Literary Hub

Is This the Year Dag Solstad Becomes a Household Name?

dag solstad

If we agree that each place’s idiosyncratic history gives rise to particular cultures and literatures, then we might go on to argue that Scandinavia’s unique literary manifestation has particularly important things to tell the early 21st-century world. Certainly we are reading it in large numbers.

Well-known is the explosion of the region’s crime fiction, led by Millennium Trilogy author Steig Larsson, which, whatever you think of their qualities, has clearly resonated with global audiences. Scandinavia has also given us Per Petterson and Karl Ove Knausgaard, certifiable literary superstars whose projects have defied the odds to succeed magnificently not just in their homelands but also all across the world.

If there is one acknowledged grand master of the region who has not yet received his due in English (though perhaps has elsewhere) it is the Norwegian author Dag Solstad. In an excellent overview of Solstad’s career, the critic Ane Farsethås compared him to Philip Roth in terms of gravitas and pure staying power. Lionized by national giants like Petterson and Knausgaard, recipient of endless Norwegian awards, and the creator of a sizable and varied output of over 30 books, Solstad is a clear powerhouse. The release of two Solstad novels—brought into English by master translators Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally—may at last spark his arrival on these shores.

Farsethås tells us that, by his own judgment, Solstad’s career culminated in 1999, and he calls the books he has released in the 2000s “footnotes” to his major works. This is perhaps interesting because one of the new releases, Solstad’s 2006 novel Armand V, in fact consists of nothing but footnotes. What’s more, in this strange, subtle, and provocative book, Solstad himself affirms Farsethås’s reporting when he declares that his four decades of literary work came to an end with the strange 1999 novel T Singer: “My literary output ended with T Singer, written and published in 1999. Everything after that is an exception, which will never be repeated. Including this.” By coincidence or not, T Singer happens to be other new Solstad release.

Questions abound: if Solstad’s output ended in 1999, why has he published several acclaimed books since then? What was so particular about T Singer that it should cap off a grand career? And in what sense are the books that come afterwards footnotes or exceptions?

We might deal with the last question first, because Armand V happens to be particularly full of metadiscourse on its own nature and purpose. For one thing, Solstad makes repeated statements impressing upon us how impossible it would be to write the novel that he gives us the footnotes to: “the shape the novel takes is unknown”; “the novel is invisible for the author in the sense that he is unable to write it”; “footnotes to an unknown and unwritten but possibly writeable novel by me.” Solstad adds that he’s hesitant to write this invisible novel because he’s “afraid of what might result from such work”; he adds that his literary output “has no future,” and that “now my time is up.” Based on my reading of Armand V, my sense is that, like Philip Roth, Solstad feels that his best work is behind him and that there is no point to writing more novels that will not rise to their standard. He can only satisfy his continued urge to create by working on incidental oddities that avoid the direct work of novel-writing.

T Singer goes far beyond the typical, Camus-like portrait of existential alienation that clings to every corner of global literature like the odor of cigarette smoke in a supposedly clean hotel room.”

Beyond the writing about writing, what does one find in Armand V? Meandering and episodic, the book’s plot nominally follows the career of Armand, a lifelong diplomat, and the terrible thing that occurs to his son, who chooses to join the military and fight as part of the European Union’s intervention in the Persian Gulf. But this story is only leisurely told amid a proliferation of seemingly irrelevant tangents, like a 50-page digression on the college life of a minor character named Paul, philosophical asides on the nature of reality, a lengthy discussion of the best way to organize Western history into periods, and statements about Norway’s place in global politics. And then there is the infamous finale, in which Armand witnesses a US diplomat grow a pig’s head in the men’s bathroom.

The thing about Armand V is that no matter how seemingly irrelevant these tangents are and how miscellaneous is the book’s structure, nothing in it feels unimportant. This, for me, is why Armand V succeeds so magnificently. Early on, Solstad declares that the only thing separating a draft that he rejects from one that he keeps is “necessity,” and this statement is very convincing. Solstad’s prose leaves no doubt that its author will tear anything from his novel that he finds lacking in necessity.

