20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Echoland’ by Per Petterson

Echoland by Per Petterson

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2017. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

Echoland, published last year, is Per Petterson’s eighth novel to be translated into English, though it was first published in 1989. Like the bulk of Petterson’s work (you can read all my reviews here), the story is framed around a character named Arvid, who has a Norwegian father and a Danish mother, and is said to be loosely based on the author himself.

Arvid has appeared in various incarnations in previous novels — from a six-year-old boy to a 43-year-old man — but in this one he is on the cusp of becoming a teenager.

There’s no real plot; the story is essentially a series of vignettes following Arvid’s day-to-day adventures on the Danish coast, where his working class family is spending the summer with Arvid’s maternal grandparents.

Here, in the small fishing community where Arvid’s mother grew up, there is a sense of troubled family history bubbling just beneath the surface.  At times the tension between Arvid’s mother and his deeply religious grandmother boils over into protestations and tears, none of which Arvid, a quiet bookish boy, fully understands, and his confusion is mirrored by his own uneasy passage between boyhood and adolescence.

…they [Arvid and his mother] were standing by the little lighthouse now, it was the middle of the day, but so dark the light was on. A lamp turned inside sending flashes out into the stormy weather and he started to cry and the light was orange and it went round and round and he was crying and he didn’t know why. He cried and felt his chest grow big and then contract to almost nothing, he grasped for breath, clenched his fists and she held his shoulder with one hand and his chin with the other and turned his head round to look into his face. He shoved her away roughly. “Don’t you touch me! I’m twelve years old. I can take care of myself!” He turned on his heel and began to run back and she followed him at a more sedate pace.

As ever, Petterson’s delicate yet straightforward prose somehow captures the kinds of emotions that are ephemeral as mist. The story has a melancholy, aching quality to it, but it’s the anxiety that ripples across every page and sometimes erupts into full-scale anger that gives the narrative a real punch.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are some funny scenes between Arvid and his new friend, the slightly older Mogens, when they go exploring beyond the fringes of the village, that helps to lighten the mood.

Echoland is a bittersweet tale of growing up and becoming aware that the world is larger — and more complicated — than yourself.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one last year in preparation for seeing the author do a reading at Festival Hall here in London. I had initially planned to take it along with me so that I could get it signed, but on the afternoon of the reading — a cold, dismal Sunday in October — I was feeling out of sorts, and while I dragged myself into town to take my seat at the event, I scampered back home as soon as it was over because I simply didn’t have the energy to queue up for the signing. Yes, I do regret it now.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes’ by Per Petterson

Ashes-in-my-mouth

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 128 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes, first published in 1987, was Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s first book, yet it was only translated in 2013. Like many other successful authors who write in languages that are not English, his books have been translated out of order. This means that for fans like me — I’ve reviewed most of his work here — we have to read things out of chronological order. Not that it really matters: reading a Per Petterson novel is always a treat, regardless of when it was published, and this one is no exception.

The book, which is beautifully presented with French flaps and high-quality paper, comes in a small format paperback measuring 11.9cm x 16.6cm, making it perfect to fit in a handbag or, in my case, a bike bag. I toted it around with me for about a week and read a chapter each morning as I ate my  breakfast having cycled 6.5 miles into work. It was the perfect way to start to the day.

Introducing Arvid Jansen

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes tells the story of Arvid, a character who features strongly in Petterson’s later novels, In the Wake (first published in 2000 and translated into English in 2007) and I Curse the River of Time (first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010) and is said to be loosely based on Petterson himself.

In this debut novel, Arvid is a six-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Oslo in the 1960s. His world revolves largely around his working class parents — his Danish mother, who is a cleaner, and his father, a factory worker — his older sister Gry and his paternal uncle Rolf, who is a socialist.

Structured around 10 self-contained chapters, it reads a bit like a short story collection, but the unifying thread is Arvid’s unique take on the world coupled with his inability to comprehend the adult situations around him. His childhood naivety is utterly endearing, but there are also moments when you realise his honesty may work against him.

