Disquisitions on Disquiet
Dag Solstad is a writer who finds pockets of peculiarity in mundane lives, and perhaps there is no greater an example than Novel 11, Book 18. Here at the end, the central character Bjorn Hansen has feigned disability. This has nothing to do with claiming benefits to which he isn't entitled, nor entering a competition he would have more chance of winning than if he entered an able-bodied sport. Such narratives would be entertaining enough, potentially, and might pass for scurrilous comedies of self-interest. Solstad's book though is much more obscure than that, as though the writer wished to find the oddest of choices to indicate choice can be made at all. Perhaps the able-bodied person claiming disability, or determined to win an event in a disabled sports competition isn't choosing; they are acting within a broader expectation but without the usual ethical obligations that society expects from its individuals. The person acts badly but there is little singularity in the choice. It falls under the rubric of selfishness and conforms to many other such acts, if more dubious morally. The person who steals from a bank isn't so very different from the person who puts their savings into it: they both are interested in money. But the one who robs the bank and then has no interest in the cash, or the person who saves a million and then burns it, seems to be making a more radical choice. There is more choice in the choosing. And these needn't be completely fabricated examples for the sake of argument. In 2019, David Wayne Oliver stole $10,000 from a bank and then promptly gave it away, getting arrested shortly afterwards sitting in a nearby Starbucks. The band KLF famously set fire to a million pounds on a small Scottish island, creating oddly less outrage than when Serge Gainsburg smoked a 500 franc note on live television. Perhaps Gainsbourg's gesture flaunted great wealth while KLF looked like they were trying to get rid of it. Gainsbourg's act could be seen as mocking the poor; KLF as if they wanted to become so.
But the point we wish to make is that choices usually exist within the realm of self-interest and any deviation from this creates unease or inquiry. In this sense, there is no difference between the bank robber who steals for themselves in an instant, glorious heist, and the depositor who dutifully puts aside a few hundred each month. It is when the act deviates from self-interest that choice gets interesting. Yet equally we might note that from a certain perspective, the opposite of self-interest is beneficence. The person who saves many thousands and gives it to a local charity isn't seen as odd but kind, generous, charitable. There are plenty of words to describe their deeds and they become the inversion of the fake-disabled person. They lack self-interest and are morally sound; the faker is self-interested and morally dubious. If the bank robber hadn't been giving the money away but left it outside the bank, the gesture would have escaped its benevolent reading. He wouldn't have been turned into a Robin Hood and thus fitting into a long tradition of kindly robbers.
Bjorn has been self-interested and ethically weak in the past, and the novel is semi-predicated on Bjorn leaving his wife and child in Oslo, and going off to live with Turid Lammer in Kongsberg about 70 km away. Lammer is wealthy and bohemian and is involved in the theatre in the town, and Bjorn gets a job there as a council treasurer. One might say this is a strong choice but again what can seem ethically troublesome needn't be any more existentially radical than acts of moral decency. Others might disapprove of such a deed but they wouldn't claim to be unable to understand it, or their confusion might rest on assuming that such behaviour is wrong and they couldn't possibly see how someone could leave their wife and young child. Yet this would be closer to disapproval than inexplicability. It doesn't make Bjorn at all original in his choices, and all the more conventional coming at a time when divorce rates would be high and men's obligations towards their children low. Yet Solstad isn't likely to condemn a man for leaving a marriage, nor is he likely to see this as an interesting enough crisis upon which to base the book. It can only be an aspect of it. Moral guilt isn't what his work is about.
We can see this by looking at a contrary example, with the central character instead of leaving his child, looking after one that isn't his. In T Singer, the main character is a librarian in Notodden who marries a woman with a young child. When the woman dies, Singer is willing to adopt the girl, while the grandparents wish to take care of her. "What was to become of little Isabella? Merete's parents said that she was not his child, she was Merete's, and therefore he shouldn't think it as his duty, and there was nothing to discuss. Yet he continues to look after her even though the novel doesn't indicate he does it out of love, or out of obligation. This doesn't mean he has no love for Isabella, nor that he might think looking after her is the right thing to do, but Solstad doesn't want us to fall into either assumption. To do so would ruin the peculiarity of his work, the search in the novels for what holds a person together. If people are usually contained by a set of principles and behavioural expectations that make them seek singularity, becoming special, important or successful people even if they will in most instances fail in becoming any of these three Solstad proposes that what holds someone together is their peculiarities.
