• Dag Solstad on the Accidental Politics of Novel Writing

    In Conversation with John Freeman and Lydia Davis

    Since 1965, the year his first collection of short stories appeared in Norway, Dag Solstad has been a towering force in Scandinavian letters. His nearly 30 books run the gamut from the autobiographical psycho-geographic novel, July 16 1941, to the monumental non-fiction Telemark novel, which retells the story of many generations of his family’s history. His books are numerous, intimate, playful, circular, clever, and they probe the existential questions of loneliness and belonging through the squint of an outsider. They’re also deeply moral texts, in spite of the loneliness at the center of them, and they ask: what our responsibilities are to the world and to the people around us—to our children. How can we be authentic?

    Until now there have just been three books available in English, Novel 11, Book 18, a book so marvelous and strange, that Haruki Murakami, upon picking it up in English during a residency in Oslo, decided to translate it into Japanese. Professor Andersens Night, the tale of a 55-year-old man who witnesses a crime from his apartment window, only to later confront the murderer over sushi. And Shyness & Dignity, a tale of an aging academic, but this one looking back on the way-out 1960s and a friend’s betrayal of their commitment to living outside the realm of capitalist values then sweeping the globe.

    Thanks to New Directions, there are also two recent books, for those of us imprisoned within the English language: T. Singer, the tale of a man who flees Oslo for small town life and work as a librarian, and Armand V., a book about foreign intervention and espionage, told exclusively through footnotes to an unwritten book. And here we have the living footnote of the author himself, to tell a bit more about his work—it’s a role I’m told he’s familiar with. As one Norwegian critic wrote, “Dag Solstad has long understood that he is Dag Solstad.” So much so that Solstad currently has a small role playing himself on sketch comedy show on Norwegian TV, so this is not the first time he’s appeared as himself.

    Interpreting the man playing himself are Ane Farsethås, literary editor of Morgenbladet and author of several books on Norwegian literature; as well as Lydia Davis, International Man Booker Prize winning translator and author of almost a dozen collections of short stories and novels. Davis came across Solstad’s work on a tour in Norway. And using only the gerunds of her childhood German and her own powerful deduction skills, taught herself Norwegian by reading Solstad’s Telemark novel, the story of which became “On Learning Norwegian,” an essay published in the inaugural edition of Freeman’s.

    –John Freeman


    John Freeman: Since you’ve seen the terrain from the eyes of an outsider, how did you come to learn Norwegian through his work, and what was it about Dag’s work that appealed to you?

    Lydia Davis: It was by chance. My own Norwegian translator heard of a project I was interested in working on that involved generations of my ancestors. And she said, oh a book that you should read, that you would get a lot out of, is by Dag Solstad, it has a very long title.

    Dag SolstadDet uoppløselige episke element i Telemark i perioden 1591-1896

    LD: Thank you, I was just calling it the Telemark novel, which other people do as well. So, I ordered this book, knowing I didn’t know Norwegian, but thinking it would have all sorts of charts, and photographs, and diagrams and you know, that it would be very easy for me to get the gist of why my translator thought it would be good for me to read. And then it came, and it was nothing but text. Page after page, I think over 400 pages of Norwegian text. And very few paragraph breaks.

    I was a little confounded, I thought—can I get someone to translate it for me in time for me to use it? No, I can’t afford that anyway. What am I going to do? But I didn’t want to give up, so I read the first words, just to see. [Reads in Norwegian]. My German was essential here. “Les langsom”—langsom in German is langsam—so “les langsom,” read slowly—I got that much. “Ort vor ort” I could see “ord” is sort of like word, and “word for word” is an expression in English too. So I read slowly, word for word. Then I got a little lost. [Reads in Norwegian]. Verstoh is like verstehen in German. So, I thought, well if I can understand like five words in this sentence, I could maybe gradually build up the vocabulary until I understand more and more and more. And so that’s actually what happened, I still don’t understand why I became so entranced by the book. It’s all about his ancestors, it has a lot of repetition in it, a lot of eloquence, through the repetition. You don’t have to understand every word to get enraptured by the language. But because he repeated so much, I began to understand.

