Norway’s Greatest Living Writer is Actually Dag Solstad
...And He's Coming to America
“I’ve tried to read Karl Ove Knausgaard,” Austrian writer Peter Handke said in a recent interview with a Norwegian newspaper. “But it is impossible… My Struggle lacks air. Literature needs a little air.”
“You might want to be polite. He is your publisher, after all,” the interviewer reminds Handke.
“Yes, polite, yes… well, my wife likes him, write that. But Dag Solstad I like. That scene in Shyness and Dignity—a wonderful title—where the teacher struggles to open his umbrella and bursts into a rant, calling a female student a cunt and a porkface, oh, that’s magnificent. Solstad is a writer of depth… he has air.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard is probably not offended by Handke’s comparison for, like so many Norwegian writers, he reveres Dag Solstad. “His language,” writes Knausgaard in My Struggle, “sparkles with its new old-fashioned elegance, and radiates a unique luster, inimitable and full of elan.”
Another of the country’s acclaimed novelists, Per Petterson, says that “Dag Solstad is without question, Norway’s bravest, most intelligent novelist.” Lydia Davis learned Norwegian by reading one of Solstad’s longest and most difficult books in the original. Haruki Murakami has just published his own translation of Solstad into Japanese.
A literary provocateur and a national icon, an experimental writer who is also a favorite with the country’s top comedians, Dag Solstad’s belated international breakthrough is in curious contrast to his position in his native country. Only three of his books have been translated into English (a fourth is on its way), but in Norway, Solstad has, at least since the mid 80s, been held up as a paragon of literary merit, his style a kind of gold standard of prose fiction.
Internationally, writers and critics tend to focus on the experimental, avant-garde, aspects of his writing, but in Scandinavia, Solstad has a broader appeal, more often than not writing on contemporary subjects in a realist form of his own creation. His 2006 novel Armand V. dealt with Norway’s role in the war in Afghanistan and prompted the foreign minister to write his own review, weighing in on the novel’s much-debated ending in which the Norwegian ambassador to London, in a surreal meeting in the men’s room, discovers his American counterpart’s head has been transformed to that of a pig.
Fifty Years of Writing
Solstad is one of those writers who has written as an outsider all his life. Not easy for someone who has spent the greater part of his career at the center of public life, frequently sparking debates with both literary experiments and essays, perpetually critical of the political, publishing and media establishment.
But there’s more to his humor than affixing pig’s snouts to more or less deserving victims. In Solstad’s trademark long meandering sentences, bursts of imaginative association are checked by a dry sense of logic, creating a prose rife with a peculiar species of irony—though Solstad would rather avoid that term all together.
If you speak to an avid reader in Norway you may learn that Solstad writes variations of the same novel over and over again. If you speak to another you may hear his writing has changed with each decade, always one step ahead of the zeitgeist. You could describe him as a realist, a writer of philosophical novels of ideas, a political novelist, a formal innovator—all would be equally true. Solstad’s thirty-some books, translated into 33 languages, consist not only of novels and stories, but also two plays, the official history of one of the country’s largest industrial companies, and five books about soccer’s World Cup (he dislikes Brazilian jogo bonito, values destructive defensive teams, and prefers matches that end in goalless draws).
In terms of stature and influence Philip Roth would be the obvious American comparison. Like Roth, Solstad found his voice with his debut book, Spirals, in 1965. And as with Roth, Solstad’s male protagonists can be understood as variations of the same basic personality type (David Foster Wallace would probably have ranked him with Roth as a GMN—Great Male Narcissist). Though never veering far from that initial psychological territory, Solstad has experimented more with form than most writers ever do. Still, his idiosyncratic development conforms surprisingly well to larger patterns of artistic concern in recent literary history, and is often presented in a well-known schema by decade:
1960s: Existentialism. Solstad’s breakthrough novel examines freedom and tyranny, and is inspired by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz.
1970s: Political writing. In the aftermath of the student revolts of 1968 Solstad takes up writing “in the service of the revolution.”
1980s: Postmodern experiments, sprawling novels with a touch of metafiction.
1990s: Minimalism, Thomas Bernhard-styled misanthropy.
2000 to now: Formally experimental novels. Solstad calls these books “footnotes” to his major works.
A Citizen of the Library
Two contexts—one literary, one political—may be of help in understanding how, and why, Solstad writes the way he does. 1.) His deep sense of being a writer in a larger tradition of writing. 2.) His equally deep sense of being a political writer, solidified by the role he played in one of the most exotic chapters in Scandinavian political history.