It is a word that originally meant privately-owned and extraordinary, but today usually just means odd. "It traces back to pecu, meaning cattle, by way of peculium, meaning private propertycattle of course being a particular kind of private property." (Miriam-Webster) Now it seems a very small adjective, a casual remark about someone rather than a grand existential claim, like ambitious, brilliant, individualistic or deep. Someone who is peculiar can be left to themselves since there is little chance that unlike the ambitious they will be using others to make something of their lives. The peculiar will be making a life for themselves that either won't be involving others or involves them while retaining a minor role. Dan Shurley has it about right when he titles his article 'The Revenge of the Minor Character' and says, of a number of Solstad's books: "each of these later novels is driven by the self-examination of an inconsequential, middle-class, middle-aged man in the grip of an existential crisis." James Wood quotes T Singer: "it may seem mysterious that Singer can be the main character in any novel at all...it's precisely this mysteriousness that is the topic of the novel." Wood says, "all these novels are engaged by a paradox of decentering: the characters drift at the periphery of their own lives." (New Yorker)
However, what if all lives are small, yet made large relative to the place we occupy in a societal reality that is secondary to our personal reality? That, most of the time, most people don't become any the more personally significant, they just occupy a societally important role at best. In Solstad's novels, whether someone is the town treasurer, a travelling diplomat, a school teacher, a professor or a librarian, it doesn't make much difference, and this is because they are insignificant social roles, even if some might be more so than others the school teacher and the librarian, over the diplomat and the professor. But even if they were actors (as Bjorn Hansen briefly is as he appears in an amateur production of The Wild Duck), artists, politicians or media celebrities, none of this would make much difference to their lives as Solstad would see it. There are characters around the central ones that would seem more charismatic than those Solstad focuses upon (a friend, Ingemann in T Singer who becomes increasingly successful first as an actor less established than he would have wished, then as a TV actor, and then behind the scenes as an ideas man. Then there are the two beautiful and rich twins in Armand V, and the charismatic best friend Johan Corneliussen in Shyness and Dignity. But we might wonder if they won't have their peculiarities as well, it is just that Solstad doesn't attend to them as he does to those of the characters he chooses as his protagonists, or better, deuteragonists as though the secondary character has taken a leading part and this forces Solstad to then find an angle to illuminate their presence over their actions, and hence the peculiarity. Another novel might see the apparently extraordinary or charismatic as the novels' focus, but Solstad might think: what would be the point of that if everybody is finally a peculiarity and any societally exceptional aspects would have to be subordinate to the oddness?
In Paris Review, Solstad makes much of Knut Hamsun's influence upon him and discovering Hamsun young: "I doubt I would have become a writer if I hadn't. I think that has been my goalto write books that could do what Knut Hamsun's books did to me." Part of Hamsun's greatness rests on perversity, perhaps a variation on peculiarity and often closer to societal madness. Perversity is less passive than peculiarity and, like Dostoevsky's characters, Hamsun's are often creating scenes, with arguments on park benches, falling out with bosses, entangling themselves with ladies often of a higher social station. When a Hamsun character comes to town, people know about it: they don't quite manage to keep themselves to themselves. Solstad's usually do, no matter the scene in Dignity and Sadness when students look on startled as Elias smashes his umbrella again and again against a fountain. This doesn't add to the drama of the novel; it allows Solstad to disappear into the past, with the rest of the book retreating from the present, as though in remorse for creating a scene. Partly what made Hamsun and Dostoevsky's novels new was the attention to perverse psychology, but they were still interested in the sort of scene-building evident in the usual 19th-century fiction. They just weren't interested in the more conventional psychology that often accompanied these scenes. They turned the scene into a scene and helped hurtle the novel into the 20th century, where unusual behaviour became common.
Solstad's work can seem both an advance and a retreat on this, with the work apparently less demanding than his Norwegian precursor and the Russian master. If perversity were his interest that may be true, but by focusing instead on the peculiar, Solstad arrives at the deeply recessive, a state in some ways beyond the reflective (which would often be a scenic interiority), and towards a delineation of a person's inner life. To explain, let us think of a moment in Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead. The narrator describes a fellow criminal who receives a terrible whipping and our central character, amazed at how quickly he recovered, determines to follow the man around for a while. "This man was not really quite an ordinary mortal. I sought closer acquaintance with him out of curiosity and studied him for a whole week." Dostoevsky compares him to another criminal the narrator once knew: "the most shocking thing about him for me was his spiritual indifference. The flesh had gained such an ascendency over all his mental qualities that one glance at his face was enough to tell you that all that was left in him was a savage desire for physical pleasure, for sexual passion and carnal satisfaction." Dostoevsky distinguishes between the two by saying for all the latter man's hardness he would have been terrified by the imminent flogging, while the former man wasn't a slave to the flesh but its victor. "It was evident this man had boundless self-mastery." Dostoevsky convinces us that the absence of a spiritual dimension leaves one man hardened but weak; the other had gone beyond the flesh and feared nothing.
