Dag Solstad: Armand V. (Armand V.)
This book is not, according to the author, a novel but, rather, a collection of footnotes to a novel which does not, in fact, exist. This novel, which is invisible, we can call the original novel. In contrast to what is here on paper, which is the novel as it now exists. It consists of footnotes to the original novel and the original novel… is invisible because the author refused to delve into it and make it his own. Why? Because I am no longer capable of writing down the novel I have been given the privilege to dig up, but must be content with writing footnotes to this work, in which I obviously no longer believe. As with other issues, he goes into this issue in great depth.
The long and the short of it is that we do have a (sort of) novel, which takes the form of footnotes but does have, more or less, a plot and a key, identifiable character, Armand V, and can be read as a novel, even it is not the original novel. Of course, as it is only footnotes, this means, as the author willingly tells us, there are some aspects of the plot that he does not have to and chooses not to explain. For example, the break-up of Armand’s second marriage is explained in the novel but not in the footnotes, so we do not know what happened.
We actually start with Armand’s son or, more particularly, Armand’s relationship to his son but we will come back to that. We learn that Armand has travelled a lot for his job but only some way into the book do we learn that he has had a career in the diplomatic service and been appointed, at the age of forty-two, as one of Norway’s youngest ever ambassadors.
We follow his early life, particularly his time at university. He had been good friends with Paul Buer before university but they drift apart as Armand is a humanist and Paul a scientist and each one hangs out with his respective group. Indeed, as is typical of Solstad, Armand is often ignored as we follow Paul’s group, even though that is (more or less) irrelevant to the rest of the book. In particular, we follow the group’s desperate search for happiness which, to a great extent, means the opposite sex.
Armand gets to know two twin sisters. One is called N and the other is known only as N’s twin sister. In a complicated arrangement, he gets to know N first, has a fling with the other one, then marries N. It does not get easier or less complicated later on. He will later marry someone completely different, the mother of his son.
After a spell as a teacher, Armand joins the diplomatic service. While we do follow his career as a diplomat, where it becomes fascinating is how Armand deals with conflict of interest, i.e. between his own, private views and the official views he has to express as a Norwegian diplomat. These include such issues as his views and the official views of Norway on relations with the United States (including the Vietnam War). Armand was, according to the author, in a linguistic prison. It meant that his thoughts were free, but the language was a prison. That he was free when he read his books, but a linguistic prisoner when he carried out the duties of his prominent position. We see this particularly in one instance when he meets the US ambassador (in the toilets) and while he has to be polite to him, he is thinking to himself that the man’s head is like a pig’s. Solstad mocks Armand for his official stance.
The issue of conflict of interest also comes up elsewhere. The only two men whom he is close to (apart from relatives) in the book both will have, in later life, very strong and controversial views on a specific topic and these views cause them considerable problems. Armand, ever the diplomat, tries to stand aside and keep the men and their views at something of a distance. It does not really work. As Solstad comments, It’s impossible to look the truth in the eye.
Solstad makes much of this conflict of interest and, in particular, as regards Armand’s son. We know from the beginning of the book that Armand and his son do not always get on well and we also know that the son (who is never named, at least not in the footnotes) has joined the army, without telling his father in advance. Armand loses his customary, professional cool over the issue, which has severe repercussions for both men.
The author frequently interjects as an author, commenting on his writing of the book. However, he also goes off on various tangents, ranging from Norwegian literature to smoking, from art (Only art was free) to the death penalty.
This is certainly a very fine and complex novel. At times, he goes off on tangents which make you wonder where he is going and why; at others he raises interesting issues. There is no doubt that for him, the key issue is the related issues of Norway’s role as a small country beholden, officially, to the United States and how a diplomat can hold public and private views which conflict but the public views have to prevail. Solstad sums it up when Armand is considering the matter:
There’s no doubt that the West (under the uncontested leadership of the United States) had subjugated the rest of the world, and that we therefore were privileged, that we as a whole (the United States and the close friends of the United States) were the rulers of the world. Then why be so strongly against it? When you’re a diplomat, even an ambassador, for a small country that has truly benefited from this? What the hell is your problem, Armand V.? This book endeavours to consider if not answer this issue.
First published in 2006 by Forlaget Oktober
First published in English in 2018 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Steven T Murray