Strange Love in the North
June 24, 2010
by Tim Parks
The remarkable novel Out Stealing Horses by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson opens with an image of titmice banging into the window of the narrator’s remote cabin home and falling dizzily into the evening snow. Warm inside, the aging Trond Sander remarks, “I don’t know what they want that I have.” This proximity to a wayward nature that expects something of us, we know not what, and where collisions and deaths are ever in the wind is a constant in Petterson’s fiction. There is a great deal of weather in his stories and it is always beautiful and menacing.
Fear is the most common emotion; life is dangerous and accidents happen. Practical competence with tools, animals, guns, and vehicles is much admired. Meticulous descriptions explain how to use a chainsaw so you won’t get hurt, how to prepare a home against the winter, how to stack logs on a sloping river bank, how to save a drowning man.
In relationships what matters is trust. If you can’t feel safe with someone, far better to be alone. Sex may be exciting, but it aligns itself with the elements as potentially catastrophic. Both Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia are essentially about betrayals of trust. In both novels a young person on the brink of adulthood loses, in melodramatic circumstances, the one relationship that made it possible to face an inclement world with confidence. Narrated in hindsight by elderly survivors, the novels hint at a crippled adult life only half-lived in constant apprehension and prolonged mourning. A quiet stoicism holds panic and despair at bay.
In Out Stealing Horses, the discovery that a near neighbor, Lars Haug, is a childhood acquaintance compels Trond Sander to recall the last summer he spent with his father fifty years before. The two had gone away to a remote cabin by a river on the Swedish border (such places are frequent in Petterson’s work) where the father enlists the boy’s help to cut down an area of forest he has bought in order to sell the timber downstream. Other helpers are Lars’s mother and father.
The fifteen-year-old Trond finds himself deeply attracted to Lars’s mother, then sees his father watching her too. Their mutual awareness of this shared attraction deepens an already close father–son relationship. It is the boy’s first sexual arousal. Then he discovers that his father and the friend’s mother are already lovers; during the war the two worked together in the anti-Nazi Resistance. When the logs have been cut and sent downriver, the father disappears and the boy realizes that the money from the log sale was intended to pay off the family—himself, his mother, and his sister—whom his father is abandoning forever. The whole summer that had seemed so idyllic was actually a carefully planned betrayal. Unfortunately, the money will amount to very little because in his eagerness to be free the father sent the logs downriver when the water was low and most have been lost in snags. Trond’s mother will never recover.
In the original Norwegian, To Siberia was published seven years before Out Stealing Horses, but the core of the book is remarkably similar. This time the narrator, unnamed, is an elderly Danish woman recalling her childhood in northern Jutland, just across the water from Sweden. The climate is extreme: “I remember it all as winter,” she tells us. Again adolescence coincides with the war period, as if growing up and conflict called to each other. This time the figure of apparent trust is the narrator’s brother, Jesper, two years older than herself.
The story’s opening sentence sets the phobic tone. “When I was a little girl of six or seven I was always scared when we passed the lions on our way out of town.” They are only stone lions on gateposts but when, riding past in their grandfather’s pony-trap, Jesper shouts “They’re coming! They’re coming!,” the girl panics, leaps from the trap, and flees into the fields. Her body pays the price; her knees are grazed and “there was dew on the grass and my ankles were wet, I felt stubble and stalks and rough ground under my bare feet.” But when her grandfather scolds Jesper, the frightened girl comes to his defense. “My grandfather was a man full of wrath and in the end I always had to stand up for my brother, for there was no way I could live without him.”
Escalating and intensifying, similar episodes repeat themselves throughout the book. The children’s parents are unhappy and distracted. The mother is religious and prudish, absorbed in her hymns, prayers, and fear of moral scandal. A skilled carpenter, the father is an incompetent businessman who can’t get his customers to pay, and so fills his children’s lives with small chores to make ends meet.