His literary ancestry first: Although all his novels are set in contemporary Norway, Solstad identifies strongly with the tradition of the European philosophical novel, especially the modernist masterpieces from the early 20th century, claiming authors like Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust as the closest thing to contemporaries. (With characteristic flair he similarly sees literary merit as absolute and inherent: “If a critic praises one of my novels, he is not exercising power. He is simply recognizing a fact.”)
In Shyness and Dignity the protagonist even imagines auditioning to be a character in a 1920s novel. He pictures himself being turned down by Proust (eyebrow discreetly raised) and Celine, before finding mercy at the hands of Thomas Mann, in a passage pinpointing the Mannian brand of irony Solstad himself aspires to:
“…he could have written down his entire narrative without self-pity, without whining, and with a rare irony, completely different from the kind of irony which is fashionable in our time, the Mannian irony, which is not used as a defence against reality but is a discreet hint that, when all is said and done, as eventually happens, this fate too […] is rather indifferent, though it certainly is a fate and as such must be studied, as it certainly can be. “
Perhaps one of his novel’s titles best expresses Solstad’s position on life in modern Scandinavia: Attempts to Describe the Impenetrable (1984).
In the almost Delillo-esque interrogation of contemporary society that is Attempts…, an architect moves to the suburbs to observe the real-world living arrangements that have grown out of his architectural philosophies. This is not a typical American suburb, mind you, but the Scandinavian collectivist version: simple housing organized in brutalist apartments, usually placed around a mall area. Instead of the collective utopia of his dreams the architect sees voluntary isolation, people who find their deepest longings answered not in the companionship he once envisioned in the public spaces between high rise buildings, but rather hiding inside their own cell-like apartments, watching American movies:
“Through his video machine Bjørn Johnsen could connect with the forces at the roots of his existence, and that made the inherent weakness in everything else apparent: It just couldn’t match this [… ] Through his videos Bjørn Johnsen saw what actually was straight in the eye, without wincing.”
Although the novel seems to side with the architect’s view of contemporary life as “fundamentally incomprehensible,” it is also a curious, wide-eyed study of this white noise, and excels in describing the deep meaning Bjørn Johnsen confers on a Clint Eastwood movie. The architect’s wordless dread derives not so much from the spectral blue lights emanating from a thousand television sets—he is briefly touched by the intimate “confession” of watching a movie together—but from the fact that these people, inhabiting the cheaply downscaled version of his vision, seem to have no desire to step outside the “destructive joylessness” of their environment. What frightens him is the apparent lack of any motivation to look beyond the plain material facts handed to them: “It occurred to me that the people living here might actually enjoy it. Even as a mere suspicion, the idea makes me stiff with fear.”
How to live as an intellectual in a society based on un- or even anti-intellectual values is a recurring theme in Solstad’s work. As much as his protagonists express a deep longing to escape from a society within which they feel such alienation, this longing is often countered by an equally deep desire to connect. Solstad’s architect may belong to the intellectual elite. But when he moves to the (lower working class) suburb, he observes its inhabitants not with skepticism but with a deep fascination, even falling in love with his neighbor’s wife and her rants about how her life as a stay-at-home mom consists of nothing but “buying, eating and cleaning shit, to make more shit.”
Children of the Revolution
It is here we arrive at the second important factor that has shaped Solstad’s writing. For as much as he is a citizen of the library, he is also a citizen of the political world. Solstad was a leading figure in one of the strangest chapters in Norway’s political history, comparable in some ways to the radical American left of the late 1960s (think Students for a Democractic Society), but with a much wider scope and influence, both in the media of the time and in its legacy.
In Norway, the aftermath of the 1968 student revolts in Paris took on a very specific character, in a hardliner communist party called AKP (m-l) (Worker’s Communist Party (marxist-leninist)). Its stated goal was to overthrow the government, by armed revolution if necessary, though without the violent acts of domestic terrorism committed by the Weathermen faction of the American SDS. Solstad and many other writers of the era were dedicated members.
In hindsight it is hard to fathom how so many of the leading intellectuals of a country that had successfully rebuilt itself after the war, creating one of the most robust welfare states in Europe, would encourage the population to join them in an armed revolution against their democratically elected leaders to promote a future utopia modeled on Mao’s China, Hoxha’s Albania and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. But that was the case, a reality that has never ceased to intrigue and puzzle the nation—and, naturally, Dag Solstad himself.
The zeal of the maoist movement was chronicled with eager fascination, and a hint of skepticism, in Solstad’s political books in the 1970s. So was its collapse in the early 80s in what some consider to be his most successful and fascinating novels.
How could the well educated children of the welfare state turn so violently against it? The reader of Solstad will find the answer intimately connected to a recurring theme in Norwegian literature: the question of how a former poor outskirt of Europe transformed itself into a top contender for the title of the wealthiest, safest country on earth, and how this affected the mentality of the people who apparently hit the social-democrat jackpot.