    It was quite matter of fact: one ancestor marrying another and having children is a lot of it. I read “giftet,” and thought of the German gift, which is poison. So, I thought all these people were poisoning themselves. But then they would poison themselves and have children, but then I thought, I’ve got something wrong. So, by process of deduction, I began to learn that “giftet” was actually to get married. Later I learned that it also meant poison in Norwegian, so… I would spend one or two hours a morning, if not three, just reading ahead. And by the end of the book, I was able to read most of a page with only not understanding a few words.

    JF: One of the things that’s so enchanting about the essay, is that she describes building a lexicon, out of one text. Building a grammar, out of one text. And the style that Dag Solstad writes in, with many clauses and repetitions, actually enables you to learn it that way, and I wonder Dag, I hesitate to ask you this, as someone who wrote a novel about a school teacher getting so angry that he breaks an umbrella in front of his students, and runs off but—what did you think when you heard about this project, when you heard about your novel being used as a manual for learning Norwegian?

    DS: Wonderful!

    LD: He’s a man of few words. I must say after I finished the Telemark novel, because I was so disappointed it was over, I went on to read three more of his books—one after another. Well I have one question for Dag about another Norwegian writer, a poet named Olav Hauge…

    DS: Of course, everyone in my generation loved Olav Hauge.

    LD: Did you like the way he lived on his farm, with his apple trees, or his fruit trees—that life, did you like that idea?

    DS: Yes, I have never been there, but all of my friends have been there. I was part of a magazine that lifted Olav Hauge’s writing to a new level, critically.

    JF: Was this the magazine Profil?

    DS: Yes.

    JF: Could you describe a little bit about what that magazine was like, because you’ve written and talked about its influence on you as a thinker and writer.

    DS: It was really important to me because I was just a very simple guy from the country, I didn’t know anything about literature. But when I moved to Oslo and started being a student—I learned everything from these young people in this magazine.

    JF: Where you grew up in Sandefjord, it’s often referred to as the Viking capital of Norway, and I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about it, and how, if at all, this place affected how you thought about narrative. Because you’ve talked about the epic insoluble quality of a novel, and yet with the exception of Telemark, most of your books are epic, only in their indivisibility, rather than the scale.

    DS: No, Sandefjord and the Viking era has nothing to do with the epically insoluble quality of my writing. I would also say that that epic insoluble quality doesn’t exist in the literature of that time, Furthermore, Sandefjord is not something—the place that I grew up in—isn’t something I have written about a lot, because in my point of view, childhood just isn’t an important subject for me to write about, because I don’t want to tire my readers with dreary stories from my extremely ordinary and boring childhood. So, I’ve never done that. I would say that I became a human being at a later stage, maybe around twenty.

    “I was a writer in a small town in the north of Norway, and when I went out of my house, I could go out on a dock and look over to the other side.”

    JF: What interests you perhaps is the complexity of consciousness and that this type of complexity develops at a later age. So perhaps childhood itself is not boring, it’s just impossible to write about, in the way that you write?

    DS: Well, it’s not that it’s impossible to describe it, perhaps, it’s just that early on in my writing, I’ve been interested in writing about things that can be changed, and to me, childhood is something you cannot change. It has just happened, and that’s just the sad fact of it. There’s nothing you can do about that now. So, since I write about changeable things and changeable subjects, I don’t write about childhood. But that doesn’t mean I’m not using childhood, for example, if I go to the town that I’m from, of course I remember everything and I have feelings and sentiments about these things, and I use things I’ve seen around me, memories, buildings, etc, but I can no longer separate what I’ve seen from what I’ve dreamt, and what I’ve fantasized about.

    JF: I have a question about change, since we’re living in this country, through what feels revolutionary, and beyond some of our capacity to conceptualize to some degree, with what’s happening right now. It has sparked protest movements which are probably happening right now in New York City. You both lived through the 1960s and the counterculture. Lydia, you said previously in other interviews you were happy to stay on the margins; still, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about cultural revolution as you experienced it as a young person at Columbia, and what if any change it made possible in your writing, what it made necessary, or if it was simply something you had to shut out in order to write?

