'There was a wide open sky over Jan Myrdal's sentences. The world unfolded in all its majesty, back in time, forward in time, history was one long river and we were all borne along by that river....'I had made a super-human effort to get to hear Norwegian author Per Petterson speak at Dartington late in the afternoon recently and on several counts...I love the books and wanted to hear him speak because I doubt he does many events here in the UK and I wanted the books signed. Bookhound dropped me off because it's a parking nightmare and I stepped out of the car right alongside Roy Hattersley and his Buster-replacement canine which looked for all the world like a Bill Sykes dog.
Per Petterson, author of many more novels than have been translated into English. So far we have To Siberia, In the Wake and perhaps best known, his Dublin Impac prize winning novel, Out Stealing Horses, which he confirmed had won him a great deal of money. It is indeed, at 100,000 euros, the world's most lucrative literary prize, but I had just turned the final page on his latest novel I Curse the River of Time published by Harvill Secker and was intrigued. The title a quote taken from the lesser known verse of Chairman Mao, a hero of main protagonist, student- turned Communist Arvid Jansen along with his other idols, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
My mind was still a twirl of thoughts and I was interested to see if I could learn more about this author, by his own admission from an ordinary working-class background, who lost three members of his family in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster of 1990; a loss, a theme and a setting which frequently crops up in his fiction.
This is late 1980s Norway, Communism is in tatters throughout Europe, and Arvid, having thrown in the towel on his studies and gone to work on the assembly line in a factory, is facing the loss of both the women in his life, divorce beckons and his mother is diagnosed with cancer. He's a troubled radical, seemingly obsessed by detail, who has never quite grown up and as Per Petterson wrote the book he thought he might discover more about this little boy's relationship with his mother, because it is one of the fascinating facets of the book... well to tell would be to spoil.
'I was a man out of time, or my character had a flaw, a crack in its foundation that would grow wider with each year.'
And another introspective, predominantly first person narrative frequently slipping into a stream of consciousness that can be quite tricky to follow. Nothing linear about the novel's progress, this one kept me on my reading toes. One moment very definitely in the latter day as Arvid follows his mother and tags along as an unwelcome guest on a ferry trip to a remote island she feels compelled to visit before her death, then thrust back into Arvid's recent past or further back into his childhood, and with little indication of where you might be. Completely reflective of the mind's wanderings, as Per Petterson said, you can't impose an order on remembering, and all the better for that unpredictability I felt as I read, but also a reflection of my current vogue for my slower 'ear' reading over the faster 'eye' reading.
There's an existential flavour to it all and clueless of Devon wouldn't even presume to know whether there is any philosophical influence here, and I wasn't going to be the swotty dingbat who asked the question, but in an average day I don't get many chances to mention Soren Kierkegaard so why waste one. He was a Danish neighbour, and if despair, angst, absurdity, alienation and boredom (thank you Wikipedia) are part of the existential script then they are all here.Yes Kierkegaard's my man for explaining all this and Per Petterson advanced the writing of Knut Hamsun as a huge influence on him so we're on a roll there I think.
There is a precision to the geography and a crystal clear sense of place in I Curse the River of Time, which somehow anchors the free-ranging narrative, detailing the particular in a way that sounds completely romantic to this Devon dweller. Were I to suggest I'd walked down West Street, turned right into Russell Street, waved to LindaW in her office and then progressed to the junction with Plymouth Road, I'm not sure you'd be very impressed, even though Linda's office is lovely and she always gives me a cheery smile, but perhaps it's about familiarity with our own surroundings... how much more alluring does it all sound when it's Norway.
'That afternoon when my mother took the Underground alone from Veitvet on Groruddalen to Jernbanetorget with the brown suitcase in her hand to cross the damp square on the seaward side of the old Ostbane Station...'
Heck, where's that Norwegian Blue typewriter when you need it, though I was delighted to see there was a Norwegian Blue bicycle in the novel.
So I settled down to listen as Per Petterson described his writing process and much was explained.
He doesn't plot at all...just starts with a sentence and keeps writing until he reaches the other end, and he knows when he reaches the end. His starting point is that sentence and sometimes he has to wait for it, every word of that sentence matters and is carefully chosen because to him rhythm is imperative, which all makes the translation of his work an interesting collaboration. He works from a distance in a three way partnership with editor and translator, the editor conveying anything he doesn't like to the translator 'Tell her I don't like this...' rather than any direct communication between them... that's what editors are for and by his own admission he is a pest. Though something may get lost in translation, there can be gains too though that may entail a month spent looking for a single word.
Arvid is also a recurring character in the novels, not quite Per Petterson's alter ego, more his stuntman he tells us, but still a great deal of himself is written in, and it became clear that writing for him involves an intense descent into the core of a book from which I suspect it must be most disconcerting to emerge, but the end result for me as a reader quite mesmerisingly good and different.
Any other Per Petterson fans out there?