Lars Saabye Christensen: Beatles (Beatles)
This book is not about the Beatles or, rather, it is, but not quite as you might expect. The book opens in 1965 and continues up to 1972, specifically September of that year when Norway voted against joining the EEC. We follow the stories of four Norwegian boys/young men, who are fourteen when the book opens. They are Kim, the narrator, Seb, Gunnar and Ola. They are so keen on the Beatles that each one has been named after one of the Fab Four. Kim is Paul, Ola is Ringo, Gunnar is John and Seb is George.
The four are Norwegian but could come from any contemporary urban area in a Western democracy, with two differences. The first is the weather. There is a lot of snow and winter sports, particularly skiing, play a small role. Secondly, unlike, their British, US and French contemporaries and despite the fact that they are not at all academically included, they have mastered a foreign language – English, learned both in school but also from popular culture. They also know some French and German.
As this is a very long book I shall look at it by theme/subject.
The first and obvious theme is The Beatles.
The boys are devotees of the Beatles and buy or acquire (usually by gifts) all their records, which they analyse. Every chapter of the book is named after a Beatles song or album, including post-Beatle solo efforts. Are the boys like their namesakes? Not really. Gunnar is political, like John, Ola, the only only one who can play a musical instrument, does play the drums but in a brass band. Seb goes through a religious phase but Christian and not Indian like George. Kim is not really like Paul.
The boys want to form a band of their own but, apart from Ola, none of them can play an instrument and their efforts to acquire instruments fail. Kim, designated the singer, does try to practice singing, with some help from Jensenius ,a former opera singer who lives above Kim’s family. They do manage to name the band – the Snafus, a word discovered by one of he boys.
Their devotion to the Beatles is focussed mainly on the music though they do get concerned about the Paul is dead rumours and the break-up of the Beatles. They do listen to other music, almost all contemporary British and later, US music. The one other band that has a major influence on them is The Doors and, in particular, they get involved in the person of Jim Morrison far more than they did with any of the Beatles.
The next issue is parents. Several of the characters in this book, and not just our four protagonists, have issues with their parents, perhaps not surprisingly. Kim is an only child and clashes with his parents to some degree. His father complains about his long hair, his mother wants him to be what many mothers want, a well-behaved, respectable young man, which, to a great extent, he is not. Things get worse. Kim’s father is a bank manager and when his bank is robbed – the robber is never caught but we are given hints – he essentially falls apart. Other characters have other parental problems – controlling, absent, divorce.
The boys are also rebels at school, Kim, in particular getting into trouble more than once. Though they continue to struggle with their academic education, none of the four is academically gifted or much interested in learning. Books, for example play a very small role in their lives.
Gunnar is the John Lennon equivalent and his interest in politics comes from Stig, his older brother, who is very politically active. The other three are sympathetic to the causes and do at times participate. The two main issues are the Vietnam War and opposition to US imperialism and, later, to Norway’s proposed membership of the EEC, which is seen as a neo-liberal imperialist organisation.
Related to this is the issue of violence. Oslo seems to have been quite violent. There is a gang of thugs that attack our heroes, particularly as they are opposed to lefties, and the police seem to be very nasty indeed. All demos are met with police brutality.
Like most boys of their age, the boys experiment with alcohol and, more than once, drink too much and get very drunk with the obvious consequences. They move on to other drugs – marijuana and amphetamines – later. Only one gets into hard drugs, when he is in Paris. The other three head to Paris and, amazingly, find him by chance and rescue him.
I have left sex to the end but it is, of course important. Initially, like many boys of their age, football and pop music are far more important than girls, though we find them looking at porn. However, sooner or later, all of them have girlfriends and, inevitably, make a mess of their relationships. Kim’s issue with his two girlfriends are key to the story.
The book starts fairly conventionally, telling the tale of four boys interested in football and pop music, somewhat rebellious and having issues with their parents. However, later on the book gets decidedly dark, as mental health issues arise. Kim’s father, after the robbery, is one example but there are other characters as well. However, it is Kim himself who is the worst affected.
This is an excellent and detailed account of life in middle-class Oslo over seven years, which ends up showing that there was a certain turmoil, both politically as well as socially, as things change as they did elsewhere in that era. Our four heroes struggle to adapt and Saabye Christensen gives us an excellent study of this era of change.
First published in 1984 by Cappelen
First published in English in 2009 by Arcadia
Translated by Don Bartlett