    LD: Those days feel so innocent to me now, and safe, but I guess that’s always true of the past. It wasn’t really safe, at various points, but because we survived this past, it feels safe in retrospect. I was not at all politically active, I took part in one minor demonstration. The edges terrified me. I’m much more politically active now, much more politically engaged now. But I simply stayed on the sidelines.

    JF: Dag, you were secretary of the Communist party, though you’ve said in Ane’s interview in The Paris Review that you signed letters without reading them. But you did emerge as a writer in a period of Marxist discussion and debate, and your early texts were engaging in Marxism, and I wonder when you say the word “change,” if you mean, political change? Social change? Or do you mean the ability as a writer to change elements that you possess within yourself, on the page, or have a character undergo some change?

    DS: I actually need to start with the Vietnam war, because that was a political awakening for me, as well as for many others. So was the cultural revolution in China, and I think that event changed my life to a large degree, because then I thought: here, something is happening. One million people rising and making a change, this is something I cannot look away from. I thought there was a train, in a metaphorical meaning, from China to Norway. And I thought, if this train is passing by, I’m not standing left on the platform, I’m jumping on the train.

    LD: Dag, how does change figure in the Telemark novel? How is that book also about change? Or is it just the succeeding generations?

    DS: Yes, it’s certainly about change, I would say that the Telemark novel is also about modernity, and how modernity came to be. It’s the story of modernity’s becoming, over three hundred years. My grandmother, for example, who was born in 1872, was born at the time when half of the population—Norway was a very poor country—had immigrated to the United States. And those who were left, many of them became industrial workers, became part of the industrial revolution, and these people made up what became the Working Class in our society. These kinds of changes are something I’ve always been interested in describing. There’s another aspect of the novel, which is also about freezing time in a way, or remembering that these different periods existed and are different from our time. That being said, I am actually happy to be living in our times, and not in those times.

    JF: When you began to publish in the 1960s and 70s, did you hope your books would change something about society? And if not, what did you want, through your political activity, to change?

    DS: It’s actually really strange to me that for so long I was a political writer, because I actually never had, as a goal for my writing, to be political or to change the world. But I did it anyway, I didn’t feel particularly comfortable in the role of being a writer, but I have to say, I’m still pretty damn good at it.

    LD: That brings me back to my list of questions in Norwegian: [asks question in Norwegian] Did you work at something else other than writing when you were a young man?

    DS: Yes, I’ve been a teacher and a journalist. [Translator asks him another question] I was a teacher, but I have to say that when I took the job as a teacher, I had already decided to be a writer, and I brought my notebooks and I wrote while I was a teacher. I was a writer in a small town in the north of Norway, and when I went out of my house, I could go out on a dock and look over to the other side. There was an island, or a place called Hamarøy and that was the place where the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun was born.

    JF: When did you first read Hamsun and what were your impressions?

    DS: I read him the first time when I was fifteen years old, and he made the most immense impression on me. I decided then and there I wanted to be a writer.

    JF: This is a question for Lydia; your mother was a short story writer, as you are, and your father was a professor of English, was friendly with Francis Ponge, who was a big….

    LD: No, I don’t think he was friendly with Francis Ponge.

    JF: Ok, I just invented that.

    LD: Other writers—Grace Paley, he taught Norman Mailer. He taught Sylvia Plath, those were his two famous students.

    JF: Wow, I think he deserves a lot of credit for the second one. My question is, one of the fascinating things about Dag Solstad’s work is the way it braids interpretation into narrative, and sort of interprets itself as it’s unfolding, especially this novel, Armand V., which is a series of footnotes. I wonder if, growing up, the child of a teacher of English, and a writer of fiction, presented any dual model for you of how interpretation and creation were interlinked and not mutually exclusive?

    LD: I can just answer in a dumb way: because they were both so involved in every aspect of writing, the conversation in the family kept reverting to writing. Not just books we were reading, but how we spoke, how we wrote in effect, when we were speaking, or if one of us used an interesting word, my father might go and look it up in the dictionary, not to see what it meant, but to see where it came from, what it’s history was.

