odds with Petterson’s pared prose, which so strenuously eschews nicety and falsehood. But of course such narrative simplicity is hard won, a distillation, and inevitably an artifice of its own. In style and in structure, Petterson forges a form that, although it requires self-conscious machination, will then carry forward the organic progress of character and event. It’s the novelistic equivalent of earthworks, undertaken to enable the river of time to flow more smoothly. And it’s just possible that in this instance, for Tommy and Jim, it may not be cursed.