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Dag Solstad: T. Singer (T. Singer)

Like most of Solstad’s protagonists, Singer is a fairly ordinary person. Of course, as we know, there are a lot of ordinary people but we ourselves are not ordinary. We are different from others. Thus, Singer, while seemingly ordinary, has his quirks and characteristics which make him ordinary but different.

At the start of the novel he is thirty-four years old. He has drifted around in his early life. He did go to university but did not really study too assiduously. He worked at various odd jobs but never settled. Looking back, he sees that his life has been marked primarily by restlessness, brooding, spinelessness, and abruptly abandoned plans and He didn’t give a shit about anything. He squandered his life by observing it, and all the while time passed and his youth did too.

One thing has marked him and continues to haunt him – his fear of embarrassment. We learn, from the beginning of the book, that there were two incidents. The first was an episode in a toy shop when his strange behaviour was witnessed by his uncle. The second was when, in a darkened room – a cinema or jazz club – he spoke to one friend thinking that it was another and made remarks to the second friend that he would normally have only made to the first. These incidents pop up in his consciousness now and again and cause him some distress. Only later do we learn that these events only existed as possibilities.

He did have one ambition and that was to be a writer. He comes up with one sentence – One fine day he stood eye to eye with a memorable sight – and plays around with that over a long period. He adds another sentence and then another but gets no further. This ambition is then dropped.

When he was thirty-one, realising that his life was going nowhere, he went back to university and studied librarianship. He qualified and is now setting out for his job as librarian, in the town of Notodden. It sounds like a fictitious town but is a very real Norwegian town.

En route, he meets Adam Eyde, local manager for Norsk Hydro. Eyde invites him to his sumptuous mansion and tells him in great detail about his plans for the town and for his own career. (Possibly irrelevant comment: the founder of Norsk Hydro was called Sam Eyde.) They spend the whole day together but never meet again, except for passing each other in the street.

Singer has now got what he wants – to be hidden away. We follow his life in Notodden, with its ups and downs. We also follow his subsequent life back in Oslo, where, once again, he keeps himself to himself.

Firstly, this book is about an ordinary man who, on the surface leads an ordinary life, but also, when examined in more detail, actually leads something of a life less ordinary. Like all of us who lead an ordinary life, the details of this life, when subject to close scrutiny, reveal a life that is different. Solstad certainly subjects Singer to considerable scrutiny, whether the episode with his fear of embarrassment or struggling with becoming a writer. It is not just Singer who is subject to this scrutiny. The story and plans of Adam Eyde tell us more about Eyde and Norsk Hydro than we would have expected.

Secondly, Singer is clearly, ordinary or not, a man who, on the surface, looks fairly normal. He has, once he reaches the age of thirty-four, a steady job as a librarian. He marries. He has a best friend from school whom he continues to see. He does socialise to a limited degree with his work colleagues. He dresses shabbily but not outrageously. He has no obvious strange habits, hobbies, friends or practices. Yet, it is clearly his aim in life to detach from life and detach from people, as far as he reasonably can, within the constraints of his life, his job and his marriage.

You cannot call him a recluse because he is not a recluse, in that he does see people, both at work and at home, but it is clear that he is a man who is happiest when alone, without the possibility of other human interaction, not just now and then as many people do, but as much as possible. It is Solstad’s skill to paint us this portrait of an ordinary man who is less ordinary and a man who, on the face of it, seems a normal man who is, in fact, a man detached from the world.

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Forlaget Oktober
First published in English in 2018 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Tiina Nunnally