I Refuse is one of those novels that only truly comes clear on a second reading, when certain initially apparently innocuous, easily passed-over sentences reverberate with revealed meaning.
I Refuse by Per Petterson. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Graywolf Press, 224 pages, $25.
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson. Translated from the Norwegian by Dan Bartlett. Graywolf Press, 128 pages, paperback, $14.
by Kai Maristed
Once upon a time, if you asked someone reasonably well-read to name a writer from that small handful of small northern European countries collectively known as Scandinavia, you would probably hear Knut Hamsun (Norway) and perhaps Sigrid Unset (Iceland) mentioned, and that would be it, as far as novelists are concerned. (Ibsen, Strindberg and H. C. Andersen might round out the list.) So it’s tempting to speculate about the why and wherefore of the current unflagging worldwide passion for so many Scandinavian writers, especially fiction writers. What do they have in common that draws in readers from places as disparate as Japan and the US? Is it certain similarities of style–the lack of flourish, minimal description, a low-key voice verging on deadpan? Are we curious to draw back the curtain on those social-democratic paradises?
One might trace the start of the phenomenon to the early nineties, when readers outside Sweden pounced on Henning Mankell’s Wallender — your quintessential cop with a tortured soul– and the brilliant novels of Peter Hoeg, beginning with Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Today, while these writers are still turning out fascinating work, a more numerous next generation is inspiring at least equal interest. Scandinavian books in translation and in high demand range from the ‘Nordic noir’ bestsellers by, e.g., Mankell, Larssen, Wahloo, and Nesbo to the Nobel-winning poetry of Tomas Transtromer (Sweden) and the apparently unending Struggles of Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norway). Another formidable success is that of Per Petterson (Norway), author of the 2005 international sensation Out Stealing Horses, winner of the very rich IMPAC Dublin Award. Now there are two new Petterson books out in English translation: a collection of early short stories titled Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, and his most recent novel, I Refuse.
If a person’s immigrant roots go back to Bergen, Norway, does that give her any special insight into contemporary Norwegian fiction? Certainly, when I was a child, the culture of my extended, Wisconsin-based family was marked by hard work, modesty, and propriety, along with a real appreciation of nature and the outdoors and also of a well-laden table. Family secrets stayed secret; personal feelings, both of love and animosity, generally went unspoken.
I find this atmosphere resurrected in the writings of both Knausgaard and Petterson, especially the latter. He harks back to a time, not so very long ago, when work done with the hands mattered–laundry-washing, house-building, machine repair, breaking boulders with a sledgehammer. Both writers’ first-person, male narrators draw bracing sustenance from the forests and fjords, seasons and starry nights. Most strikingly, these are highly autobiographical portraits of boys on the trajectory to adulthood who as narrators will turn back much later in life and struggle to make rhyme or reason of the distant past. They also play against the same archetypal background: a barely articulated, deeply dysfunctional relationship between son and father.
That said, the structural and aesthetic approach of the two writers couldn’t be more different. In Knausgaard’s chronologically straightforward volumes, the voice is always one and the same–that of ‘Karl Ove.’ Petterson, in contrast, excels in I Refuse at the difficult writerly business of not only alternating voices but also interweaving time periods — key moments that span from 1962 to 2006. The novel moves from multiple first person voices to third and back again with an air of deceptive simplicity. And whereas the My Struggle books are built up like mud castles or drip paintings out of an accretion of quotidian detail, Petterson, especially in his recent work, is an ascetic, restrained in what he shows us. The facts offered are like glints and gleams from which one attempts to discern the shape of shadowy things… in fact, many key scenes do take place in the dark or semi-dark. I Refuse is one of those novels that only truly comes clear on a second reading, when certain initially apparently innocuous, easily passed-over sentences reverberate with revealed meaning.
At its core, I Refuse is about the nature and importance of early bonds, both of family and friendship. It’s about the power of childhood friendship to heal and stand in for bad parenting (or none at all) and about how, should that bond be broken, lives can be bent. The pain generated by the loss of a soulmate might be suppressed, but it remains alive in some corner of the heart. The novel turns and turns around a December night in 1970, when Tommy Berggren and his best friend Jim are 18 years old. They have lived all their lives in the small town of Mork, south of Oslo.
Tommy and Jim came down the path between the trees to Lake Aurtjern. They were up to their ankles in snow. Their ice hockey skates dangled on their chests with the laces tied round their necks.
[... ]The moon was mirrored on the ice, and the ice looked a solid as it was. It was a night of blue ice, minus ten degrees, and the ice lit up parts of the rocky hill behind the lake…
“Tommy. How long have we been friends.”
“All of our lives,” Tommy said.
“I can’t remember us ever not being friends. When would that have been,” Jim said. “I think it could last the rest of our lives,” he said carefully, in a low voice. “Don’t you think.”
“We will change. We were more like each other before than we are now.”