This is brilliantly reflective writing and we see many similar examples in other writers like Proust who can dislocate themselves from narrative purpose to offer asides that border on the disinterested, as we find in the descriptions of Swann in In Search of Lost Time. "But in this strange phase of love the personality of another person had become so enlarged, so deepened, that the curiosity which he could now feel aroused in himself, to know the least details of a woman's daily occupation, was the same thirst for knowledge with which he had once studied history." Proust notes that all the qualities Swann would have previously regarded "as far beneath him spying, bribing servants, questioning casual witnesses become part of an honourable search for truth."
In each instance, Dostoevsky and Proust create reflection within the novel while also pushing along the narrative: we want to know more about the man who transcends the flesh, and the man who has so succumbed to another woman's that he regards it as the most appropriate way to spend his time by investigating every aspect of her life. The scenes lead to reflection which leads to scenes which lead to reflection. The level of reflection, the interest in perverse strength and perverse love, don't destroy the scene but feed back into the drama, giving it a deeper texture than fiction had generally hitherto offered.
Yet in Solstad's work, the reflection appears much more idle and thus recessive, retreating ever further from the scene and into speculation, leaving us potentially musing over not just the motives of the character described but also the character doing the describing as the scene disappears, and becomes merely a hypothesis. In Novel 11, Book 18. Bjorn Hansen's son comes to stay when he studies in the same town where his father lives. His father doesn't interact much with his son Peter and he doesn't follow him around either, but he remains constantly attentive to his existence, as though also trying to understand his own. The narrator explains how Bjorn would eat each Sunday at the Grand Hotel with Herman Busk and how Herman had one day when at Hansen's flat invited Peter to dine with them. Peter replied it didn't suit him and Bjorn muses over this rejection as he thinks about a possible scenario that didn't take place and a speculative scenario that isn't actualised. When Peter turns the invitation down he says that "he could not afford to use his Sundays for such things." But what does he use these Sundays for as the Grand Hotel dinner retreats, and Peter's Sunday remain mysterious. When Bjorn asks him what he does on these Sundays he says he hikes, but he doesn't say who he has been hiking with, and if he hasn't been hiking with anyone, why doesn't he hike with his father, who likes hiking? But maybe he doesn't hike alone, but with another person, Ake, which would explain why he doesn't need his father along for the hike as well. But as Peter didn't say anything about these hikes, there is nothing to suggest he has been hiking with Ake, or anybody else, though he could have been hiking with Ake and others, or with nobody but himself. And if the latter were so, then he perhaps could have hiked with Bjorn.
While in Novel 11, Book 18, Peter is the biological son Bjorn deserted who seems to be struggling to make friends and to function normally, in T. Singer, Singer is the step-father who has always been around and watches his teenage daughter becoming more and more confident, leaving him feel more and more insecure and gauche. There is a hint of a scene as Singer observes Isabella and her friend sitting watching a music channel on TV, and he asks her about some music. She sighs and says he asked her the same question a couple of days earlier. But it leads Singer to recessive reflection: "only later did it occur to him how pathetic the situation and his behaviour had been. He felt a strong distrust towards himself" as he wonders to what lengths he might go to try and please her. "He might obliterate his own being, or distort it, simply so that she would be able to live out her youth in a normal manner, and with him involved; that was what Singer concluded when he later thought about the matter." The narrator refers to this moment as a scene and, just after it, Singer takes Isabella on a trip round Europe which the novel covers in little more than a page, with the narrator saying that "we could describe the drive home as well, but we won't."
