This month I read, back-to-back, two recent novels by the contemporary Norwegian writer Per Petterson. “Out Stealing Horses,” Petterson’s breakthrough novel from 2003, became an international bestseller. His follow-up, “I Curse the River of Time,” has just been released in the U.S. and is receiving a more muted reception. With both books fresh in my mind, I thought I’d take advantage of a “compare and contrast” opportunity. (It occurs to me this is something I haven’t done formally, at least not with aesthetic material, since college days.)
Wonderfully translated by Anne Born, “Out Stealing Horses” is an astonishing work, one that generously rewards the open-hearted reader. Petterson himself has an easy command of English (as is apparent from this video of his acceptance speech delivered at the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award ceremony) and he worked cooperatively with his translator. The result, he proudly says, is this: “Sometimes I think the English version is better than the Norwegian.”
If you’re the type of reader who keeps a pencil nearby to mark passages that “wow” you, if you’re in the habit of drawing stars and exclamation points next to paragraphs that “pierce to the root” of truth, then be prepared to scratch lead onto many a page margin. My copy of “Out Stealing Horses” is now a personal artifact — the sort of heavily marked-up book that, were I to come across something like it at a yard sale, I’d quickly toss aside as wholly unreadable, since who wants some third party interrupting your communion with the author? (OK, maybe if the annotations are the handiwork of a friend of the author, or the bon mots of a later, famous devotee — creating what rare book dealers call an association copy — then I’d consider a purchase, like the critic who confesses to a covetous urge, here.)
It seems to me every great author — and Per Petterson surely is one — possesses in his mind and nurtures in his heart a distinctive worldview. To say this is, admittedly, to accept notions of imagination, intuition and emotion associated with the Romantic era. So be it. I see romanticism not as a stalled literary movement that flourished and foundered in the nineteenth century, but as an artistic spirit essentially continuous with the present. In large measure Per Petterson belongs to this ongoing tradition. Petterson’s worldview is unlocked and offered to readers most convincingly in “Out Stealing Horses”. Consider the heroic isolation of the book’s 67-year-old narrator, Trond Sander, who has retired to a remote riverside cabin; think of his desire for communion with untamed nature; note how nature’s agnostic beauties and onslaughts humble and mold the novel’s characters — all of these facets, each of them close to Petterson’s heart, are Romantic themes.
The reader should be prepared to find the emotion in “Out Stealing Horses” to be of the most subtle kind — mostly unstated, internalized, “suppressed.” Call it Nordic Stoicism. Trond’s father tells him: “You decide for yourself when it will hurt.” The prospective reader should also understand that the book’s principal characters (Trond’s family and neighbors near the family’s summer cabin on the Norway-Sweden border in 1948) are not about to launch into the “talking therapy” as a way to reconcile themselves with their own failures or the universe’s cruelty. Any reader harboring a dislike of characters locked into a Yankee reserve (to compare an American “type” to the book’s Norwegians), or anyone annoyed by Cormac McCarthy’s characters’ Western-based muteness, or anyone bothered by taciturnity in general, should just stay away. So too should readers who prefer flowing plots. Peterson forms this novel not from a smooth story arc but from punctuated incidents of revelation.
But oh what incidents grace the pages of “Out Stealing Horses” — and oh what simple but evocative prose. Time after time, nonverbal communication — gaze and sign, gesture and touch — ushers in direct-to-the-heart epiphanies. Episodes of gorgeous nature-writing transport you. Set pieces describing communal activities in rural Norway six decades ago (harvesting hay and forming hayracks without benefit of machinery; felling trees with hand saws and launching logs on their journey downriver; the morning rounds of a milkmaid) yield a nostalgic glow. So too does the young Trond’s fondness for Zorro, Davy Crockett, and Lassie. The adult Trond’s dog, Lyra, whose character shines through as elementally as any other creature, provides quiet comic relief. Then you shudder as a father who means everything to his son (“we had a pact”) betrays that pact. And always there are bitter truths to bear. Trond’s father tells him: “That’s life, that’s what you learn from, when things happen. You just have to take it in and remember to think afterwards and not forget and never grow bitter. Do you understand?”