For example, in the opening chapter A Man Without Shoes, Arvid’s father loses his job as foreman in a shoe factory. He goes to Denmark to work in an office but returns six months later because he wasn’t “much of a paper pusher”. His brother Rolf gets him a job in a brush factory making toothbrushes, which he accepts begrudgingly, but even young Arvid knows there is no future in this line of work:

Shoes, on the other hand, there was a lot to say about them. Gym shoes, smart shoes, ladies’ shoes, children’s shoes, ski boots, riding boots. 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.
‘In this house we wear shoes, we don’t talk about them, is that clear!’ he said, and then there was silence, although Arvid could easily see that his mother was annoyed by all the detours they had to take.

Later, his father throws out all the shoe samples and rolls of leather he had been given in his previous job in order to clear space in the cellar. He needs the space to store the toothbrush samples, which he now brings home from work.

‘That’s it, Arvid,’ Dad said with an ugly laugh and his face looked just like a rock. ‘Now I’m a man without shoes!’
‘I know,’ Arvid said. ‘Now you’re a man with toothbrushes!’
And even though he was only one metre fifteen tall and pretty slight, his voice was so heavy with scorn that at first his dad stared at him and then went into the kitchen, and he slammed the door after him.

Poignant snapshots of childhood

There are many scenes like this throughout the book in which Arvid says what everyone is thinking. This brings a rare poignancy to the tale, especially when you begin to “read between the lines” and come to understand that Arvid’s father is a difficult, slightly bitter character — he seems to have a fraught relationship with most adults in his life, including his wife, but especially with his brother, with whom he fights, sometimes physically — and even young Arvid, who adores him, is often afraid of him. Whether this explains Arvid’s bedwetting or his nightmares isn’t clear.

As the quotes above should show, it’s written in simple, unadorned prose, and yet the narrative brims with nostalgia and tenderness, and a painful kind of honesty shines through. It shows the world through a six-year-old’s eyes so evocatively and eloquently, it’s hard not to be “wowed” by Petterson’s skill as an author. Although the narrative is disjointed — it reads like a snapshot of Arvid’s childhood at various points in time rather than as one seamless flow working towards a climax — it’s a rather delightful, bittersweet read.

I really enjoyed Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes if only to appreciate the book that brought Petterson to Norway’s attention all those years ago.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘It’s Fine By Me’ by Per Petterson

Its-fine-by-me

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 208 pages; 2011. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

The master of Scandinavian melancholy returns, this time with a novel that was originally published in his native Norway almost 20 years ago but which has only recently been translated into English. That means the story predates To Siberia (1996), In The Wake (2000), Out Stealing Horses (2003) and I Curse The River of Time (2004), all of which have been reviewed rather favourably on this blog.

Growing up in the 1960s

The story is told by Audun Sletten, a first person narrator, and is divided into four parts — the first and third when Audun is 13; the second and fourth when he is 18.

Petterson uses clever “signposting” — Jimi Hendrix’s death; mod-style haircuts; references to the The Kinks, The Hollies and the Rolling Stones — to give the story a distinctive 1960s flavour.

When the book opens Audun is attending a new school for the first time. He arrives half an hour late — “I got lost” — and is hiding behind sunglasses because he has “terrible scars around my eyes”. His headmaster introduces him to his class as follows:

“This is Audun Sletten, the new boy I’m sure you have heard about. He’s come to us from the countryside so please give him a warm welcome. He, too, likes the Beatles. Don’t mind the sunglasses. They’re glued to his nose.”

This sense of embarrassment only worses when, later that day, his class teacher asks him to “tell us something about what it’s like where you come from”. For unexplained reasons Audun is deeply offended by the question. He gets up from his desk, grabs his schoolbag and attempts to walk out.

This reaction only begins to make sense when you learn of Audun’s early life — the things he would rather keep to himself — as the narrative unfolds in a deliberately slow and careful way, swinging between his early and late teens.

Character-driven storyline

Plot-wise not much happens, although there are certain personal events — the death of Audun’s younger brother, the pregnancy of his older sister, the abandonment of the entire family by his father — that punctuate the storyline. It’s Fine By Me is more a character study of a young boy growing up and taking responsibility for himself, culminating in him leaving school and taking a  job in a printing press.

And yet the story is not a passive one — there is high drama here, and many scenes of brutality and violence, all told in Petterson’s characteristic understated style.