Inadequately protected and only intermittently loved, girl and boy venture into the world together. Or rather, the daredevil, Communist Jesper knocks on his sister’s window in the night and drags her off on his explorations, of the frozen coast, of the town’s drink-fueled nightlife. Invited to witness her brother’s daring as he walks out to sea on the ice or throws himself into a brawl in a bar, the girl is determined to overcome fear and get involved. Since she is always inadequately clothed, we are constantly made aware of the cold on her body, icy air on thighs and stomach, salt wind gluing her hair to her face, seawater chafing her thighs. “Don’t be scared, just do what I do,” Jesper tells her. But the boy is careless. He slips from a seawall and his panicking sister has to save him from drowning.
The girl finds two forms of relief from excitement and vulnerability: precious moments when she feels warmed and at one with nature, as when she stretches out to sleep beside a cow in a stall (again there is a similar scene in Out Stealing Horses). Such experiences offer the promise of an ultimate extinction of the anxious ego in an all-embracing Other. But they are rare. An easier refuge is reading: the girl borrows novels from a rich friend, taking pleasure in fictional vicissitudes in the safety of her room. Through books the children discover the lands they dream of visiting. Jesper yearns to go to exotic Morocco: caravans, Moors, outlandish clothes; the girl is drawn to Siberia, not so much for the arduous landscape and climate but for the warm houses and thick clothes the Siberians have to protect themselves. Then the rich friend dies and her family library is no longer available.
Given his narrators’ constant efforts to foresee and forestall, it’s not surprising that Petterson is an extremely careful writer and his books are meticulously constructed, full of parallelisms that sometimes border on contrivance. So the second of To Siberia‘s three sections begins, like the first, with someone shouting, “They’re coming! They’re coming!” This time it is not the stone lions but the Germans. From now on Jesper’s adventures will be in the Resistance and his sister will be called on to take greater and greater risks to help and protect him. She is now fifteen and the attention to her frequently cold, tired, wounded body becomes sexually charged.
This section reaches its climax when a Gestapo man comes to arrest Jesper and the girl keeps him talking to cover for her brother who has just left. Sneeringly, the Nazi accuses her of sleeping with Jesper—they are known to be very close—and with a courage born from offense she slaps him and gets herself seriously beaten. Arriving that evening at her brother’s beach hideout to warn him of the danger, she is soaked through and has to strip naked. Jesper says:
“You’re a good looker now, Sistermine.”
“Gestapo Jørgensen says we sleep together.”
I swallow, there is something in my throat I can’t get down…. Jesper just smiles.
“But we don’t, do we.”
“No,” I say, and it is then he sees the wound on my face…. He gets up.
“Did Jørgensen do that?”
I do not reply. He takes the few steps toward me slightly bent under the roof, I swallow and drop the jumper.
“Hell, the swine,” says Jesper and raises his hand to touch the wound with his fingertips carefully. I lean my cheek against his palm, lightly at first and then harder and we stand there and he leans his forehead against my temple, his shirt just brushes my bare breasts. I meet him, I do not breathe, and he says:
“You’re a sweet brave sister.”
“Yes,” I say.
He bends down carefully with my cheek in his hand and picks up the sweater.
“You’re freezing,” he says.
“Sistermine” is the only name given to the narrator throughout: if incest is avoided, nevertheless her brother possesses her. But he will not protect her; immediately after this scene Jesper flees to Sweden, leaving his sister to warm her young body with one of the fishermen who helped him escape. “It gave me no pleasure,” she tells us.
Petterson doesn’t so much develop fully drawn characters as establish a pattern of complementary ways of behaving, in which everybody is seen in relation to the narrator’s anxieties and aspirations. In this regard, the most interesting part of the novel is the third and last, where the girl tries to come to terms with adult life without her brother as reference point.