Ruthlessness and Softness
One of Solstad’s most enduringly popular books, which was also made into a movie, High School Teacher Pedersen’s Account of the Great Political Awakening that Has Swept Our Nation (1982) goes a long way in explaining what the writer has dubbed “The Norwegian Wonder,” in the now classic description of Pedersen’s predicament as a young man trying to find his way in the world:
What challenges were open to us? We lived in a society that was the best imaginable of all imaginable societies, and where things moved towards an ever increasing degree of progress. To manage this development, to administer this society, it wasn’t very tempting […] what task was this, to administer a society which more or less ran itself, to higher and higher levels of prosperity and with more and more opportunities for each individual? It is one of the puzzling aspects of Norwegian postwar society, one that calls for a certain amount of wonder, that the children of the welfare state, the essence of its dreams, the youth that were educated in the 60s, and who were by no means ungrateful for this, in us grew a certain sadness of the soul. We were not to be used for anything.
The passage is vintage Solstad. It shows his characteristic repetitions, his movements between external third person narration—seeing post-war history from a bird’s eye view—and the personal point of view within a single sentence. The slight awkwardness of the phrase “sadness of the soul” expresses his typical play with linguistic forms, from everyday spoken language, to an almost pedantic tone underlining the historical accuracy of his account, with a touch of high style added to the mix. Solstad frequently employs words outmoded in current Norwegian, often with biblical associations (“soul”, “spirit”, “flesh”) that gather emotional impact while inoculating against sentimentality by using phrases associated with archaic concepts on the verge of being lost to modern man. (Knausgaard frequently employs a similar rhetoric).
What the novel describes as the “odd mixture of ruthlessness and softness” in the movement is captured with precision in a scene on the way to a political summer camp. When faced with the challenge of getting to the island where the meeting is to take place, the young revolutionaries do not wait for something as mundane as boats, but resolve, in a typically Solstadian lapse into the surreal, to simply bike across the water. “Cycling on water” has since become a standard phrase for lofty idealism in Norwegian.
Among the revolutionaries Pedersen feels lifted to a higher level of existence. When they have sex they don’t just have sex, they enter into a form of being where all actions gain a higher, even global, significance—to comic effect. As he is about to enjoy an intimate moment with the woman of his dreams, the revolutionary hardliner Nina, outdoors, on a particularly cold Scandinavian night, she whispers a few words of revolutionary encouragement to help him along: “In this world, everything is possible, as long as man rises up…” At the resulting sexual climax Pedersen sighs with contentment: “Mao would have loved this”.
The comedy is obvious and the book is very funny, exploiting the comedic potential of the sect-like secrecy of a political movement where members sneak around the peaceful Scandinavia countryside with code names and secret passwords, where shopping lists are scrutinized publicly in forums of “self critique,” and Pedersen certainly feels the party’s invasiveness when Nina betrays their love to the central committee. That doesn’t stop him from feeling an exhilarating existential rush, the deep thrill of how everyday life for the secret revolutionary is filled with significance, with secret messages and symbolic meaning.
Myopia and Utopia
The political utopia in Solstad’s books exist on a level virtually impenetrable by logic. But in that lies its appeal, particularly to intellectuals tempted by the sin of overthinking. The call to political action presented by the eponymous hero of Arild Asnes 1970 is subverted by the novel itself; we see a young revolutionary who is content with a purely theoretical China, as seen from his couch in Oslo: “Arild Asnes often closed his eyes and thought of China. China was an image and he saw it best with his eyes closed”.
Seen in this light, Solstad writes novels that concern themselves with both large utopias and individiual myopia. Solstad’s tales of the revolution refuse to take sides—or to indulge in simple satire. High School Teacher Pedersen is as much a loving embrace of the vitality and zeal of the movement as it is a lament for its wrongdoings. “For ten years I tried to exceed the given boundaries of my existence” Pedersen says in his final statement: “A communist party is a thing to treat with caution, I hope I’ve made that much clear to the reader. But I feel less certain of whether I have managed to convey to him (or her, as we say) the inner jubilation with which this account was written.”
As such, Solstad’s books from the 70s escape the simplistic classification of novels of dogma, as his protagonists were never true believers. And the books he wrote after leaving the party aren’t quite novels of disillusionment, insofar as the illusions had already been exposed. These overtly political works are perhaps best describes as the story of a skeptic falling in and out of love with belief. They are, in a sense, love stories.