Audun’s world is dark and lonely and often painful, but there are moments of wit and unexalted joy that lighten the mood. For every bully and mean-spirited person he meets, there are others who are generous and kind.

Not surprisingly, as the earliest of Petterson’s novels to be translated into English (there are two more from 1987 and 1989 awaiting translation) It’s Fine By Me is far from his strongest work. Nevertheless,  it is an intriguing story featuring all of the Petterson quirks — charm, melancholy, loneliness, the rifts between parents and children, the bonds between siblings and friends — told in his typically restrained, some might say flat, prose. It’s probably not the book for first-time Petterson readers, but for fans it’s a fascinating look at the genesis of his award-winning criticially acclaimed career.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘I Curse the River of Time’ by Per Petterson

I-curse-the-river-of-time

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 233 pages; 2010. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson.

In recent years Per Petterson has become one of my favourite writers. There’s something about his deeply melancholic style that I find attractive. Those of his novels that have been translated into English — To Siberia (1996), In the Wake (2000) and Out Stealing Horses (2003) — are all desperately bleak, but they are also exceptionally truthful in their depiction of the human condition and the relationships within families.

I Curse the River of Time, first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010, is no exception.

The story is essentially a portrayal of a complicated mother-son relationship. It is narrated by the son, Arvid, a former Communist, looking back on events that “happened quite a few years ago”.

These events occur over a few days in the winter of 1989. The time-frame is important: across Europe, Communism is in turmoil — the Berlin Wall has collapsed — and this mirrors Arvid’s personal life, where much is coming to an end.

He is 37, has two daughters aged 10 and seven, and is heading for divorce.

There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on.

Because of this, he is avoiding his mother, “for I had no wish to hear what she might say about my life”. This suggests that she may be judgemental or that she will be upset by this news. But little does Arvid know that his mother has personal problems of her own — she has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

His mother, a Dane by birth, has lived in Norway for 40 years. Married to a man 14 years her senior, with whom she has four adult sons — one of whom has died — she wants to spend a few days alone. She books a ferry ticket to Denmark and heads to a town in the far north of Jutland, where she grew up.

When Arvid is told of her trip, he decides to visit her at the summer house where she will be staying. He is angry at his brothers, who passed on the news, because they haven’t bothered to make the effort to “offer her the appropriate words of comfort” before she went away.

This gives us an insight into Arvid’s personality: he cares deeply for his mother, even though he is never sure whether she loves him as much in return. And it also reflects his inability to process his anger — his story is littered with violent incidences — and deal with emotions.

Over the course of a few days in the summer house, Arvid reflects on events which have brought him to this point in time. His memories, which reveal themselves out of chronological order, cover everything from his student days, his romances, his summer holidays as a child, his decision to quit college and become an “industrial worker” in line with his Communist beliefs.

The figure which looms large in his story is his mother, whom he adores even if he never quite comes out and says it. The pair have a shared love of books (“she was always reading, always had a book tucked into her bag”), films and cheap whisky.

But Arvid has niggling doubts about her love for him. He is convinced she thinks him “too fragile”, that he is not good enough for her, that she loves his next younger brother — the one who died, aged 27, in tragic circumstances — more than him. When he verbalises this he sounds childish, immature. On more than one occasion I wanted to tell him to grow up — and get over it.

He has issues with his father, too, although he is barely mentioned. We find out nothing about him other than Arvid looks like him, a fact he cannot stand (“I did not want to look in the mirror and see my father there”).

It seems surprising that Arvid is so emotionally fragile, because he grew up being told he was the only son to be planned. Instead of accepting this news as affirmation of being wanted, he sees it as affirmation that he is different to his siblings (“It gave me a legitimacy I could have done without”).

Is there a resolution to this story? Not really. Most of what happens happens in Arvid’s head, and the conversations with his mother follow patterns that have been set for decades — he comes at things obliquely, she loses her temper, things blow over and they start again — but the characterisation and the emotional undercurrents of this novel are superb. There’s a brutal honesty to it all, but there are moments of humour to lighten the mood.

And Petterson’s prose style has such a beautiful musicality and rythym to it, I would read his shopping list if I knew he’d penned it.

