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Dag Solstad: Ellevte roman, bok atten (Novel 11, Book 18)

Bjørn Hansen came from a poor background but did well. When he went to university, he was interested in the arts but accepted that that was something you do in your spare time, so he studied the more practical economics.

He got a job with the ministry. He won’t tell us which ministry and, indeed,in later life, claims to have forgotten. Whichever ministry, he had a good career in the making and could have on to great things. He married Tina Korpi and they had a son.

And then he met Turid Lammers. She had been married to a Frenchman for seven years and lived in France. He admired her French elegance. They start an affair. One day – without telling Turid – he decides he is going to leave Tina and their son, Peter, and go and live with Turid. He goes home, informs Tina, who is totally surprised, packs a few things and leaves. He phones Turid, who is in agreement, and heads off to Kongsberg, where she lives.

Tina came from a well-to-do (by Kongsberg standards) family. However, the family had not done as well recently. When her father died she inherited the villa house, her sister got the lucrative service station and both shared the florist shop. Tina works as a drama teacher.

Bjørn soon settles down in Kongsberg, though the daily commute to Oslo is long. Turid points out an advert for town treasurer in Kongsberg. It is clearly somewhat beneath his current job but would avoid the arduous commute so he applies. He does not know that there are two other internal candidates who were rivals but join forces against the new enemy. He gets the job.

He is soon well known in the town but that is also partially because of the drama society. He and Turid join. Turid is something of the centre of attention, both because of her drama experience and her good looks. The men tend to flock round her and on several occasions she stays out with one or more of them talking drama, while Bjørn becomes somewhat – but only somewhat – jealous.

The drama goes well over the years, till they try Ibsen and that does not got so well. However, it has now been fourteen years since he left Tina and he – and, apparently, the other men in the drama society – are noticing that Turid is getting older and it is showing. (Interestingly, nothing is said about how he is presumably getting older as well.) After she upstages him in the Ibsen and the ageing becomes more apparent, he gradually revises his views and, after two more years, moves out, living on his own in a flat.

It is at this point that things start to get interesting. First of all, he has what we would call a mid-life crisis. Nearly all of the books he liked were merciless books that showed life to be impossible and contained a bitter black humour. Even more so he starts to wonder what is the point. Time is passing, boredom is everlasting…What bothers me is that my life is so unimportant.

Bjørn has two male friends – the local dentist and the local doctor, Dr Schiøtz. He starts feeling pains – pains in the stomach and toothache so he starts with the doctor, who finds nothing wrong. So he decides on his his great Negation, as he had begun to call it. This is an action that would be irrevocable. Through a single act he would plunge into something from which there was no possibility of retreat and which bound him to this one insane idea for the rest of his life. We do not know what it is but we do know that he discuses it with Dr Schiøtz.

But then suddenly everything changes again. His now twenty year old son, Peter, whom he had not seen for six years, suddenly turns up. He has finished his national military service and wants to study at Kongsberg University. Like his father, he has gone for the practical choice. Instead of media studies or computers, he has chosen optics, under the influence of an army friend, whose father owns a chain of opticians.

We saw Turid entirely through Bjørn’s eyes. In other words, we saw her defects but not his, her ageing, not his. We now see the same with Peter. With relatively little concrete evidence, he makes judgements about Peter and his life, which may be accurate but may not. We do know that Peter is one to stand on his rights, sometimes on trivial issues. He does talk boastfully about the pulse of the age to which he belonged and the importance of understanding it but then many of us do the same.

Peter’s arrival has delayed but not cancelled his Great Negation, which finally does go ahead and which, to us, seems very bizarre.

This is another first-class book from Solstad. He really digs deep into the soul of Bjørn Hansen, a man whose views are often seemingly conventional but,as we get to know him, are less so. The way he abruptly walks out on his first wife and then abandons Turid (whom he never sees again, despite the fact they both live in the same small town), his harsh judgement on his son and, finally, the Great Negation are all behaviours, with the exception of the last one, which are not uncommon in the real world.

However, Solstad’s skill is to show these behaviours which might seem to be reasonable and, of course by modern society’s conventions, often are considered reasonable, in a way that, while not necessarily fully condemning Bjørn certainly have us questioning his motives and judgements. Is Bjørn right? Well, he thinks he is and no-one specifically condemns him. It is Solstad’s great skill to both convince us that his actions make sense – at least to him – while wondering if they are really are wise.

First published in 1992 by Forlaget Oktober
First published in English in 2008 by Harvill Secker
Translated by Sverre Lyngstad