    JF: The reason I’m asking about your upbringing is, it was around the same age that you kind of knew you wanted to be a writer as a teenager, and did you have any conception of what that meant?

    LD: I guess I had a pretty good conception, but the funny thing is I only thought of writing stories. I never thought, novelist, I never thought—poet. I guess because of my family, which is sort of slavish, I ended up being a different kind of writer from either one of them and actually had to rebel against their conception of what a writer could be. So there was a mini rebellion going on, a very refined teenage rebellion.

    JF: You were a translator before a published short story writer or did they come at the same time?

    LD: I kind of started both, really even in high school and college, I was going at both. I loved other languages, that started early. But the writing started very early, I was very serious about it as a teenager, writing long passages in my journals… and pretty good! If he can boast, I’ll boast.

    JF: When did you read Hamsun? You’re reading Hamsun in Norwegian right now, but when did you first come across the work?

    LD: I’m reading his last book, On Overgrown Paths, which I read first in English. I didn’t know of its existence, but we were going to go to visit the town Grimstad, where he was under house arrest in an old folk’s home after the Second World War because of his writings during the war, which were very politically offensive. It’s a wonderful sort of journal-like piece of writing, that talks about the trial and upcoming trial, then talks about his daily life, about the old folks home, tells a little story about a wandering preacher—it’s just a wonderful fluid opening form. I did read him very early on—Hunger—probably in college. That’s a very powerful book.

    JF: I love Victoria too.

    LD: I haven’t read that.

    JF: Dag, what do you think of Victoria?

    DS: I admit that I liked Victoria, the romantic novel, but I don’t admit it happily, because it’s so sentimental, but at that time, I had those very romantic feelings.

    JF: At what point, as a young reader and fan of Hamsun’s work, did you become aware of his later political writings? And how, as a young Marxist, did you square his Fascism with his literary power?

    DS: I’ve always known it. It’s very well known fact in Norway, and it was well known to me as a fourteen-, fifteen-year-old boy who didn’t know that much about the world. I was recommended to read Hamsun by a friend at school and I’m very thankful to him for this. Of course, I know he was a fascist, but that has never really been the most important thing to me. To me, it’s still the books. I’m not suggesting that the Fascism isn’t important, but that’s not the point of the story that has interested me the most.

    JF: From your fascist to our fascist, the novel Armand V., among other things, predicts the downfall of the US empire, and there’s a remarkable scene towards the end of the book, which won’t spoil anything, the main character is a middling Norwegian civil servant within the foreign affairs department, and he has to square his feelings of his guilt about the US invasion and invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan, with his desire to be kind of out of the way, to have a job, to function. Then his son gets involved, and gets sent to war, and something terrible happens. Towards the end of the book he runs into the American ambassador in the urinals, at the Norwegian consulate in London, and the man has the head of a pig. An image all of us have seen rather frequently these days, representing our president. I guess my question is: does our current reality feel at all connected to what you wrote then?

    DS: At least it says something about the European view of the situation. Armand V is not me, and I’m not him. I’m the writer of the novel, and Armand V has lived a very different life from mine. He’s been a political radical, but not in any way as political as I was. But if it has anything to say, what it says is, when one power in the world becomes as dominant as this power is, we’re all kind of sucked into it whether we like it or not. We are sewn into it, we are inextricable from this power, and it’s about the difficulty of finding yourself in that situation. That he finds that even as much as he would like to oppose, that he has opposing views, he is still inextricably a part of this overwhelming power.

    JF: We haven’t really gotten to T. Singer yet. Dag, you’ve read some of Lydia’s work, and I wonder if you can speak to whether you feel there are any similarities between what you’re interested in or how you write?

    LD: Difficult question.

    DS: Oh yes absolutely, I feel definitely a literary kinship there. Sometimes I even feel that the people in Lydia’s stories, even take part in my novels, that they’re even characters in novels—maybe that’s a little cheeky of me to assume that.

    LD: What’s the word for cheeky in Norwegian?

    AF: I’ve already forgotten.

    The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

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