I Curse the River of Time is far from an uplifting novel — it will leave an ache in your throat by the time you come to the last page — but it has a quiet, understated power that makes you feel as if your life has been enriched by the simple, all-consuming act of reading it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘To Siberia’ by Per Petterson

To_Siberia

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 248 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.

Prize-winning Norwegian novelist Per Petterson has become one of my favourite authors in recent years.

His much-lauded Out Stealing Horses, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007, and the less well-known In the Wake, which won the Brage Prize in 2000 (before it was translated into English), are both beautiful but devastating reads. To Siberia, first published in 1996 but only recently translated into English, is similarly exquisite.

This one is set in a provincial town in Jutland, Denmark, almost “as far as it was possible to travel from Copenhagen and still have streets to walk along”. It opens in the 1930s and is narrated by a young girl growing up on a farm with her elder brother, Jesper, whom she adores because “he does things that are original”, a devoutly Christian mother, a carpenter father and a hard-working, hard-drinking grandfather.

There is little plot of which to speak, although the story could be loosely described as a coming-of-age tale, because we follow our unnamed narrator from a shy six-year-old, scared of the stone lions on a neighbour’s property, to a 20-something emotionally embittered woman embarking on a life of her own. (Confusingly, the first person narrative is told from her perspective as a 60 year-old looking back on her life.)

The picture that emerges over the course of time is one largely of hardship as her father “works his way downwards”, moving the family into a cramped flat over a dairy when he is shut out from his parent’s farm. Here she must share a bedroom with Jesper (later, she is shocked to learn there are rumours they sleep together) and is told by her mother that she “broods too much”.

Sustaining her through this pinched existence are her dreams of Siberia, a place she longs to visit with “a sky and a light as from the dawn of the world”, and the love for her brother, a ribald, daring character, who later joins the resistance movement when the Nazis invade Denmark.

Later, as a young adult, she moves to Copenhagen and then drifts from Stockholm to Oslo, and fills her days working, first as a telephone operator and later a waitress, and ekes out her nights in grim promiscuity. There is a definite sense of loss, of melancholia, of deep aching sadness, perhaps best described by the absence of Jesper in her life:

He has gone to Morocco, and I have come to this town at the very end of the
fjord where everything was gray and green on the way in on the boat,
and then nothing but gray for days and weeks.

The ending is an unbearably sad one, typical of Petterson’s previous novels, and even writing this review, some three weeks after having read the book, my throat aches with the thought of it. To Siberia is a beautiful, bleak novel, one that makes you see the world in a slightly different light after you reach the final page.

As an aside, I loved reading about a part of the world with which I am vaguely familiar, especially the township of Skagen, which nestles on the northern-most tip of Jutland. Petterson’s descriptions are particularly evocative, although I have no experience of a cold so bitter it freezes the sea. You can see my own photographs of the region here and here and here.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘In the Wake’ by Per Petterson

Inthewake

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 202 pages; 2007. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.

Judging by the amount of Scandinavian crime fiction hitting our shelves these days, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that this was the only genre Scandinavian writers were capable of creating. Thank goodness, then, for Per Petterson. This Norwegian writer has penned one short-story collection and six novels, although only two have been translated into English (a third, In Siberia, is due out at the end of the year) and they are as far from crime thrillers as you can imagine.

The beautiful, introspective Out Stealing Horses was published to critical acclaim in its native Norway in 2003, but it didn’t hit the big time until it was translated into English and scooped the Independent Foreign Prize for Fiction in 2006. Suddenly Norway’s best kept literary secret was out of the bag and English-language readers like me clamoured for more. Cue the translation of In the Wake, a novel that predates Out Stealing Horses by three years, but which feels more accomplished and — if it is possible — more touching, more painful and more despondent.

Like Trond in Out Stealing Horses, In the Wake features a male narrator trying to come to terms with painful events from his past.