If Solstad rarely scene-sets this rests on an interest in character over situation, as though the person he describes has peculiarities that are simply exemplified. A scene is a partial explanation, an aspect of understanding and may be no more than a possible scenario or an examination of a hypothesis. Armand V is about a diplomat whose son ends up blinded when he joins the army and fights abroad, but it is, even more, a book in the process of its making, with Solstad aware that the words he puts down on the page aren't there to generate narrative action but to draw out a peculiarity the novel is predicated upon. Armand V might seem like a post-modern work of self-reflexivity but is instead chiefly an attempt to understand the oddity of character. Armand V just makes even more pronounced what we find in the other books under discussion. At the beginning of the novel, he says the footnote has a displaced temporal aspect and that "it originates from a specific event that has to do with Armand's youth; however, it does not deal with Armand's youth but with his son's youth as viewed by Armand, a man in his sixties." Solstad tells us the footnote is a "commentary on something that takes place in a completely different time, and at a completely different place, and with characters who are altogether different..." as he goes on to describe a trip and a scene. Armand gives his son the apartment while he goes on a long trip abroad but finds himself bored and returns early. He arrives at 630 in the evening, unlocks the door and enters his apartment, where he sees through a half-open door his son, wearing just his underpants, kneeling in front of a fully dressed woman. The son "...trembled in his abject state." Armand stands for a while in his bedroom as he hears the woman leave. He knows if the son is still in the living room it won't be easy for him to exit the apartment and now sits on the bed still wearing his coat. Eventually, he manages to go out when he is sure he hears his son going into the kitchen, and so he slips out of the flat and goes to a restaurant, returning late at night.
Solstad undeniably offers here a scene but he predicates it as both fiction and memory, as though it might not have happened at all, and what did he see anyway, since he only had a partial view through a doorway? Usually, events have consequences; if they have no consequences are they events? If Armand had entered the living room and asked the woman to leave; if his son had apologised for using his apartment as a den for sadomasochistic adventure, or got angry wondering why his father had returned without warning, we would have had a scene indeed. If then Armand didn't see his son for six months he would assume it rested on that night and the son's humiliation in the eyes of his father. It is the case that Armand doesn't see his son for well over six months, and when he does he discovers him in military uniform. He is home on leave after his first period in the army and it is as though the scene Armand witnessed never happened and yet could have been part of the reason why his son joins the military. However, what matters isn't cause and effect which is expected of drama, but inference and oddness, and the way Solstad often adds to the sense of oddness by inference. Take that moment when Armand is sitting on the bed with his coat on, listening attentively to his son's movements in the apartment. He waits until he infers his son has gone into the kitchen and then sneaks out of his own flat. This inference comes acoustically in the wake of a visual one: where he assumes his son is being humiliated by a young woman for reasons that he can't ascertain but can only guess because of the limited amount of information in his possession. He could have burst in and said what was his son doing; how he could let a woman humiliate him and insist on an answer. But that isn't Armand's way, or rather more especially it isn't Solstad's - such a character response would ruin the writer's aesthetic. It would turn inference into drama, speculation into fact, and peculiarity into assertiveness. The scene, such as it is, brilliantly captures the strangeness of both son and father, and this combined strangeness leaves the event much more attenuated than we would usually expect.
Whether it is Bjorn in Novel 11, Book 18, with the son who is staying permanently in his flat, the son here temporarily residing in it, or Isabella, the adopted daughter in T Singer, who is often in her room or going out without her stepfather knowing where is or what she is doing, what interests Solstad isn't the familial dynamic; it is that even within family situations mysteriousness and oddness resides. When Solstad speaks of the son arriving and living in Bjorn's flat he says, "this opens up a lot of new possibilities. The first thing I do in preparation for the son's arrival is I hire a maid, a young girl, to wash the apartment once a week. That's a good move now that the son is coming, I think." Speaking about this, The Paris Review interviewer is surprised, saying "that's your impulse, to hire a maid?". Solstad replies: "That is my impulse as a writer. Because then I have a situation with two young people under the same roof, and I envision the elder constructing a game where he tries to get his son interested in the maid. The idea of the old man orchestrating the love affairs of the young..." (Paris Review) Solstad describes it with the relish that invokes Gombrowicz, but the Polish writer's work is frequently "grotesque, erotic, and often hilarious" (New Yorker), while Solstad's is tentative, chaste and rarely more than touchingly funny humour that comes out of the over-sensitive rather than the raucous and ribald. Bjorn's decision seems more gauche than crafty; a stab at comprehending his son's needs and desires by a man who deserted him all those years earlier. Gombrowicz is often referred to as a perverse writer, with Franklin titling her New Yorker profile: 'Imp of the Perverse'. To describe Solstad's writing in the same way would indicate an assertiveness the writer resists. It seems more odd than perverse that Bjorn hires a maid, as though he isn't quite sure what needs his son may have just as T. Singer isn't sure what his step-daughter's needs are as she grows into a teenager, nor what motivates Armand's son in Armand V. Solstad manages to generate a lot of mystery around a closed door, a nearby flat, a Sunday where a character minds their own business.
