Soul on Ice

  • Per Petterson. In the Wake. (Trans. Anne Born.) Thomas Dunne. August 2006.
  • Per Petterson. Out Stealing Horses. (Trans. Anne Born.) Graywolf. April 2007.
  • Per Petterson. To Siberia. (Trans. Anne Born.) Graywolf. September 2008.

“The difference between my brother and me,” declares Arvid Jansen, the hero of the Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s novel In the Wake, is “that despite size and age he always looked back while I look straight ahead, and this is the way it always has been.” Arvid’s self-characterization is misleading. All three of Petterson’s translated novels—In the Wake, the best-selling Out Stealing Horses, and the recently rereleased To Siberia—follow characters caught in a Janus-faced moment of tragedy, between their harrowing pasts (“he always looked back”) and the bewildering present (“I look straight ahead”). Written over seven years, these three books have the feel of a unified composition, a single elegant meditation on the aftershocks of personal disaster. In English translations by Anne Born, they are lyrically compact and quiet, with a tough-minded outlook that gives them wide appeal.

Petterson’s work owes a great deal to his Scandinavian predecessors. His books cross the darkly indifferent natural world of Norwegian folk tales with the social realism of Ibsen;  they are steeped in the romantic sensibility of Knut Hamsun but also address the lingering effects of the German occupation of Norway during World War II. His characters are politically ardent, filled with the radical idealism and longing for solitude characteristic of other twentieth-century Norwegian literary heroes.

But these are not Petterson’s strengths. His social criticism often has the taint of adolescent posturing, lacking bite. His reflections on the German occupation feel strained, even shallow. And unlike his contemporary Jan Kjaerstad, who is known for his playful, self-referential Wergeland trilogy, three novels about a Norwegian television personality, Petterson is earnest  and sincere, never letting his narratives tumble into the postmodern or fantastical. Even his descriptions of the natural world, while menacingly beautiful, can seem more melodramatic than insightful. Petterson’s navigational focus is less on the bleak landscape of his native Norway than on the more forbidding—and more universal—landscape of loss and regret.

Petterson’s prose style is terse, rhythmic, and intimate; he patiently maps the filaments that bind his characters’ interior lives and the exterior world, walking them not just through their surfacing memories of the past, but through their mundane muscle memories in the present. He registers the smarting of their bodies as they round up horses. He transmits the repetitive vibration of heave and grunt as they chop logs. Publilius Syrus said that the pain of the mind is worse than the pain of the body, but in Petterson’s work they are inextricably linked. And herein lies much of his appeal. Milking a cow, making a cup of coffee, cleaning a house: these acts provide physical cathexis for psychological pain, allowing his characters to organize and reorder a life dislocated by death. By forcing us to follow along so closely with the visceral world of his protagonists, Petterson gives us a primer on how to cope with seemingly unfathomable emotional pain.

An early scene in Out Stealing Horses crystallizes the Sisyphean task Petterson lays out for his characters. Fifteen-year-old Trond is cutting grass with a scythe behind his father’s cabin. He encounters a patch of stinging nettles, and his father, observing that he avoids the plants, asks him why he does not cut them down. It will hurt, Trond sensibly replies. His father walks deliberately over to the nettles, takes hold of them with his bare hands, and slowly pulls them up one by one. “You decide for yourself when it will hurt,” he says.

Petterson’s characters constantly struggle toward—but rarely reach—this kind of self-overcoming. Forty-five years later, living in solitude in the Norwegian countryside, Trond is still smarting from the wounds of that summer. Now sixty, he has chosen his isolated existence and superficially seems content. He watches “the shape of the wind on the water,” and announces when “the blue hour has arrived” to his dog, Lyra. He listens to the BBC, on which “everything sounds foreign,” and carries out the tasks of his daily life with delicate attentiveness. He is alone but not lonely. “All my life I have longed to be in a place like this,” he says, “I have been lucky.” In fact, we discover, Trond is here largely because in the course of one month he lost his sister to cancer and his wife to a car accident, an accident in which he nearly died as well.

But the loss on which Trond most powerfully reflects is far older: that of his father, who abandoned his family at the end of the summer Trond was fifteen, just after World War II. In an early scene in the book, Trond and his friend Jon go “out stealing horses,” their code word for illegally riding the horses of their wealthy neighbor. As Trond soon discovers, the phrase was also a password into the town’s resistance movement during the war, when his father lived in the cabin and served as the last link of a courier line to Sweden.

