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Tomas Espedal: Imot kunsten (Against Art)

Our narrator is a writer. Initially he seems to be reluctant to tell us his name but we eventually learn that he is called Tomas Espedal. At the start of the novel he is in his mid-forties – again he is reluctant to give his precise age – and his wife has recently died. He now feels that he has to become both mother and father to his youngest daughter, Amalie (the older one has already moved out) though she, aged fifteen, is not too happy with this idea. Given that he has temporarily given up his writing and some friendships and no longer goes out much, he is always at home, to her annoyance. As he says she needed a father and got a grief-stricken man.

This novel is about two subjects, once we have dealt with his grief and adjustment. Firstly, he is a writer and it is about writing. Though he has temporarily abandoned writing, he is, of course, writing to tell us what he is doing and we learn both of his struggles to write but also how he sees the world. He very much wants to write. He dreamt of the original book. The book that would have everything in it. The great all encompassing book.

However, the other part of the book is about his family, going back a couple of generations, what they did and how their actions influenced him. We learn of his grandmother, Elly Alice, who lives with her father and her sister, after her mother had died. One day, Thea turns up at the door. She is pregnant – by the grandfather – and is barely older than the two girls. She is moving in and the girls must move out. Not surprisingly, this causes a certain amount of turmoil. We learn that Thea, along with other young women, used to hang out near the station and look for potential husbands, as railwaymen were considered good catches.

Elly Alice will also get pregnant before she is married and will have one son, Ervind, Tomas’s father. Toomas remembers Thea – she seemed to be nice – but Elly Alice still has very different views. We learn that Ervind was sent to the country during the war and that changes his outlook on life, not least because he is reluctant to return to Bergen.

Two things seem to characterise many of his family members. Firstly, on the whole, they do not seem to get on. Husband and wife quarrel, parents and children quarrel. We see three generations of women insisting they would never be as bad their mother and then turning out to be as bad if not worse. Of his own mother he says She was the strictest and most difficult person I have ever known, she turned into exactly what she said she never would. She became like her own mother, maybe worse. However, he himself admits that he is becoming like his mother. As with many parents, the parents tried to force their children, who were becoming independent, wilful and free, to grow to be like them.

The other key issue is money. We worked to keep poverty at bay, this familial weakness, this constant worry about not having enough money. We see our narrator struggling financially – at one point he has to leave his house and live in a caravan (which he actually quite likes).

As mentioned the other key issue is writing. We follow his interest in becoming a writer from childhood. He reads a lot. Interestingly he picks up some of his mother’s books and reads them. She reads books about women and sexuality – such as Betty Friedan, Marilyn French, Suzanne Brøgger and Erica Jong. However his tastes do evolve. He comments on the career of writing – We must be foolish in order to become a writer,I know that now but didn’t know it then: how foolish and ignorant one had to be to become a writer and how difficult it is to be one: At first you write to get a book published, to be able to call yourself a writer, gradually you begin to write to earn money, you write to have work, and you write to write better, better and better books, never worse books, each book must be better than the last, it’s a rule that makes it almost impossible to write books.

This book is about his family and writing but it is a book, written by him, and what makes it worthwhile is that Espedal can write. For example, more than once he is lying on a bed looking out and the descriptions he gives of what he sees could have been mundane but they are not. His stories of his family and his own concerns such as his dispute with the neighbouring farmer whose land he crosses are very well told.

Whether we like it or not and admit it or not, we are to a great extent moulded by our families, what they do and do not do, how they behave, how we see them behave, and Tomas is no different, as he readily admits. But one area where he does differ is his writing. While some of his family have been readers, they have not, as far as we know, been writers and it is in that sphere that Tomas Espedal excels.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 2011 by Seagull Books
Translated by James Anderson