Yet this mystery has little to do with the suspense of a thriller. This needn't rest on Solstad's resistance to such a form, as though Solstad is above such genre fiction. It is more that the thriller usually has a positivist aspect that wouldn't interest the Norwegian writer. Most thrillers understandably have crimes to solve and the evidential is thus of great importance. But to arrive at a revelation of oddness might seem too weak a discovery in such a novel, and Solstad we should remember is interested in manifold peculiarity. A novel predicated on everybody's murderous activity would be a comic exaggeration of the suspense novel, an attempt to go one further than Agatha Christie in Murder on the Orient Express, where more or less everybody who knew the victim was responsible, or the way Fredric Jameson describes Raymond Chandler's work. "The upshot is a whole series of murders and beatings: it is as though they existed already in a latent state, the acts that had merited them having already been committed, like chemical substances juxtaposed, waiting for a single element to be withdrawn or added in order to complete a reaction which nothing can stop. The appearance of the detective is this element, allowing the predetermining causes to run their course suddenly, to burst into flame on exposure to the open air." (Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality) In each instance, crime isn't singular but manifold, yet Christie would acknowledge that the reason everybody is involved in this case is that they have a reason to bump off the murdered man, while in Chandler's fiction, the milieu is limited and murderous. As Jameson says, "the guilty party (since a murder, a crime, is always in some way involved in the search) must turn out to be in one way or another a member of the family, the client or a member of his entourage." (Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality)
For everybody to be murderous, bodies pile up, evidence accumulates. Peculiarities need no evidence and can remain in the realm of the speculative. There is little doubt that Peter in Novel 11, Book 18 is a peculiar young man but his father seems no less so and what adds to the peculiarity is the minimising of the evidential. The father devotes a lot of thought to his son's life but doesn't find out that much about it, and his initial reservations about his son's behaviour comes from an anecdote his son tells about his train journey when first coming to stay with Bjorn. In a loud and preachy manner Peter says that on the train someone was sitting on his seat and though he asked the lady in it to move, she wouldn't budge, and when he informed the conductor, the train official proposed he take another one; there were plenty free. It was a half-hour journey, there were other seats and yet Peter tells the story to his father as a great injustice. He remained standing rather than take another seat. With his preachy voice, and an enigmatic statement about living in a tough world, his father recognised that "the way the son conveyed his code contained a peculiar kind of pent-up pride." Yet the father doesn't indicate the son is making too much of the incident and instead builds on this reflection to observe his son over some months instead of engaging with him. Perhaps it wouldn't have been possible to engage, but maybe that is exactly what Peter wants. Bjorn reckons his son "had perhaps really been saying all the time, again and again, 'say something to me, Dad. Recognise the life I'm going to live and that I'm preparing myself for.'" Peter is a young man at the start of his life; Bjorn an older man and the father who me be expected to try and speak to his offspring.
When James Wood says "...both father and son are rendered with enough sympathy to engage us; but both seem narrow-minded, intolerant, and a little pathetic," he is right. But this seems only a partial truth: that if they are both pathetic it rests on an oddness that leads to the pathetic. Wood judges the characters without recognising this aspect and this might be central to what judgement often happens to be: a recognition of normality in the face of peculiarity. If we can claim Solstad as a non-judgemental writer, it lies partly in his refusal to narrate from a position of non-oddness. Wood astutely notes that "the passage [covering the son's stay] stretches for more than seventy pages, and is written as a third-person shadowing of Bjrn's mind. As in Thomas Bernhard's work, the long sentences circle repetitively and somewhat obsessively." (New Yorker) But the difference is that Bernhard is a ferociously judgemental writer, constantly trying for all the eccentricities of his characters to condemn and damn others around them. It becomes comically extreme as the characters exaggerate their case all the better to make it, as though understatement is too subtle for most humans, who are blockheads. A typical Bernhard passage announces 90 per cent of humanity is intellectually bone-idle: "Human beings, it seems, exert themselves only for as long as they can look forward to idiotic diplomas that they can boast about in public." (Extinction)