This is a book that provides each new reader new reasons to praise it.
Now, if you have read and were awed by “Out Stealing Horses,” you will find things to admire in “I Curse the River of Time,” translated by Charlotte Barslund and released in the U.S. earlier this month.
The two books have much in common, starting with a reflective male narrator who recalls, in a chronologically jumbled fashion, a handful of events that shaped his current moral and emotional condition. Both novels, at their most poignant, focus on the vicissitudes of the bonds between parent and child: a father and son in “Stealing Horses” and a mother and son in “River of Time.” In both books the eldest character — the retired narrator of “Stealing Horses; the narrator’s dying mother in “River of Time” — travels to a second home at water’s edge to live out their days.
Yet beyond these similarities there are significant differences in setting and tone. There is also a stark contrast in the maturity of the two narrators. If you are a reader entirely new to Petterson, these differences may be important as you select the book most apt to please.
“Out Stealing Horses,” with its spare, classic qualities, and its emphasis on the character-defining power of raw nature, is reminiscent of such American authors as Hemingway and Jack London. Petterson obviously admires their writing. The remote rural setting of “Stealing Horses,” its cast of unaffected men and women who meet hardship with stoicism, and the fact that its narrator is looking back on events that occurred over half a century ago in the era of World War II, allow the story to take on aspects of myth, a feeling at times of Biblical tragedy. No similar elegiac glow illuminates “I Curse the River of Time.” It is set in more recent decades, largely in the industrial and contemporary urban environment of Oslo, leaving little room for myth. Yet “River of Time” is richer in its psychological probing of the central parent-child bond. (This is a paramount interest of the author; in a 2007 interview he noted, “All I ever think about is families.”). Also, “River of Time” is a more interesting study of another recurring Petterson theme: how historical events — in this case, the fall of Soviet-style communism — interrupt the fates of men and women.
One reason why I prefer “Stealing Horses” to “River of Time” is the flawed character of the new novel’s narrator. The elements behind 37-year-old Arvid’s existential crisis — his membership in the Communist Party has lost its meaning; his wife is asking for a divorce; his dying mother still considers him “too fragile” to survive in the world — are to my taste simply not interesting enough to sustain my sympathy. It is true that Trond, the elderly narrator of “Stealing Horses,” shares Arvid’s nostalgia for the self-centeredness of childhood. But Trond has lived a full life beyond that station while Arvid is maundering through life, hopelessly fixed on the irrecoverable. Arvid whines, he daydreams (in younger years “I had all the time in the world in a way I have never had since”) and laments his present status “adrift in time and space.” His childishness is unaltered — even, shockingly, at book’s end. A preference for one book over the other may also be influenced by the age of the reader; indeed, the author himself plays with the notion of the “age-appropriateness” of certain novels; this is a pet idea of Arvid’s mother.
What partially redeems “River of Time” is Petterson’s command of incident and prose. As in “Out Stealing Horses”, his prose is at once unflashy and gorgeous. There are many beautifully rendered episodes. One is the lyrically described November stay at a country cabin where Arvid and his then girl friend spent a cold afternoon rowing a boat through the thinly iced lake. The author’s easeful way of pulling philosophical reflections from commonplace events is on display as well. When Arvid takes a friend’s dog to the vet to be euthanized, his imagination breaks free: “What worried me was that no one had asked if the dog was really mine. It felt unsafe, ambiguous, anything could happen, to anyone, if the one it was happening to had a trusting heart.”
If you decide to read “I Curse the River of Time” as your introduction to Petterson, please know that the gifts you receive from it will be more than matched if you experience, next, “Out Stealing Horses.”
– – – – – – – –
Note 2: Graywolf Press of Minneapolis, MN, the publisher of “I Curse the River of Time,” has created a book that, as a physical object, is quite fine: acid-free paper of rich tone; elegant and readable typeface; and clear, crisp, dark printing. Would that equal care were taken in the making of all books. And a special shout-out to the cover designer, Kyle G. Hunter, who slyly split the six words of the title into two lines, the first line beginning in the middle of the frame, the second wrapping around to start again at the left margin “beginning” — a visual analog to the text’s chronological displacements.