The war is over. In character, Jesper has gone where he dreamed of going: Morocco. He doesn’t write, isn’t in a hurry to get back to his sister. The girl hasn’t made it to Siberia but is working aimlessly in a great-aunt’s diner in Oslo, drifting from one unsatisfactory sexual encounter to another. Once again she loses a source of free books after a lesbian librarian attempts to seduce her and she feels too threatened to return.
Romantic love at last seems possible when a mild-mannered amateur boxer (a protector?) courts her assiduously. Finally she agrees to follow him to the inevitable remote cabin. Snow falls heavily. Our girl is freezing again, but her man is competent at lighting stoves. A good sign. In the growing heat, she avoids seduction by removing her clothes before he can kiss her. When the two make love, the reader may hope for a happy ending, but in the early morning she rises quietly and leaves her sleeping man, repeating the abandonment that has been perpetrated against her. She cannot trust anyone after losing her brother, and Jesper now compounds his betrayal by carelessly contracting an illness in Morocco and dying. The girl is left in a desolate Siberia of the mind, searching for a warm place to bear the child she is carrying.
Much of Petterson’s worldwide success with Out Stealing Horses depends on two qualities: a deceptively simple, wonderfully incantatory style in which small units of well-observed detail and action, connected only by a string of “and”s, accumulate in long rhythmic sentences that frequently give us the impression that the next detail will be very bad news. We are kept spellbound and anxious. Petterson is also careful to avoid making demands on readers with references to cultural setting; the only things you need to know about Norway and Denmark to enjoy these books is that they are in northern climes and were invaded by the Germans in World War II. Nor will you know more than that on finishing the novels. To turn from Petterson to the late Hugo Claus, then, is to see how equally fine and perhaps more ambitious writing can have very little commercial success internationally when it takes the opposite tack: Wonder is a work of savage satire intensely engaged with the moral and cultural life of the author’s Belgium and making no concessions to those who are unwilling to interest themselves in the small country’s contentious politics.
The problem is not only one of content, but of style and perhaps above all translation. Where Anne Born has been able to render Petterson’s Norwegian in a syntactically simple, hypnotically fluent English, Michael Henry Heim is occasionally and understandably in difficulty with Claus’s more knotty and rhetorical Belgian Dutch packed with asides, allusions, and fierce juxtapositions, a style created to evoke a world sliding into chaos where contrasts and contradictions are so grotesque that we can only “wonder.”
The plot is bizarre. Some years after the war in the coastal town of Ostend, a high school teacher, Victor De Rijckel, is requested to introduce a speech his egregious headmaster is delivering that evening at a cultural association. Drinking heavily, the teacher goes instead to a masked ball where, sprawled in an alcove, he witnesses a beautiful woman reneging on her promise to sleep with a man because she has discovered that beneath his mask he is Jewish. Joining him to follow the woman, who has left her fur jacket behind, De Rijckel sees her stumbling over stones at the seafront as if planning to drown herself.
The following morning, the teacher catches a pupil writing ALESSANDRA on the school wall—the name, it turns out, of the woman at the ball. Surprisingly well informed, the boy invites the teacher to go with him (by bus) to the village where Alessandra lives in a castle. On impulse De Rijckel agrees, only to discover on arrival that the castle will be the site of a conference in honor of Alessandra’s hero and perhaps ex-lover, Crabbe, a mysterious wartime leader (missing and presumed dead) of a fanatic movement for Flemish nationalism that collaborated with the Nazis in return for domination of Belgium at the expense of the Francophile minority. Mistaken for one of the conference delegates, De Rijckel is invited to give a talk on Crabbe’s place in Flemish history.
In Claus’s world, all notions of trust and indeed propriety were lost long ago. Relationships are mere proximities agitated by desire or aversion; any scruples are fleeting and inconsequential. De Rijckel, we hear, had previously seduced or was seduced by a sixteen-year-old pupil, married her when she fell pregnant, and was abandoned by her when she grew bored. He has no idea what the schoolboy’s motives are in taking him to the castle. Accused of pedophilia by the local innkeeper, he seems unconcerned. When he meets Alessandra and has sex with her he loses interest, then claims to be Jewish to upset her.