Solstad is instead a hesitant writer, not so much non-judgemental as leaving judgement in a constant state of suspension, as though trying to find the wherewithal to assess a given person or situation. This might apply to how Bjorn perceives his son, or how Elias in Shyness and Dignity assesses himself. He has been married for many years to Eva, the ex-wife of what was his closest friend. "Did he lie on the sofa outside her and Johan Corneliussen's bedroom door for seven years waiting for her?" Elias thinks not, though he was quite taken by her he admits, and yet he believes she had no value for him beyond the friendship with Johan. The idea of sleeping with Eva at that time was unthinkable, but did this not indicate he had "suffered from an unthinkable love for her? That was something Elias Rukla could not dismiss out of hand, and it would, if true, explain the twinges he used to feel in certain situations, of sadness, even grief, as well as a state of excitement." If philosophy has often been concerned with the problem of other minds, Solstad proposes that his characters are no less sceptical over the ability to comprehend their own. AJ Ayer believes that "to be privileged is to be the other person. Only he really knows when he thinks and feels. I do not and cannot because I am myself and not he." ('One's Knowledge of Other Minds'), but Solstad might reply by saying he is as sceptical about his own thoughts and feelings as he is of other people's. It helps explain why so often his characters don't pursue an investigative approach to other's actions and instead settle for a troubled pensiveness, staying within the parameters of doubt rather than venturing more boldly into categorical questioning or physically active prying. Asked if he is stubborn, Solstad replied: "I don't know. People claim that I am. I suppose I am. But not to the point where I entertain the illusion that my insights are the one and only truth. I've always thought of the statements I make more as proposals than truths. That's why I've never taken it as personal loss if anything I've said has been proven wrong. It's about trying out a position." This seems consistent with his novelistic style; that the best one can do is offer a proposition, a perspective that seems valid, and staying within the relative validity without seeking certitude. This might rest on the difficulty of proving something, and often rests on the characters' diffidence meeting a problem that is not solvable as a crime may be.
This might make Professor Andersen's Night potentially a more dissatisfying novel than Armand V. T Singer, Shyness and Dignity and Novel 11, Book 18, since it is predicated on what seems like a murder. Here, the title character sees a woman strangled across the way and doesn't report it. He must call the police he thinks but doesn't do so and looks across the apartment where the deed appeared to have taken place. With the curtains now closed it looks as though nothing untoward has happened. Over time he remains preoccupied with events across the way but he acts and thinks more like a guilty man than a witness, and indeed may be a guilty man, by failing to be a witness. Solstad turns the book into one about a man's indecisiveness rather than a murderer's crime, as if even what might seem like the most categorical of actions remains indeterminate if the person witnessing it is a person of doubt. Later in the book, the narrator tells us Andersen tried very hard to understand avant-garde art but he "often felt he failed to understand it, indeed more often than he would admit, it left him in a state of incomprehension, confusion, indifference, even after he had used all his astuteness to understand only a snippet of it." Many would have such a response with avant-garde art but not with detective fiction; yet Andersen has reacted to a woman apparently strangled in an apartment across the way as though he was trying to make sense of an abstract work. However, while many will find the avant-garde peculiar and assume their own normalcy in the face of it, Solstad's characters are peculiar in the face of everything, whether it be an apparent murder, a son who comes to live with you, a step-daughter one looks after into puberty, or the woman you marry who is the ex-wife of your closest friend.
Near the end of Professor Andersen's Night, the professor is still wondering why he hasn't reported the crime. This was "more than he could fathom. His sin of omission couldn't be defended....When he didn't report it he had become an outcast, along with the murderer. An outcast in his own eyes, along with the murderer." Yet a few pages earlier he frets over a couple of students in a manner that isn't very far removed from how he worries over his failure to report a murder. He couldn't stop thinking about how these two female students tried to lure him into a joke, and that he had been willing to allow himself to be lured: and when they said they worked in different bars, and each proposed that he visit one over the other, he "made it clear that he had nothing against being the object of their rivalry, and that this was really something he would consider." He believes she should visit one of the wine bars, but which one? If he were to visit both that would ruin the joke, he believes. Whether witnessing a murder, contemplating avant-garde art or wondering which wine bar to visit after a couple of students flirt mildly with him, Solstad proposes there isn't a great deal of difference. And yet of course, frets over that as well. Obviously, murder is of enormous magnitude: "every civilisation is built on such actions being indefensible." But he hasn't reported it and the murder remains an idea just as the notion of visiting a wine bar is an idea, just as the avant-garde is an idea he doesn't understand. Perhaps everything is incomprehensible anyway.
