Language
Culture

Book: Herman

28/11/2005: Herman, by Lars Saabye Christensen, trans Steven Michael Nordby - reviews in The Independent and The Guardian

06/12/2005 :: A Norwegian boy who'll be loved by unhappy children everywhere
By Anna Paterson
Published: 28 November 2005
The UK take-up of translated fiction is an obscure business. Who gets picked for publication, and why? The Half Brother, by the Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen, was an obvious, but potentially expensive, choice for Arcadia, its enterprising independent publisher. It is a very engaging novel, if on the big and bouncy side, and the gamble paid off.

So, naturally, Arcadia went for another book by the prolific Saabye Christensen. By some mysterious process, Herman was selected: a short story stretched barely to novel length. It was published in 1988 and filmed in 1990. Both book and film seem to be aimed at unhappy children, who are likely to empathise with the 11-year-old Herman's misery, and enjoy his quirky way of thinking and speaking.

Herman is such a little outsider that it comes as no surprise that he is bullied at school. His parents and bedridden grandfather are caring, "ordinary" people - and mildly eccentric, like everybody else in the provincial 1960s town that is Saabye Christensen's Oslo. Herman's only friendly schoolmate is Ruby, a girl with a shock of red hair who follows him around.

References to hair are important: Herman's life goes from bad to worse when his hair starts falling out. His parents try their best, feed him nice things and take him to the cinema and out fishing, but his unhappiness only deepens. The doctor mutters about stress and the barber measures a reluctant Herman for a wig.

Herman tries home cures. He refuses to give up his woolly cap for the new wig. He is first persecuted, then pitied at school. He plays truant. He says nasty things to his kind parents. Eventually, he sees a picture of Yul Brynner, feels much better and pulls himself together in time for Christmas. His presents include a pair of racing skates and a skating outfit, complete with a smart cap. He goes skating, meets Ruby and charms her. End of story.

Herman's descent into melancholia is described with amused kindness, and the charming oddities of almost everyone help to distract from the thinness of the narrative.

On the other hand, the oddities of language bring on little fits of irritation. The loss of innocence and outsider-hood are recurrent themes in Saabye Christensen's work. Given his skill as a writer, other books should rate higher than Herman. A case in point is his latest novel, Maskeblomstfamilien: a blacker, much more grown-up story about a boy haunted by fate.

The UK take-up of translated fiction is an obscure business. Who gets picked for publication, and why? The Half Brother, by the Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen, was an obvious, but potentially expensive, choice for Arcadia, its enterprising independent publisher. It is a very engaging novel, if on the big and bouncy side, and the gamble paid off.

So, naturally, Arcadia went for another book by the prolific Saabye Christensen. By some mysterious process, Herman was selected: a short story stretched barely to novel length. It was published in 1988 and filmed in 1990. Both book and film seem to be aimed at unhappy children, who are likely to empathise with the 11-year-old Herman's misery, and enjoy his quirky way of thinking and speaking.

Herman is such a little outsider that it comes as no surprise that he is bullied at school. His parents and bedridden grandfather are caring, "ordinary" people - and mildly eccentric, like everybody else in the provincial 1960s town that is Saabye Christensen's Oslo. Herman's only friendly schoolmate is Ruby, a girl with a shock of red hair who follows him around.

References to hair are important: Herman's life goes from bad to worse when his hair starts falling out. His parents try their best, feed him nice things and take him to the cinema and out fishing, but his unhappiness only deepens. The doctor mutters about stress and the barber measures a reluctant Herman for a wig.
Herman tries home cures. He refuses to give up his woolly cap for the new wig. He is first persecuted, then pitied at school. He plays truant. He says nasty things to his kind parents. Eventually, he sees a picture of Yul Brynner, feels much better and pulls himself together in time for Christmas. His presents include a pair of racing skates and a skating outfit, complete with a smart cap. He goes skating, meets Ruby and charms her. End of story.

Herman's descent into melancholia is described with amused kindness, and the charming oddities of almost everyone help to distract from the thinness of the narrative.

On the other hand, the oddities of language bring on little fits of irritation. The loss of innocence and outsider-hood are recurrent themes in Saabye Christensen's work. Given his skill as a writer, other books should rate higher than Herman. A case in point is his latest novel, Maskeblomstfamilien: a blacker, much more grown-up story about a boy haunted by fate.

© 2005 Independent News and Media Limited

Growing pains

Lars Saabye Christensen's Herman is a beautiful evocation of the strangeness of childhood, says Gerard Woodward

Saturday October 22, 2005
The Guardian 
 
Lars Saabye Christensen caused something of a stir two years ago with his epic of Oslo life, The Half Brother, a novel peopled with eccentrics and dreamers, and spanning half a century of Norwegian history. It was Christensen's first publication in English translation, and in the wake of its success comes this much earlier (and much shorter) novel, first published in 1992. Like The Half Brother, Herman is set in Oslo and written in the same engagingly innocent style, where the world is made of objects rather than ideas, and things look strange because of their ordinariness. The tone is all the more appropriate this time because the eponymous hero is a 10-year-old boy suffering from sudden and unexplained hair loss.

Herman Fulkt was already the object of bullying before his sudden baldness made things worse. A boy who comes out with things like "one is not forgetful" in response to a teacher's reprimand is not going to blend in easily. When Herman obsessively counts his footsteps to school or lists the sculptures he has seen in the park, or speaks with typically anachronistic formality, the novel can read like an addition to the literature of autism. But Herman's oddness is almost wilful. "Are you sick, Herman, or don't you want to grow any more?" his father asks him when he refuses to eat. The question hangs over the whole book, as we watch the child struggling with the mysteries of the adult world.

Such as mortality. Soon after we meet Herman we see him combing his hair in the wing mirror of an ambulance in which he has just viewed a corpse. His closest confidant is his grandfather, who is "completely bald except for three hairs by each ear". When Herman asks him why he doesn't have any hair, he replies: "Because I'm going to die soon. It's like the fall. The leaves falling." The novel's chapters are arranged in seasons, starting with autumn and ending with spring. One of the first pranks played on Herman by his young tormentors is to be forced to play dead with a knife sticking out of him.

In contrast to Herman is the figure of Ruby, a girl with enough bright red hair for both of them. The children joke that birds nest in her great, tangled mane, and Herman, in his innocent way, almost believes them. Ruby is an elusive figure, following Herman from a distance or passing him cryptic notes in class, ducking behind statues in Oslo's sculpture park, hovering like the angels his grandad says pass through the room in moments of silence. The novel charts Herman's growing awareness of her, and of his capacity for desire.

Otherwise he cuts an achingly poignant figure: subject to ritual humiliations at school, hiding his bald head under a sou'wester (a sort of homage to his hero, Zorro), bewailing that he is ugly, like his other hero, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in awe of his father. His father is a tall man (so tall he bumps his head on the ceiling), given even greater altitude by his job as a crane driver which, in Herman's eyes, puts him on a level with the angels, one step down from God. That Herman's struggle in the book is one of creating sense and order out of a random and unpredictable world is best illustrated in a charming fantasy sequence in which Herman assumes control of his father's crane. He uses the big hook to pick his parents up while they slumber in their bed, and lower them into an apple tree. He picks up the school bullies and lowers them into the school toilets. But he leaves his grandad where he is, along with the other destitute characters in the book - the Bottle Man and the Lady With the Fleas. A similar sorting and rearranging happens in the real world in the final third of the book, where the anomalies and contradictions that plague Herman's life find a sort of resolution (thanks, in part, to Yul Brynner).

Herman is a beautiful evocation of the strangeness of childhood, of the awakening of desire and of the dawning awareness of finitude.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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