Such cohesion is uncommon, particularly for a novel that joins such diverse threads; I count at least five: the story of a diplomat and his child; Norway’s place in world history; the nature of literary creativity; Solstad’s feelings on this book vis a vis his oeuvre; and the formation of postmodern identity. These all come together via Solstad’s charming ability to insinuate interesting observations on all of these subjects into the flow of Armand V’s universe. One feels implicitly that these bits and strands are in deep conversation with one another—not just that they speak together, but that they need to. This leaves a reader with the assurance that Armand V has opened up some meaningful corner of the truth.

Despite their radical differences in structure, Armand V and T Singer feel like two pieces of the same aesthetic. They can turn in an instant; they are frequently mercurial and at times bipolar. Yet every last turn feels necessary, and the overwhelming sensation of reading these books is that of coming face to face with the truth. Not the truth in the sense of deep philosophical pronouncements, nor inscrutable poetic dictums, rather the portion of truth that comes from experiencing stories whose peculiar shape is like none other, and which conforms not to the aesthetics of compelling literature but to the actual reality of what it feels like to live a human life. Armand V and T Singer grow in strange directions, their overall shape is not what anyone who has grown accustomed to reading novels would expect to see, and yet they are both very hard to put down.

Instead of being composed of motley footnotes, T Singer is a single, book-length chapter telling the episodic life of the title character. It is vaguely reminiscent of The Stranger in the sense that Singer’s life feels wholly driftless and unremarkable; the book demonstrates the haphazardness of what Solstad chooses to relate of Singer’s existence by beginning and ending at trivial moments, almost at random.

Yet T Singer goes far beyond the typical, Camus-like portrait of existential alienation that clings to every corner of global literature like the odor of cigarette smoke in a supposedly clean hotel room. Solstad creates a truly singular character whose existence feels like nothing more than the sum of indentations left on him by the world. Except, this description implies that there are things Singer would call his own, when in reality there is a creeping sensation all throughout Singer’s life that nothing at all is really his. It is this fundamental sense of dispossession and anonymity that makes Singer incapable of ascribing meaning to any particular incident in his life—he is a man who endlessly broods without ever gaining any traction. He passes his time by simply pondering the incomprehensible texture of his life, never managing to figure out anything, and the pathos of Singer’s story comes from the many instances when he must confront the irrelevance of his brooding. He is a contemporary variant of the superfluous man, an individual for whom the consumer economy holds no joy or purpose, a person who performs the various familial and economic duties the world requires of him, but who feels that none of these roles pertain to who he is.

As with Armand V, there is a social aspect to T Singer: Solstad discusses in great detail the development of the city of Notodden, where Singer lives much of his life. It evolves from a decaying post-industrial town into a dynamo that re-invents itself as a hub of the emergent information economy. It is details such as these, as well as others like the description of a long train ride through the Norwegian countryside, or the joy Singer takes in seeing himself broadcast on TV as part of the studio audience, or Singer’s irritation when a restaurant describes a “pot” of coffee as a “cup,” that give Singer’s world a distinctively lifelike texture. Everything in this book revolves around Singer in some way—in a very real way is Singer—and Singer is a personality quite unlike any I can recall having read about. This novel’s necessity lies in the fact of these details accruing together into something that feels unified but unresolved, what Solstad at one point declares a “black hole.” The book is indeed fascinatingly obscure in the way of a black hole.

Only a handful of Solstad’s 30-something books have been released in English, and if the few that we have access to are indicative of the qualities of those that we do not, then we are sitting atop a submerged iceberg of literary strangeness and brilliance. More Solstad should be translated as soon as possible. I have no doubt that his strangely shaped, peculiarly textured worlds have very much to say to us about the truth of this reality we inhabit.

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