Just as Professor Andersen's Night could be a dissatisfying book about a murder that remains essentially an observation giving birth to numerous hypotheses, Solstad's work more generally could and should be exasperating. How much inaction can a novel countenance, how much reflection even in the face of grave deeds can a work sustain? But this would be to misunderstand the work, seeing a need for event that is constantly being transformed into peculiarity, so that rather than the event diluting oddness, the non-event doubles it. If we think again of the most extreme example we find in the five novels we have been addressing, Bjorn feigning disability in Novel 11, Book 18, then we could see how narrative event could make the peculiarities secondary: the character is trying to get money for disability payments and the self-interest is played out by an investigation by the state in a semi-comedic account of Scandinavian welfare generosity coming up against a wily trickster. Instead, Bjorn has no monetary motive and we have to go looking into the singularity of his character to comprehend the eccentricity of his decision. Instead of an action that needs to be investigated, we have a non-action that needs to be understood. It doesn't set in motion the plot; it sets in motion the oddness of his deed that must remain within the realm of its peculiarity without venturing out into the expectation of a narrative. Jan Wilm says, "Solstad often starts his peculiar tales of lonely schlemiels that crave a bit of quixotic adventure to rattle their existential tedium" (Music and Literature) But it seems that the adventure whatever the characters might think it will be for them, is an opportunity for Solstad to bring out their interior lives rather than focus on their outer activities. This may be why the adventures aren't at all exotic, or if potentially so Solstad emphasises the mundanity. Bjorn Hansen leaves his wife and child in Oslo and lives in Kongsberg - from a capital city of 634,000 people to a town of 26,000. In T. Singer the central character is again in Oslo, the Homansbyen district, and moves to Nottoden, further outside of Oslo and with a population of 12,000. But even if the characters seem to leave a more exciting life than the tax-inspector Bjorn, or the librarian, T Singer, then Armand V's diplomatic duties aren't of interest to Solstad as either exciting or troublesome, even though Singer is a diplomat whose obligations will include Norway's involvement in military activities in the Middle East and patriotic obligations to the state. "For all his adult life Armand had held a position that required him to relate in a positive way to the Norwegian national symbols and what we call Norwegian values." It will be these values that his son will fight for and which will blind him.
But the book isn't at all about the dilemma Armand feels in supporting Norway, nor about how his diplomatic duties are associated with his son joining the army and fighting in Asia, even if the boy has little love for militaristic adventure. It is Armand's duty to support it publicly while privately dismissive yet this conflict never becomes active enough to pass for narrative tension. Even his son's blindness isn't used as galvanising; it becomes another chance for a narrator to muse over the characters' predicaments. The internal meditation is always more significant than the drama that could be generated out of the tensions Solstad explores. When the son decides to become an elite soldier, the narrator tells us that Armand reacts with scorn as he loses his temper with the son. But this isn't dramatised because it isn't the tension that interests Solstad so much as the mystery of a man who has devoted much of his life to the diplomatic service not caring much for people defending their country. This could have led to hypocrisy on Armand's part, contained by a love for a son he didn't wish harmed. But it is more that Armand is baffled by his son's choice even if he is the diplomat whose job it is to defend patriotic values. Solstad couches it in a way that makes it as much about the choices Armand has made over many years, as about the son's decision at the time.
Adam Mars-Jones sees this as just one of many under-dramatised scenes in Solstad's work. "This passage manages to seem both cursory and overdone. It's not that drama and analysis are sworn enemies - Milan Kundera, for instance, specialises in the mid-novel seminar. But in his case when the action resumes it has been enriched rather than neutralised." (LRB) Mars-Jones sees a writer who lacks the playfulness of a Nabokov even though he has created a playful form, and lacks too Nabokov's sensual detail as Mars-Jones makes much of the footnotes that is Armand V a book that can only it seems be written in footnote form. "The novel is invisible to the author in the sense that he is unable to write it. He can see it, see into it, but he can't write it,' the narrator says.
Mars-Jones wonders if Solstad writes anti-novels and thinks of Beckett's work, but perhaps the critic gets too caught up in the formal properties of the material and is constantly trying to find justification for Solstad's choices within the expectations and counter-expectations of novelistic demand. Nabokov understood that demand and Beckett increasingly resisted it, but it seems Solstad isn't especially interested in the novel as form but in the novel as behaviour. He uses the fictional to comprehend an oddness the novel has always had the potentiality to explore, yet has often been constrained by the sort of dramatic demands we have examined. Even Kundera for all his digressive brilliance knew the shape of the novel and sometimes insistently reconfigured it through argumentative genius. He was well aware that killing off his main characters just over a third of the way through The Unbearable Lightness of Being didn't leave them dead because he has informed us at the beginning of the book how they had been created: they were products of his reflections, and they will continue to be so as they come back to life in a novel shaped more around theme than character continuity. Kundera's work is often ingenious as he finds new ways to give structure to a work by arranging it around a different set of principles: often those of a tempo he finds in music and thoughts that are close to philosophy. Solstad's are more baffling, but part of the bafflement can be alleviated by seeing all novelists not only or especially working within or contrary to the novel, but seeing in the novel an opportunity to pursue a preoccupation.