The book opens with Arvid, a 43-year-old divorced father of two, standing outside a bookshop where he once worked. He is confused and disoriented, and can’t understand why his hands are grazed and why it hurts so much to breath. And then he remembers the one tragic event that he has been trying to escape for the past six years: the deaths of his parents and two younger brothers in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster…

What follows is a story told stream-of-consciousness style as Arvid pieces together those missing years and looks back on the strained relationship he had with his father, a very physically fit and strong man who had little respect for Arvid’s love of books and writing, and his older brother, the only member of his family who was not on board the boat that fateful night.  (Tellingly, his mother and his two younger siblings rarely enter his thoughts).

When his 46-year-old brother announces he’s about to get a divorce and then tries to kill himself by drinking “a bottle of port and a hundred Sarotex”, Arvid is forced to confront the reasons why the two have grieved in different ways. This memory, of the pair sailing in a boat with their father, says it all:

I turned and stood there looking straight across the fjord to Oslo while the ice floe gently rocked, and my brother was staring stiffly back at the rowing boat and at my father, and I think that is the difference between my brother and me, that in spite of size and age he always looked back while I looked straight ahead, and this is the way it has always been.

And this account, told to a nurse, sums up how the two brothers viewed the tragedy from different perspectives:

And then I tell her of the discussions we have had since then, my brother and I, about how they died, my two younger brothers and my mother and my father, and I have said it again and again, that they were asleep and died from the smoke and never knew what happened to them, while he is convinced they were awake and tried to get out, and then could not because the flames were so fierce at that particular place in the boat and the smoke was so thick, and he cannot stop thinking about what their thoughts were just then, what their last feelings were, and I have said it does not do any good to go on thinking like that.

In the Wake is a book about loss — loss of family members, loss of dreams, loss of self — and how we handle it. But it’s also a book about family relationships, in particular between fathers and sons, and how these bonds, good and bad alike, do not break, even in death.

It’s a quietly devastating read, but one that is not without hope. Arvid may be reclusive but there are touching scenes in this book — between the Kurdish neighbours he befriends and the attractive woman across the road with whom he develops a small love affair — that indicate he is ready to tentatively re-enter the land of the living after a long period of bereavement. And there’s the odd witty scene that breaks up the unbearable sadness of the novel.

I found myself unable to stop thinking about this book whenever I put it down. Despite the narrative comprising an endless succession of disjointed memories, Petterson manages to weave them together seamlessly, so you feel like you have entered someone else’s dream thoughts. That is quite a stunt to pull off, though whether this says more about Petterson’s writing style or Anne Born’s translation, I do not know. Whatever the case, In the Wake is a highly recommended read and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Out Stealing Horses’ by Per Petterson

OutStealingHorses 

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 264 pages; 2006. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.

This is a delightful, thought-provoking and ethereal book by an author the Independent describes as “one of Norway’s finest living writers”. It’s a relatively simple story tinged with nostalgia about a 67-year-old man’s remembrance of things past and how events in the summer of 1948 shaped the rest of his life.

The narrator, Trond, is a widower who has lost touch with his children. He is living the life of a recluse in an isolated part of Norway with his faithful dog Lyra. By a strange coincidence his only neighbour, another elderly man, whom he stumbles upon by chance, is someone he has not seen since that fateful summer. This brings some painful memories to the surface and forces Trond to recall what happened all those years ago.

Back in 1948 Trond and his father left Oslo to spend a summer in a cabin in the woods not far from the Swedish border. Here Trond hangs out with Jon — a tearaway also holidaying in the area with his family — who encourages him to go ‘out stealing horses’, a euphemism for riding the local farmer’s horses without permission. But then tragedy strikes Jon’s family and the rest of the summer becomes a turning point in 15-year-old Trond’s life.

Through a series of painful but carefully realised incidents, Trond discovers what it is to grow up, to fall in love, to grieve. He also finds out that life is fragile and not always as straightforward as it seems, that adults sometimes keep secrets and that those closest to you can also betray you.

Essentially, this is a coming-of-age story, but it is written so eloquently and with such a love for Nature — the descriptions of woods, waterways and the changing seasons is pure magic — that the reader falls under a kind of spell and does not want the story to end. I found it a deeply atmospheric read that transported me to another time and place as if I, too, was out in the Norwegian countryside rowing down the river or riding horses bareback through the forest.

Having read this book in one sitting, I can see why Out Stealing Horses earned Per Petterson this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It’s a truly accomplished and evocative read.