Sunday, September 7, 2014

If On A Winter's Night A Professor

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Beset by thoughts of a mysterious incident, an alienated individual walks alone down city streets facing an unnamed crisis and re-evaluating his existence. Readers of Haruki Murakami will find such a premise familiar, and as it happens, these are the elements of his next project, too. Only, they aren’t from a novel he’s writing but one that he’s translating into Japanese, according to a recent tweet by Harvill Secker. The work in question: Professor Andersen’s Night, by acclaimed Norwegian author Dag Solstad.

The novel, longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, was first published in 1996 and translated into English by Agnes Scott Langeland in 2011. It’s of the type that people call an existential mystery (and the sort of thing they have in mind when they say that Paul Auster is an American writer of European novels). As such, it’s qualitatively different from other dark-hued Scandinavian works that have captured the popular imagination of late, be they novels by Steig Larsson and Jo Nesbo or TV shows such as Forbrydelsen and Broen.

Solstad’s style is marked by a sonorous, repetitive rhythm that, Bernhard-like, mirrors the mind of a man going around in circles. This is a divorced, fifty-five-year-old professor of literature who, when the novel starts, is settling down in his Oslo apartment for a solitary meal on Christmas Eve, more to observe traditional customs than anything else. Now comes a taste of what’s to follow: “the customs he observed and the celebration he thereby took part in, in his own way and without any feeling of obligation to his family or others, beyond the feeling of duty he felt to himself, and that actually came from within, pointed to a meaning of some kind which for him was meaningless”.

Gazing out at the windows opposite his apartment, the professor suddenly witnesses what he thinks is a murder taking place. So far, so Rear Window, but what happens next is quite un-Hitchcockian. He’s thrown into a frenzy of inaction, afflicted by analysis paralysis. He considers calling the police and the ramifications thereof; finally, he realises, “I know I should have done it, but I can’t. That is how it is, I simply cannot do it”.

As he’s been invited to a friend’s house for dinner the following night, the professor decides to ask him for advice but this, too, he cannot bring himself to do. While depicting the dinner itself, Solstag makes clear that the professor’s predicament is but a metaphor for his generation. Former radicals, now a part of established society whose fires have cooled, their attitudes “had perhaps only been a chance expression of the spirit of modernity, which was their one great fascination”. Now, with increasing affluence, they eat and drink well, own holiday homes and cars and boats. Their state is further spelt out: “intellectuals in a commercial age, and deeply influenced by what stirs the hearts of the masses. What stirs the hearts of the masses are the consequences of our own inadequacy”.

Still nursing his secret, the professor visits Trondheim for a short break, where he mets another associate with whom he engages in dispiriting conversations that reflect his inner crisis. He reflects on the sputtering out of modernity in the twentieth century, affirming our historical inadequacy and meagre cultural inheritance: “…it isn’t Ibsen’s work we perform, it’s Ibsen’s reputation”.

And so poor Professor Andersen returns home, still having told no-one about what he has witnessed, when he suddenly bumps into the man he believes to be the murderer. Those looking for thrilling denouements ought to have realised by now that they’re not to be found here. The professor’s crisis is not one that affords an easy resolution. “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be faced,” as Kierkegaard, the philosopher from Solstad’s part of the world, once said, reminding us that it’s our crisis, too.