Fine critic though Mars-Jones often is, he doesn't try and comprehend the unusual nature of Solstad's work and sees its anomalies as failures. We are more inclined to see its anomalies as performative; as though the form of the work is reflected in the oddness of the behaviour. This isn't just a simple way of saying that the novels often have an unusual shape because Solstad wants to capture the peculiar; it is more that the peculiar finds its own form. Solstad de-dramatises constantly but this comes from angles he insists upon that means the drama wouldn't resolve the problem as the issue doesn't lie in the drama but in its absence accumulated. Solstad's are character with a lot on their minds but rather than preoccupation contained by drama, Solstad often lets the pre-occupative obliterate drama, which is why event becomes premises for thoughts rather than reflections on the dramatic. Thoughts spiral, which is why there are similarities between Solstad and Bernhard, but they do so in Solstad's work fretfully rather than spitefully. Even if the event has what most would call dramatic potential, Solstad drains the drama out of it and generates worry around it instead. This we find in the murder that it seems the professor witnesses in Professor Andersson's Night, or in the S/M sequence at the beginning of Armand V. But this is equally present when there is very little drama at all, as we find in the perplexity Bjorn feels about his son in Novel 11, Book 18, or T. Singer feels towards his stepdaughter.
Solstad reckons "as a writer, it is not only your right but almost your duty to give your protagonists opinions you do not share," (Paris Review) and many a critic will note that a novelist who only offers their view constantly isn't a novelist but a polemicist. Yet such a claim doesn't take us very far because a novelist might have a sensibility that makes their world possess far fewer opinions than a novelist with people offering any manner of claims. On an artistic level, whether someone has one character banging on about socialism or six characters arguing for and against, it probably wouldn't make much difference: the problem rests in discursive discussion taking precedence over the exploration of sensibility. In this sense, one character making proclamations can make for a better book than having half a dozen arguing it out. Notes from Underground is monomaniacal and in a different way so is Hamsun's Hunger, but they wouldn't be better novels for allowing other strong voices in. The purpose is to explore the given sensibility and the opinions they possess are functions of that sensibility. Whether it is Dostoevsky's or Hamsun's is secondary. What matters is that they strongly exist on the page; that their inexplicable existence is registered. It returns us to the remark about "how it may seem mysterious that Singer can be the main character in any novel at all and that "it's precisely this mysteriousness that is the topic of the novel." The same might have been said at the time of Notes from Underground and Hunger. It isn't what they have to say which is important but that they exist at all and in the pages of a fictional work. What Solstad adds is an unusual level of peculiarity perhaps because unlike the characters in Dostoevsky's novella and Hamsun's novel, they aren't at all exceptional. Aside from that brief moment in Sadness and Dignity when he loses his temper over the broken umbrella, in the books we have discussed, Solstad's characters rarely create scenes and subsequently Solstad isn't inclined to create them. Mostly, what he creates are meditations that aren't like Kundera's 'mid-novel seminars' which reveal the witty and elegant nature of the narrator's mind. They are almost disquisitions on disquiet, minor thoughts that can run on for pages. They don't arrive at analytic conclusions; they are more likely to arrive at inconclusiveness, with the characters' thoughts shaping a novel that then loses its shape. And yet out of this approach, Solstad gives us thoughts that arrive at a level of peculiarity rarer in fiction than usual, as though the novel's dramatic demands, even in works by Proust and Dostoevsky, still allow for the exceptional as singular rather than as odd. In singularity, there exists the unusual as significant, which is partly why Swann's love affair with Odette is almost synonymous with erotic desire. But in Solstad's work, the singular isn't exceptional at all. There is no greater exemplification coming out of the character's actions; what there is instead is a different type of singularity, one that acknowledges the simple fact of individual consciousness. There are about 7 billion of these consciousnesses on the planet now, and everyone we pass on the street will have thoughts of their own just as we do, but what is going on in there is not usually our business. Solstad wonders what it would look like if it were.
© Tony McKibbin