Times Literary Supplement 5 March 2004
A wheel of stories
Jan Kjærstad has been both feted and excoriated in his native Norway, since his fiction began to appear in the early 1980s. He has been condemned as a writer of "irritating works", a "compulsive name-dropper"; he has been hailed as "the first Norwegian postmodemist writer" and compared to Milan Kundera, Martin Amis, Frank Zappa, Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad. These are bold claims, none of which Kjærstad has endorsed, though he has signalled his theoretical subscription to "post-modernism" as Editor of the Norwegian literary journal Vinduet ("The Window") and in his essays (including Menneskets Felt, "The Human Sphere", 1997). In "Homo falsus eller det perfekte mord" ("Homo Falsus or The Perfect Murder", 1984), Kjærstad played with the genre of the detective novel; in his fascinating if flawed novel "Det store eventyret" ("The Great Fairy tale", 1987), he mingled social criticism with surrealism, imagining Norway as an impoverished developing country. He has also produced works indebted to indigenous writers; his novel Rand ("Brink", 1990) was a Hamsunian tale of a figure wandering around Oslo, pursued by a sense of malaise.
The Seducer (Forførereren), which was first published in Norway in 1993, is the first part of a trilogy, which was continued in Erobreren ( "The Conqueror") and Oppdageren ("The Discoverer"); these have not appeared in English. It tells the story of a brilliant television director, Jonas Wergeland, an uneasily successful man, haunted by the violent death of his wife. Though the novel is strewn with questions about the "construction of narrative", The Seducer also shares qualities of style with the work of the Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe, who wrote a wildly misanthropic trilogy, "The History of Bestiality". Kjærstad's Norwegian prose is more controlled than Bjørneboe's; where Bjørneboe might rant, Kjærstad whispers to his reader, yet their obsessions are markedly similar: the hypocrisy and conservatism of closed communities, the stifling force of convention. Barbara J. Haveland's excellent translation preserves the conspiratorial directness of Kjærstad's Norwegian.
Wergeland's life is told as a series of disjointed episodes, or, in the narrator's words, "this wheel of stories, all that has gone before, spinning without any sort of preface or introduction". As in Rand, the city of Oslo is given a starring role: the rust colours of the autumn, the frozen lakes in the mountains above the city during the winter, the student areas of Blindem and Bislett, where the trams rattle past the fastfood bars. The most poignant moments derive from the drama of Wergeland's life, from Kjærstad's dextrous interweaving of memories. Yet there are a few broken spokes on the wheel.
Wergeland is a "seducer" because of his "magic penis", which can offer any woman a "utopia" of pleasure - a device that plunges the narrative into awkward slapstick. And there is the teasing narrator, who chimes in regularly to remind the reader of her elusiveness: "I ought to have introduced myself, I know, but I am very much afraid that this would only lead to misun-derstanding . . . . My own popularity is, after all, plummeting, and - this much I can say . . . a lot
of people have declared me dead". The identity of the narrator only becomes clear in the second book of the trilogy.
A question the narrator repeatedly asks is "when do we become the person that we are?". In Wergeland's film-making, and in the narrator's digressions, the notion of a "true self is held up for scrutiny and dismissed as an ailing grand narrative. Wergeland makes a television series about Norwegian heroes and heroines, those few who dared to show that "even Norwegians could think big": the Polar explorer, diplomat and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, the writer Knut Hamsun, the sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Wergeland adopts Kjrerstad's narratorial technique, turning his camera on brief moments in the lives of his subjects. In his programme about Nansen, Wergeland offends national sensibilities by ignoring Nansen' s polar exploration, focusing instead on his international aid work. Wergeland is attacked by viewers and critics, who accuse him of failing to explain "how all of these fragments are supposed to build up into the truth about a person". This, the narrator adds, is to be expected: "It often seemed as if the Norwegian race - more than other races . . . took the theories of its day for granted, regarding them as unshakeable truths". Found guilty of intellectual rigidity, the Norwegians are further condemned as a nation of self-congratulatory millionaires, enjoying their fabulous wealth, "so great that fairy tale metaphors were all they had to fall back on, talk of the Ash Lad and the like", conveniently forgetting that this wealth derives from the "criminal" appropriation of the seabed and its oil reserves.
Kjærstad is torn between the rampant subjectivism of writers such as Bjørneboe or Hamsun, and the modest relativism of the convert to the Church of Postmodernism. His narrator calls herself an outcast, and Wergeland is shown to stand alone, among a philistine population. Yet the insistence on a simple divide between conservative 'nation and lone radical seems too absolute for a novel so selfconsciously wary of absolutes. The laborious insertion of theoretically accredited elements, as if the author were checking a list of compulsory postmodern devices, detracts from the portrait. Jan Kjærstad is a writer of verve and elegance; it is ironic that in a novel so alert to the fleeting nature of generally held truths, he has chosen to hamper his prose with the fleeting fashion of literary post-modernism.