This double meaning is only one of a series of ingenious doublings in Petterson’s carefully crafted book. Trond’s mother has twin brothers, one of whom was shot by the Germans. Jon likewise has twin siblings, Lars and Odd, one of whom shoots the other. Jon’s mother has long carried on an affair with Trond’s father, and the two boys’ fathers spend much of the summer engaged in a tacit battle. Tipping timber into the river, standing at either end of a log, the men form mirror images: Trond says, “I realized then that what [Jon’s father] was doing was challenging my father’s authority, and they took hold and pulled and swayed so that the sweat poured and their shirts slowly turned dark on their backs and the veins stood out on their foreheads and necks and on their arms as blue and broad as the rivers on a map of the world.” Like the book’s other pairings, this scene ends in calamity: Jon’s father releases his pole and is badly injured by the unwieldy log. But this contest is also the consequence of an earlier duplication—or lack thereof. During the war, when Jon’s mother was secreting a man to Trond’s father’s cabin and then across the border, she told her husband that “you must walk in his footprints” to hide his tracks in the snow. His failure to do so leads to the death of the fugitive and, in a subtle way, to the concatenation of tragedies that follow in the book.

This use of doppelgangers is also a structural principle in Out Stealing Horses. Each episode in the present—cutting up a fallen spruce tree, walking by the river, telling the story of shooting a wild animal—evokes a duplicate scene from the past, allowing Petterson’s narrative to shuttle seamlessly between the two periods. Though this binary architecture enhances the symbolic duplications, the neatness of Petterson’s stitchwork can sometimes feel contrived and gratuitous, like cross cuts in a film intended to build the audience’s excitement. The sections of the book from World War II often carry a similar artificiality, as if Petterson felt the need to insert action into what might otherwise seem an uneventful story. This is a mistake; Petterson’s work excels most not in its scenes of violence or turmoil, but when it is at its most prosaic. Though the elderly Trond never entirely understands his father’s departure, his voice hums with a quiet acceptance so peaceful that it redeems the book’s minor foibles. When bridges are being blown up during a desperate footrace with German soldiers, the tension feels forced; but when Trond, watching the night fall and thinking over his past, concludes that “the tinted air binds the world together and there is nothing discontinuous out there,” we feel that the novel has achieved a similar sense of completion.

When Out Stealing Horses was published in English in 2005, it was an unqualified literary success. The book sold some 230,000 copies worldwide and earned a veritable storm of accolades from the press. It was Petterson’s fifth book, but only his second to be translated into English. The first, In the Wake, is the story of the writer Arvid Jansen, a character whose life closely resembles Petterson’s, and to whom he returns in much of his untranslated work. Like Petterson, Arvid has lost most of his immediate family in the Scandinavian Star disaster of 1990, in which a passenger ferry traveling from Norway to Denmark caught fire, killing 159 of those on board. The book follows Arvid as he stumbles in the wake the boat has left behind—drunken, alone, sick, filled with “an emptiness [he] cannot account for.” In one early scene, he describes watching a video of the wreck taken by firemen along with other bereaved relatives. They see the “inside of the boat with a landscape of half-naked prone bodies,” a holocaust of corpses in which “a woolly penguin lies alone on a bunk, the door to the bathroom ajar, the dark crack hiding the bath’s obvious secret.” The woman next to him cries “rewind, for heaven’s sake, I have to see that penguin one more time’…‘rewind,’ she said again and again, and the fireman did, goddamnit, and she turned to stone.” The novel turns out to be an extended repetition of this moment—the dadaish humor of the penguin, the quiet terror of “the bath’s obvious secret,” and, most important, Arvid’s compulsive rewinding and revisiting of the painful memories that leave him turned to stone. As he and his sole surviving brother toast on the final page of the book, they have hit “rock bottom.”

In the Wake is an account of grief, but it is also, like most of Petterson’s writing, one of survivor’s guilt. Shortly before the accident, Arvid wrote a set of stories about his father that strained their relationship into a “tunnel of silence.” At a family reunion, Arvid’s athletic, powerful father gets uncharacteristically drunk and mocks him. “Well, well, Hemningway, so you’re a writer,” he says, and then falls onto a barbed wire fence that leaves “both palms…covered in blood.” For the rest of the night he taunts “Hemningway” and each time he does, like some divinely wrought retribution, he hurts himself further, until he collapses on the floor and Arvid thinks: “Now he will die.” After the ferry accident Arvid is haunted by a sense of responsibility, as if, like Petterson writing his characters’ deaths, he had already composed his father’s funeral. In one scene, Arvid and his brother unwittingly recreate the images from the boat in a fit of anger. They visit their father’s Danish home, a “double cabin. A bed next to each wall with a narrow gangway between,” where they throw out twenty-five pairs of his perfectly preserved shoes, which, like the bodies on the ship, “lay on the lawn in a heap, looking like something in a picture from Auschwitz.” Such nagging intimations of guilt—as well as a deep anxiety at having themselves escaped—follow all of Petterson’s characters through the process of mourning.

