For those deeply interested in contemporary literary fiction, the name of Karl Ove Knausgård must be familiar. If not, well, Knausgård is a Norwegian novelist whose six part auto-writing saga, provocatively titled My Struggle, has become what may be called a literary H-bomb. In his native country, one in three adults is said to have bought his books.
Knausgård’s meteoric success somewhat shadowed the already spectacular achievements of Norwegian literary fiction. In the previous century, in a career spanning fifty years, Tarjei Vesaas wrote novels that mixed sparse Nordic environs to the interiority of his characters. The tradition was carried forward by many, most notably in recent decades by Per Petterson. Petterson may be called a contemporary of Knausgård, and he was far more successful in English-reading markets before the arrival of My Struggle.
In Petterson’s novels, the here-and-now images of an individual’s or a family’s history mingle with Norwegian post-war history — a faint, external force, but something always felt. There are pitfalls and wrong choices in either, and Petterson masterfully extracts compassion from his reader.
Perhaps Petterson’s biggest achievement is the novel I Curse the River of Time. The title derives from a poem by Chairman Mao. That makes sense, for the protagonist was a Communist party worker. His life begins to unravel in the late 80s, coinciding with the general decline in that ideology, and one wonders if the invocation in the title isn’t a melancholic one.
But I Curse… is first and foremost the story of a mother-son relationship. Arvid Jensen, 37, is facing the collapse of his marriage. His mother is dying of cancer, and has left her home in suburban Oslo to Frederikshaven in north-Eastern Denmark, where the family has a summer house. Arvid follows her there, perchance running away from a brutal present and an uncomfortable past. Arvid is second in four brothers, one of whom died six years back from an unspecified death. At the time of the death, Arvid was absent, having volunteered to have a neighbour’s dog put down.
Petterson tells the story in the voice of Arvid, in which the present is always interlaced with the past. Episodes are recalled through remembering gestures and trifle details, though there is a reticence regarding feelings. Arvid recalls the working class environment of his family, his turning into a Communist and a worker at the cost of leaving college. It was a definitive decision, one that angered his mother, and it gives us the most climactic scene in the novel. Among all these recollections are invoked films, songs, novels, cigarette brands, liquor brands, and names of places — unlikely receptacles for our feelings. The end comes with Arvid understanding his own mother too as opaque, inaccessible. As a contemporary master, Petterson’s powers are beyond doubt. It is possible that Knausgard’s success drives him further. It will be interesting how these two writers egg each other on in the coming years.
(The writer is publishing his first novel in October 2016)