A shocking, moving bid for freedom


FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews Novel 11, Book 18 By Dag Solstad, translated by Sverre Lyngstad

LIVING ON the edge might manifest itself through a series of dramatic episodes; then again, it could be a single explosive act. Or, as is most often the case, it may be little more than a slow, routine rotting of all hope.

Norwegian writer Dag Solstad has been drawn to the barely imperceptible rot that tends to unravel most lives. This strange, persuasive narrative not only develops into an unsettling study of one man's life, it offers a wider, quasi-metaphysical commentary about apathy, free will and fate as a means of escape.

It is a remarkable performance and yet another example of a European writer taking the dangling man theme explored by writers as diverse as Dostoyevsky and Bellow and making it both familiar and understandable as well as utterly unbelievable, even terrifying.

Meet Björn Hansen, one time poor boy made good but now just turned 50 and living alone in a flat in the centre of a Norwegian town called Kongsberg, some 45 miles from Oslo, yet a different world. Hansen has been living in Kongsberg for 18 years. He had had no connection with this provincial town and came here for one reason - his mistress decided to move back home and he followed leaving his ministry job, his wife and two-year-old son.

Solstad is generous with the facts, his tone is wry, non-committal; he is not offering any judgements. Hansen had been having an affair with Turid Lammers, a woman shaped by the seven years she spent in Paris. It is obvious that Hansen is not particularly original or daring or even angry and probably surprised himself by having a secret romance.

Turid appears to have been neither elated nor worried about Hansen's decision to share her life. She does however suggest that he apply for the position of town treasurer. Hansen moves into the Lammers's family villa which had been left to Turid on her father's death.

Solstad may be generous with the facts but he does not offer opinions: "It is possible that he [Hansen] told Tina he had found love and that he could not betray it. In all likelihood he did." As the story begins Hansen is no longer living with Turid and has been living alone in that flat for four years. Within paragraphs Solstad has created in Hansen a somewhat shell-shocked individual who can no longer remember the emotions that must have brought him to this place.

Gradually some sense of the life he had lived with Turid emerges. It was dominated by amateur dramatics. They had both acted with the local theatre group of which Turid, a teacher, was the driving force. The descriptions of the evenings devoted to the theatre group are brilliantly done: "The Kongsberg Theatre Society put on one production a year. They played it six times in late autumn at the Kongsberg Cinema, after having been in preparation since Christmas the previous year." The approach would appear to veer on the leisurely side of ambition. Hansen however, after years spent hovering as the passive, shadowy consort of the flirtatious Turid has an idea - why not tackle Ibsen's The Wild Duck?

The production is a disaster. Throughout the narrative - which Solstad sustains in a laconic third person with increasingly vivid scenes from Hansen's memories - come to life as if he is suddenly remembering episodes he had doubted ever happened. It is very convincing; at no time does Solstad impose himself on his subdued Everyman central character. Gradually we become aware of Hansen's recognition of how he fell out of love with his fascinating mistress. Her decline from femme fatale to desperate middle-aged woman is sharply observed.

The past challenges Hansen's solitary routine when his son, now 20, contacts him, hoping to stay at Hansen's flat for the duration of an optics course. The characterisation of the son Peter is eerily real.

Suddenly Hansen, long immersed in his melancholic solitude, is confronted not, as expected, by the boy's recriminations but by the spectacle of his son's failure to be tolerated, never mind liked, by his peers. Father and son co-exist without any tension - or any real rapport.

Solstad, whose only other work to be translated into English, Shyness and Dignity, is about a mid-life crisis and was shortlisted for the influential British Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006, has a subtle feel for nuance. You feel Hansen's slow realisation of life contracting. His decision to do something about it is suitably extreme. He consults Dr Schiotz, a discreet drug addict.

The escape plot, concocted largely by Hansen - Solstad ever true to his practice of neither interfering nor intruding does not elaborate - brings Hansen to Vilnius, "Midway between Berlin and Moscow, somewhere in Europe".

Hansen stands staring out the window of his hotel room, considering the ancient city, "an old, venerable city. In Europe. A castle rose proudly on the top of a hill . . . below it lay the city with its churches, buildings, towers and walls . . . a city with a skeleton from the thirteen hundreds. . ."

Hansen's perceptions of the city become our perceptions. The passage continues, culminating in a wonderful description of snowfall. It is not the snow, it is the fact that it is falling in Vilnius, "here, in this city, Björn Hansen got to see it snow in Central European fashion. The snow fell wet and heavy upon Vilnius, which long ago was called Lithuania's Jerusalem."

Hansen's elaborate bid for freedom is shocking, eccentric and unexpectedly moving.

Opening the padded envelope to discover Novel 11, Book 18, was a stroke of luck; reading it is an astonishing experience. Yet again Harvill Secker has alerted us to the astute intelligence of European fiction.

• Novel 11, Book 18By Dag Solstad, translated by Sverre Lyngstad Harvill Secker, 218pp, £15.99

• Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times