But if the book is a wake in the sense that it is a vigil for the dead, it is finally about awakenings as much as aftermaths. In the opening scene, Arvid finds himself drunk, blacked out on a street corner in Oslo, unaware of who or where he is. Petterson depicts the slow swirl of Arvid’s coming to consciousness with a deftness worthy of Proust, as time and location and identity ooze into place. Nearly half of the subsequent chapters begin with Arvid waking out of sleep—to doorbells, alarm clocks, helicopters, the call of the outside world. The larger trajectory of the novel is also one of awakening: as Oslo slides toward spring, Arvid makes his first fumbling steps toward re-forming relationships, reaching out to his young daughter and depressed brother, and beginning a tenuous romance with a neighbor. These interactions feel beautifully raw, primal and tender and sublimely hopeful, like “a half-blind animal…underground when it turns deep in darkness beside another, and nothing but that movement is important.”

While not explicitly linked, Out Stealing Horses and In the Wake bear a prismatic relationship to one another. In In the Wake, Arvid imagines himself living in a remote cabin with a dog named Lyra; in an effort to start his life anew, he throws out all of his manuscripts except for one small paragraph he has just typed, saying that with it he is “writing [himself] into a possible future.” This passage comprises the opening pages of Out Stealing Horses, in which Trond realizes Arvid’s fantasy. The implication is that Arvid is the author of Out Stealing Horses, and that Trond’s life echoes his in much the same way that Arvid’s life echoes Petterson’s. In the Wake has a similarly subtle tie to Petterson’s newly translated novel, To Siberia. Recounting the history of his parents in In the Wake, Arvid says that his father “received a letter telling him he had a child in Denmark, in Jutland, with a lady he had met in a café near the factory and had spent a short time with the previous autumn, and who then just vanished.” These events take place in the final chapters of To Siberia. Arvid, the astute reader intuits, is the son of To Siberia‘s protagonist, and his story the continuation of hers.

Unfortunately, the quality of the three works is not consistent. Originally written in 1996 but only now appearing in the US, To Siberia feels far more amateurish than In the Wake and Out Stealing Horses. The book’s narrator (called only Sistermine, the nickname bestowed on her by her brother) recounts her childhood growing up in a Danish port town around the time of World War II; in a string of memories, she recalls her stoic carpenter father, her severe Christian mother, and, most of all, her brother Jesper—an impassioned and charismatic troublemaker, beloved by women, and fascinating to his young sister. Jesper seems doomed from the start; he clambers out of his bedroom at night, wants to become a bootlegger, and even tries to “skate on the sea” to the island of Hirsholmene, seven kilometers away, where “a boy had fallen through the ice two days earlier.” So it is no surprise when Jesper’s resistance to the Germans lands him in trouble with authorities and he must flee the country, leaving a permanent absence in Sistermine’s existence. In many ways, To Siberia is less an account of her own life than the story of Jesper’s gradual disappearance. Even before he has left, Sistermine says, “sometimes when I think of Jesper all I can see is his dark back on the way across the sea to Hirsholmene. It gets smaller and smaller and I stand at the edge of the ice feeling empty.”

Without Jesper, the novel, like Sistermine herself, deflates almost completely. She wanders listlessly through a number of emotionally vacant affairs, dallying in jobs as a glassblower, a telephone operator, and a café attendant. As a child, Sistermine’s mother told her the story of the Man from Danzig, a mariner who drowns at night near the island of Laeso, 19 kilometers off the Danish mainland. Jesper, caught in the dark in one early chapter, says, “This is what it must have been like when the Man from Danzig was shipwrecked. He thought he knew where everything was, and then it was all sheer chaos.” This is also the fate of Sistermine after she loses the mooring of her sibling, and so it is appropriate that she also finds herself marooned on Laeso, a place “invisible from the mainland,” living a ghostly existence and pregnant by a virtual stranger, bemoaning that “there is nothing left in life. Only the rest.”

Though Sistermine tells her story from the vantage of a sixty-year-old, the intervening time seems to provide no interpretive distance, exactly the quality that makes Trond such a lyrical narrator in Out Stealing Horses. Instead, she speaks with the naiveté of a small child, and then with that of an unworldly and drained young woman. Such a willfully funnelled perspective relies on the reader to understand and interpret events that the protagonist herself can only observe but the book provides few insights. Instead it becomes a numb chronicle, fading in and out of events (and tenses) with a disappointing lack of feeling.

