Showing posts with label Norwegian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Norwegian. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen | Review

I read a collection of Kjell Askildsen's shorts stories (technically novella plus short stories) last year, finding him to be a surprisingly interesting writer. I liked the minimalist style and the book was overall quite successful. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when Dalkey Archive offered to send me an advanced copy of their forthcoming collection of additional stories (imaginatively titled Selected Stories), translated by Seán Kinsella. I happily accepted.

The collection, unlike the previous one I'd read, was entirely comprised of short vignettes, with virtually no stand-out story or extra-long piece that draws away from the others. In fact, the first thing that struck me about all the stories in this collection is how similar they all feel. The themes Askildsen touched upon in Thomas F and the other stories in that collection reappear here in full form. Each story is essentially about an apathetic or unhappy middle-aged man. Each story has some kind of weather or nature related theme. There's a lot of drinking, a lot of chain smoking. A lot of connectors between events that never quite pan out. A lot of innuendo. A lot of general melancholy.

Because of Askildsen's propensity for keeping things very, very simple, it turns out that this short collection ends up lacking a bit of punch. The writing is still clear and sharp and perfectly minute, but I didn't get the same overall clarity that I got with the significantly longer Thomas F. The characters aren't particularly distinguishable one from the other, to the point where I strongly suspect that Askildsen had absolutely no intention of them ever being viewed as anything but the same character in a slightly different variation. The obviously recurring character traits - bursts of sudden unexplained anger or violence, smoking and drinking patterns, treatment of women, and general attitude - all tie together so vividly it's hard to view any of them as anything other than belonging to a single male character Askildsen has in his head. I left the book strongly suspecting that this man is either heavily based on Askildsen himself, or is some sort of manly ideal which he's fascinated with.

Either case, quite frankly, would make him an extraordinarily unsympathetic man, even if he's a talented writer.

I have trouble with collections of this kind. My favorite short story collections generally have some sort of loose binding that make them novel-esque, or they have stories that are so different from each other in tone, content and style that I don't feel as though I'm going down the same path again and again. Askildsen's writing is best taken in small portions, then, not read in one sitting (though I actually read half the stories across a few days, then finished the remaining half in one evening). For fans of minimalist prose, there's really no way to go wrong here. Askildsen may not know how to build characters or spin wildly ornate plots, but he knows how to set a mood (typically an unpleasant one), how to make the reader just uncomfortable enough, and to do all this while scarcely using any words. Talent... but I think I've had enough of it for now.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review | Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public

* This review is of the translation from Norwegian into Hebrew. As far as I can tell, the lead story "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public" was once translated in a collection of Askildsen's writing but is now out of print.

Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public by Kjell Askildsen is not really a novella - it's a relatively long short story, that in my (quite lovely) slim edition comes padded with two other shorter stories that are similar in tone if not theme. The stories follow these rather disconnected, unappealing older men as they either go about their business or are entangled in certain dramas that gradually grow in magnitude and influence.

The titular Thomas F in the main story has the calmest story of the bunch. This "novella" (but really: it's a short story) is comprised of tiny vignettes that detail minor day-to-day interactions of an old man turned major: a surprise meeting with a daughter, the kindly neighbor coming to help, the landlord's visit, etc. The back of my edition describes each of these "scenes" as "a true literary gem", and that "each sentence contains an entire world". This is not so extreme an exaggeration. In "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public", the stories have a certain clean minimalist clarity to them that few vignettes ever truly achieve. The stories flow seamlessly into one another; I found myself telling myself after each one "After this one I'll go to bed" and then continuing onward anyways.

In all of the stories, the writing is sparse and simple. With surprising restraint, Askildsen manages to sketch out both his characters and their world. The second story in my edition, "Karl Lange" is a bit darker and heavier, but similarly light in terms of writing. The sentences don't ever drag, and they very gently get their message across. The main character in this story (Karl Lange himself) is a translator, and I want to quote from Author's and Translator's recent interview with literary translator Jamie Richards a particular sentence that exactly encompasses the core of the story: "It is not simply the solitary nature of the work that makes translation deadly but the obsessiveness of it—the anxiety of error and the lingering sense of never having finished." This sort of mood and perspective fully defines the story's drama - an accusation, a mounting isolation and increasing obsessive madness. "Karl Lange" may be the weakest of the stories in my collection, but it is hardly bad.

The fact that Askildsen chose to tell stories about fairly unsympathetic men (two nearing the ends of their lives, one in that middle-aged rut) and the fact that each seems to view the world through a decidedly tinted lens makes for interesting if somewhat uncomfortable reading. Askildsen's strong writing is enough to compensate for the rough characterizations (which seem much more like a stylistic choice than any failing on the author's part), and coupled with that excellent minimalism, the stories end up vivid, darkly memorable and enjoyable to read. Though I seem to have exhausted Askildsen's available writings at this time, he is certainly an author I'd like to meet again, and "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public" is without a doubt a story worth tracking down.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Before I Burn | Thoughts

Rather like the time it takes to start a fire, it took me a while to get into Before I Burn, and possibly even longer to finish it. Before I Burn came at a difficult time for me - it sat nestled between exams, papers and reality. It saw me through most of my exam season, as well as on vacation (where it was usually shunted aside in favor of more hours of sleep), and through the writing of my final assignment for this school year (only a month before the start of the next). I finally finished Before I Burn the other night, and it seems like this prolonged period spent with the book did not actually harm it in any way. Before I Burn affected me in a way this year's books simply haven't. Though it's far from being one of those books I will tout nonstop - or even a top-tier book in my mind - it's got something special. It's worth it.

Before I Burn is a book that surrounds empty spaces. It slips from one plotline to another, focused mostly on its young, intelligent men. These men - their struggles, their triumphs, their failures - form the backbone of the novel. There's something a bit distant to the whole thing, but Gaute Heivoll writes with so much compassion for his characters (one of whom is himself, sort of, maybe, who knows?) that I couldn't help but feel for them. The distance is a bit like the setting - houses in a small town, everyone knows everyone, but there are patches of empty land between each home. How else could you not notice a pyromaniac setting your houses alight?

I was talking to one of my many literary aunts about the book just after I finished it. She was saying how she likes her books to be full of color and smell. She doesn't like "gray books". I told her she wouldn't like Before I Burn - full of gray shadows and gray spaces. Except for when it burns red. Before I Burn is a slow build, but it does build. It builds beautifully and powerfully, and though I knew the end, it managed to surprise me anyways. It's a book that I can easily see myself opening at random just to enjoy its environment and its world.

I liked Before I Burn. I liked its characters, I liked its perspective, I liked its plot and I liked the way it built around it. There are no compromises here, but small tragedies. There is disappointment and love side-by-side. Before I Burn looks at families with a calm eye. It looks at mental illness with unequaled coolness. It shifts through decades and generations with ease and expertise. It is, in all honesty, a good book. It may have taken me a while to get through, but I'm very glad to have read it.