In particular, the reader can’t trust the narrator. The confidently omniscient third person with which the novel opens shifts unexpectedly to the first person, then back again. De Rijckel, we discover, is under observation in some kind of detention center, perhaps a mental hospital, where he has been ordered to record his story; however, he is also writing a more private version in a secret notebook and an ongoing diary in yet another. Moving unannounced from one notebook to another, the novel leaps backward and forward apparently at random, occasionally telling the same scene in quite different ways.
This method of narration is echoed in a monument to Crabbe outside the castle that consists not of one statue but of two zigzag rows of fourteen statues, all of the same man but in different styles and materials, “as if their maker had decided that the way to achieve a definitive likeness…was to use the most varied forms and approaches.” One has an amorphous head with “an unremitting Neanderthal quality,” one seems like a Greek god, one a goblin “tottering on one leg.” Another “is a neoclassical statue made for a city park and pigeons.” Another again uses every kind of waste and organic material “to fashion a likeness, though forever failing…because an overabundance of factors derails the search whenever one attempts to evoke a definitive image of someone, especially if that someone is the unchained Crabbe, that is, the unbound I.” Approaching the statues, De Rijckel suddenly finds himself possessed by the spirit of Crabbe, who briefly takes over the narrative. Elsewhere masks, disguises, and cases of mistaken identity abound.
Shortly before disappearing, Crabbe, we discover, had lost his belief in Flemish and Nazi supremacy as a result of witnessing an atrocity:
…He happened upon a camp in Poland and a wooden pavilion that had been put up in two days by a special contingent of carpenters from the Organisation Todt when a visit by a Red Cross inspection team had been announced…a fun fair, a merry-go-round with horses for Jewish children.
But everything about the camp was fake “because the children would spend only one day there, the day the Red Cross passed through for the inspection.” Crabbe visits the camp again some days later “when the children were all piled up in rows. Wearing nothing but underclothes, naked blue thighs protruding, pushed into one another in a hook like pattern.” At this point
Crabbe was poisoned by the dregs of original sin, because in the end it was compassion, something nobody needs, that brought him low…. He had reached the point, the decisive point, where you know, you simply know. The point where you can’t put anything into words…so you say nothing at all. You disappear.
It is as if, behind all the clamor and contradiction of Claus’s all-too-recognizable modern world, the one absolute certainty remains the horror of the Holocaust.
Originally published in 1962, Wonder is a reminder of the energy and experimental verve with which so many writers of the Fifties and Sixties (Malaparte, Bernhard, Grass, Böll, Burgess, Pynchon) conjured up the disjointed and rapidly complicating world they found themselves in. In sharp contrast, the Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker’s first novel, The Twin, shares with Per Petterson’s work an evident distaste for all things loud and contemporary, as if the chaotic public environment were now considered beyond indignation or even description and the writer had wisely fallen back on the patient construction of intimate narratives in rural outposts.
Quietness is not the only similarity. Like Petterson, Bakker gives us an aging and fearful narrator contemplating a life ruined on the brink of adulthood by betrayal and death. That said, the Dutch writer’s tone is tougher and wryer than the Norwegian’s; nor does he rely on melodrama and menace to keep up our interest.
On a small damp farm in northern Holland, after thirty years of tending cows and sheep against his will, Helmer Van Wonderen decides to take control of his life. He moves his bedridden father from a controlling position downstairs to an upstairs room where he will be unseen and unheard. Since his mother has recently died, Helmer is now free to clear out all the downstairs furnishings, redecorate, and establish himself in the room his parents previously occupied. He decides to take his father as little food as possible:
I carried him upstairs and now he can go and perch on the roof as far as I’m concerned, and then, from there, he can carry on to the tops of the poplars that line the yard so that he can blow away on a gust of wind, into the sky. That would be best, if he just disappeared.