‘We’ve never been like each other. Think of your parents. Think of the time you had.”
…”But it will last if we want it to. It depends on us. We can be friends for as long as we want to.”
“And we want to, don’t we,” Jim said.
“Sure’” Tommy said. “I will, at least. Won’t you.”
“Sure I will,” Jim said, and 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 which made them different from who they during daytime in the real world [...] and nothing was as it used to be and they could say anything they liked [...]
As Tommy points out during that night of skating on the lake, they have never been like each other. In looks and outlook, prospects and life stories they are more like symmetrical opposites. Jim is fair and rakishly attractive (Tommy’s younger sister Siri has just fallen for him, in wonder and joy and desperation). A top student with a tendency to question everything, himself above all, he is the only child of a single–and singularly colorless–mother who teaches the subject ‘Christianity’ in the local school. Darker, physically tough Tommy and his three sisters have been de facto orphans since Tommy was thirteen, for the simple reason that after their mother ran away to sea, abandoning her brood to her brutal husband–a garbage collector by trade, who specialized in kicking his kids with his boots on–Tommy found the inner resolve to smash his father’s leg with a baseball bat in self-defense. Berggren Sr. literally dragged himself away from Mork, and out of Tommy’s life, forever. Well, almost forever.
One boy with an ordered, middle-class home and no inkling about his father, the other literally scarred by his old man, now living with and working for Jonson, the local mill owner. At eighteen, Tommy is a school-leaver with only fading memories of his mother, and a legacy of nightmares from his father. Jim and Tommy’s bond of friendship seems absolutely tested, unassailable–until something happens that night of skating on the lake, something as apparently innocuous as a crack in the ice, but which will, as some cracks do, spread and branch like lightning and transform the ground beneath them. After that night, Tommy and Jim will soon cease to see each other. They go their own ways, into very different destinies–the one as a highly successful businessman (a loner who drinks too much), the other as an academic librarian, (a loner with a failed marriage, albeit still irresistible to women in bars) who is suffering from undiagnosable seizures that put him on the dole and heading toward skid row.
And here is where Petterson chose to start his novel: in 2006, on a suspension bridge outside Oslo, where Jim likes to fish in the wee hours, along with an assortment of down-and-outers. Utterly by chance, a grey Mercedes pulls up, “brand new, and the paint was as shiny as skin can be shiny at certain times, in certain situations. Then the window rolled down without a sound. ‘It’s Jim, isn’t it,” he said.’”
And so the book takes off, as abruptly as Tommy drives away after a few minutes talk on the bridge. Will they ever see other again? That is the question that holds the reader throughout the novel, as the present and the long-ago interplay in their inevitably mysterious drama of hide-and-seek.
Fans of Petterson’s smash success Out Stealing Horses may miss, in I Refuse, the former novel’s historical sweep and narrative audacity, rooted as it is in the Norwegian resistance during WW2. I Refuse is a more personal, an even more complex and delicate investigation of the beauty and tyranny of the past. And that title, which sounds something like a manifesto, an existentialist call to courage? Why not? The novel is punctuated with moments of stark choice.
The translation by veteran Don Bartlett is on the whole engagingly smooth. That said, one wonders about the author’s grammatical lapses, and his fondness for run-on sentences. Perhaps ‘and and and’ works better in Norwegian.
It’s interesting to look at the recent English-language collection of Petterson’s early short stories for further insight into his development as a writer. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, first out in book form in Denmark in 1987, has the ring of pure autobiography–and more, a Proustian effort to regain and reclaim the sights and sounds and odors, emotions and fears, the unmitigated experience of certain moments of childhood. (By the way, Knausgaard’s monotonic, self-absorbed chronicles have been repeatedly dubbed ‘Proustian.’ I disagree.)
Ashes… consists of ten short stories, some slim as vignettes, about a boy, Arvid, whose age ranges from about four to perhaps ten. He studies the world for clues to its meaning. His world is Mother and Father (another demanding, belittling father, though hardly the monster of I Refuse), his sister, grandparents, Uncle Rolf who fishes. He studies them all for changes as if they were the weather. In ‘Like a Tiger in a Cage’ he smashes a clock to stop his mother from ever getting old. In ‘Before the War’ he hears that he might be not be his father’s son — and then, in a classic reversal of roles, saves that drunken father from drowning. There’s a dour unhappiness that clings to Arvid’s family, expressed in bedwetting and silent feuds and a Norwegian sort of brooding resignation. One is glad to find that in moving further into the realm of fiction, and especially with I Refuse, Petterson allows his characters the possibility of happiness.
Kai Maristed studied political philosophy in Germany, and now lives in Paris and Massachusetts. She has reviewed for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other publications. Her books include the short story collection Belong to Me, and Broken Ground, a novel set in Berlin. Read her Paris-centric take on politics and the arts here.