Petterson’s three books form an extended family, and family itself is their recurring theme. Much of this material originates in the author’s life. Petterson’s mother was the son of a Danish carpenter; his father (whom he describes as “an athlete, looking like Tarzan”) worked in a shoe factory; and, like his fictional alter ego Arvid, Petterson was meant to accompany his family on the ferry to Denmark on the day of the Scandinavian Star disaster. Petterson didn’t publish any work until shortly before this incident, when he was in his early forties. As a young man, he trained to be a librarian and then became the foreign book buyer in an Oslo bookstore. His tempered, spare prose is obviously influenced by much of what he encountered there: it’s Hamsun meets Hemingway with a dash of Carver. It is filled with masculine stoicism, lyrical modesty, and an autumnal sense of tragedy.

It is also filled with hard work. Petterson takes profound pleasure in descriptions of physical labor and the basic mechanics of the body. There are extended scenes of felling woods for timber, of threshing hay, of lighting worn stoves and cooking potatoes and systematically setting tables. He is methodical, and he makes manual activity exquisitely sensual. “A day without work is a day without food,” said the Zen master Baizhang. Petterson has acknowledged his interest in Zen, and in his writing, sharpening a saw or cleaning a house come to seem solemnly religious rituals, ceremonial meditations rather than mundane tasks.

Of course, fewer and fewer daily tasks require physical skill or mental focus, and inevitably Petterson’s work sometimes feels overly nostalgic, his characters anachronistic and hermetic. In each book, the main players isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Sistermine plans to flee to Siberia, a retreat no doubt recommended by its associations with Dostoevskian work camps and Soviet prisons; Trond seals himself up in a cabin so remote that his daughter has to call town councils for eighty miles around to find out where he lives; Arvid’s main interactions are with a man whose only words of Norwegian are “hi” and “thanks” (a fact that doesn’t deter them from having extended conversations in this charmingly limited language), and with a woman whom he watches through his apartment windows.

There is an idealistic, Thoureauvian element to the characters’ self-imposed exile. There is also a strong debt to earlier Norwegian literature: compare Trond’s statement that “time is important to me now…not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by” to the opening of Hamsun’s Pan, in which the protagonist sits thinking of “the hut I lived in, and of the woods behind the hut…The time goes very slowly; I cannot get it to pass as quickly as I would.” But the characters are also motivated by a queasy rejection of the complexities of their emotional lives, eased by the creation of simple, straightforward physical ones.

This may be in part because none of Petterson’s protagonists are the leading characters in their own lives, and their stories, though they often begin with loss, have also been truncated by it. As a result, his grieving narrators feel not just Janus-faced, but somehow faceless. Early in To Siberia, Sistermine says of Jesper, “I just do what he does, it is not difficult when we do it in time with each other…it is like a dance.” She continues to follow Jesper in the remainder of the novel until, with his departure, she finds herself detached from her family, her home, and her own sense of herself. The writer Arvid, meantime, is engaged in In the Wake in a hollowly obsessive recreation—creatively and physically—of his father. He writes about his father’s life; he wears his father’s sweaters; he has a closet stocked with his father’s unused briefcases; he eats Napoleon cakes because his father “really loved Napoleon cakes.” “I go on looking at myself in the mirror,” Arvid says, “I am so like him it would make you laugh.”

Trond spends Out Stealing Horses mimicking his idolized father, and, in the closing chapter, literally fills his father’s shoes. His mother buys him a suit that makes him “look like someone else” and the two walk “arm in arm like a real couple, light on our feet, our heights a match, and she has a click in her heels.” At one point in Out Stealing Horses, Trond says, “I realized that what I was most afraid of in this world was to be the man in Magritte’s painting who looking at himself in the mirror sees only the back of his own head, again and again.” The back of their own heads—or of someone else’s—is exactly what Petterson’s characters see when they look at themselves. The losses they have experienced—of fathers, brothers, wives, and daughters—are exacerbated by a more profound sense of having simultaneously lost themselves.

But this grief never overwhelms the books. Instead, Petterson’s characters take the perspective of Trond when faced with a hopeless forest of spruce trees to fell: “when you are in the swing, and all of you have fallen into a good rhythm, the beginning and the end have no meaning at all, not there, not then.” Petterson’s novels seize the nettle of some of our most fundamental fears—loss, guilt, emotional evisceration, and our beginning and end—but the palliative rhythm of his prose and the tenderness with which he treats his subjects suggest that, sometimes at least, we can decide for ourselves when it will hurt.

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