Cruel as they may seem, these steps are not enough to appease Helmer’s anger, nor do they free him from unwanted routines. Originally, it was his twin brother Henk who was to follow their father’s footsteps as a farmer. Throughout their childhood, Henk and Helmer had been blissfully happy in each other’s company, sleeping in the same bed, content to be “two boys with one body.” Yet they differed in character. More talkative and practical, Henk “knew exactly what he wanted,” to run the family farm. Less sure of himself, Helmer attracted his father’s contempt by choosing to study literature in Amsterdam.
Then the betrayal. At nineteen, Henk falls in love with the beautiful Riet and will no longer share a bed with his twin. Helmer is jealous, but of Riet, not Henk; it’s his brother’s body he yearns for. Just when the young couple seem set to marry, Riet drives her car into a canal and Henk is drowned. Harshly, the father tells Riet never to show her face on the farm again and Helmer is ordered to give up his studies and get to work with the cows. All his life he will be made to feel inferior to his dead twin. All his life, the chairs around the kitchen table will recall who sat where, what kind of glances were exchanged. Even redecorated, the house is all past and no future.
The charm of Bakker’s book is how finely every element is balanced, how perfectly the story is paced. Helmer is aware that his misdirected life is largely his own fault. He could have disobeyed his father, but “always just let things happen.” His “outrageously ugly” mother, with whom he shared an unspoken complicity against the father, was also “outrageously kind-hearted,” but didn’t speak up for him and, even if she had, he would not have taken advantage of it. This fatal lack of purposefulness is also Helmer’s appeal and gives him a deep affinity with the animals who have made his life a prison:
Half my life I haven’t thought about a thing. I’ve milked the cows, day after day. In a way I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of sedately breathing cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.
Helmer has acted against his father’s will only once, purchasing two donkeys that have no economic function on the farm. Constantly in each other’s company, intensely attractive to the children from the next farm, and objects of Helmer’s fond contemplation, the donkeys evoke something of the twins’ childhood innocence, though Bakker is not so crude as to make this overt. While beauty, in Petterson’s writing, is always accompanied by menace, here the joy of the donkeys has to do with their harmlessness and superfluousness, their not being integrated in anyone’s plans.
A hooded crow arrives on the farm and takes up residence in the ash tree outside the father’s window. After a silence of almost forty years, Riet writes, saying she would like to visit if old Mr. Van Wonderen is dead. Helmer says he is. The reader imagines a late flowering of love hampered by the embarrassment of the decrepit father. Instead Riet persuades Helmer to accept her problem son as a farmhand. In his late teens, the boy is called Henk.
Bakker shows a fine gift for laconic comedy here as Helmer is forced to take on a role of command while the boy with the emotionally charged name lazily smokes in bed, asks for wine, television, and money, and criticizes Helmer for his cruelty to his father. Finally, sensing the older man’s latent homosexuality, Henk will slip into Helmer’s bed. But again Bakker adroitly slides away from the conclusion he seemed so carefully to have set up. It is as if action were constantly hinted at, but only to remind us how much more attractive contemplation is.
Indeed the great pleasure of this novel is how it has just enough plot to allow us to relish its beautifully turned observations of birds and beasts, weather and water. Helmer’s capacity to respond to the natural world and enjoy small practical tasks takes the edge off the story’s sadness, redeeming the life he thinks of as wasted. “I have a beautiful small handsaw that is exceptionally well suited to pollarding willows,” one paragraph begins, and Bakker makes sure we savor Helmer’s account of the pollarding, however superfluous it may seem to the book’s plot.
As for the thorny problem of imagining a plausible and attractively different future for oneself, that is a different matter. Rather than embracing Henk’s body, Helmer starts smoking his cigarettes, because, he decides: “Smoking is a pensive activity.”