The “Great No”
It can be difficult to navigate all the paradoxes and ironies that make up Solstad’s fiction, a situation that is sometimes exacerbated by his playful public persona. He claims he “doesn’t believe in childhood”—even jokingly terming this stance “solstadism”—but he is happy to write an introduction to Freud. He claims he abhors how personal confessionals flourish in the public arena—but has participated in the largest interview book ever published in Norwegian.
The resulting tome, Unwritten Memoirs (2013), by Alf van der Hagen, reads like an unofficial autobiography. On the opening page Solstad states that he thinks of himself primarily as a writer for people in their twenties: “My favorite vision, my vision of the reader consists in making a strong impression on people in these decisive years… the time in life when you listen, when you observe. And when you are done with the worst sentimentality… You have these years in the beginning of your twenties… That’s when you have a chance to escape the misery.”
In High School Teacher Pedersen, Solstad as writer for the young, for the bold, is on clear display. In later books, the need to contradict, to thwart expectations, for those who have grown up and failed to “escape the misery,” take on an outwardly less spectacular and inwardly more sinister form.
Novel 11, Book 18 is Solstad’s darkest version of rebellion to date. The main character, Bjørn Hansen, a tax collector, leaves for Lithuania as part of a delegation sent to teach Lithuanian civil servants about local democracy. He returns in a wheelchair; as an invalid he will live the rest of his life on welfare. But Bjørn Hansen carries a secret. He wasn’t actually in a car crash, that’s a fiction he paid Lithuanian doctors to create. The wheelchair is an existential project, and he gives it a name: this will be his “Great No.” The unsettling end leaves our protagonist looking like something of a renegade, an unbeliever in the heart of the welfare paradise, leaving the reader in an uncertain state as to how to interpret his seemingly luciferic non serviam.
Yet if we try to look beyond the surface of the books from the 90s available to English readers, we find Solstad’s novels work on a spectrum between the radical idea of the great no and the omnipresent inner jubilation of his prose. Rather than the misgivings of a misanthrope, his work, taken as a whole, paints a wider existential picture, where irony, doubt and the debunking of social roles are ever present but do not necessarily lead to the negation of all that is beautiful or vital in everyday existence. Solstad always leaves a little space for the possibility of falling in love or feeling passionate about political issues.
Pedersen and Pedersen
In Unwritten Memoirs Solstad acknowledges his deepest literary debt, saying: “I would like to add something, something I feel is of crucial importance. And that is the fact that my whole basis for being a writer was reading Knut Hamsun at 16. After Hamsun, I never had any other goal for my existence than becoming a writer.”
As Shyness and Dignity deals with the other of Norway’s best-known authors, Henrik Ibsen, High School Teacher Pedersen relates directly to Hamsun. Not only is the main character’s name a tribute to Knut Hamsun, who was born Knut Pedersen, but the connection between Pedersen and Hamsun’s classic, Hunger, runs deeper: the overriding sense of something eating away at the protagonist’s dignity and sense of purpose
Both the fictional Pedersen and the real Hamsun/Pedersen sought refuge in utopian totalitarianism. Hamsun, who wrote his classic modernist novel Hunger in 1890, supported the Nazi occupation of Norway during the war and was tried for treason afterwards. While Solstad’s protagonists flirt with totalitarian communism, the author has contained his more radical impulses to his writing, with a radical will to confound and provoke. At 73 his last experimental novel, called “unreadable” by several critics, has provoked more outrage than any of his previous books.
Yet his existential take on the life of the political mind—the pleasures of secrecy, the attraction of friendship, the deep significance of symbols and rituals to any radical movement—seem as relevant to understanding the pull of totalitarianism in the age of jihadi johns as ever before. Between the stubbornness of his great no and the vitality of his jubilant yes, Solstad explores the dynamic between a headstrong resistance against—and an equally deep longing for a connection with—something larger than one’s own “obscenely soft and shapeless existence” in a way that has universal appeal precisely because it is idiosyncratic.
In other words, we identify with and feel empathy for Solstad’s protagonists, not only because they are outsiders, but because they present us with a worldview that exposes the cracks and furrows in contemporary life, regardless of the reader’s political stance. Solstad remains the indisputable centre of Norwegian fiction, and is a constant point of orientation for Knausgaard and Petterson alike, because he has kept on renewing the promise he gave his readers 50 years ago: to remain forever searching for the unexplored idea, the novelistic path yet taken, the sentence yet written.
Dag Solstad and Lydia Davis will meet James Wood in conversation on May 20th as part of the Norwegian-American Literary Festival.
Quotes from Shyness and Dignity and Novel 11, Book 18 are from the translations by Sverre Lyngstad. The quote from Knausgaard, My Struggle 2, is from the translation by Don Bartlett. All other translations are by Ane Farsethås from the Norwegian.