Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Writer's Story

In the WakeIn the Wake 
by Per Petterson

I have never complained about anything except badly written books and the world situation, and you don't get your money back when little Nepalese girls are sold by their families to brothels in Bangkok, or because the World Bank refuses to waive cruel loans to Uganda. On the contrary. And lousy books; they just look at you and say: "Why don't you write one yourself, then?  ― Per Petterson, In the Wake

In the Wake is the third of Per Petterson's novels that I have read, yet it is the first of his novels translated into English. I previously read Out Stealing Horses and I Curse the River of Time. Each of these books has increased my esteem for this award-winning Norwegian author.

In the Wake tells the story of Arvid, a writer in his early forties. It is a Proustian tale in the sense that the bulk of the story is built on Arvid's memories of events that have shaped his life. The actual timespan of the novel is relatively short. In it Arvid's loneliness is intense, his grief has settled in to the point where his sanity is not guaranteed. He has lost his father, mother and two younger brothers in a ferry accident. (Petterson lost his parents and a brother in a ferry accident, too, but prefers to leave this out of his publicity material.)

Arvid's life as a writer has slowed to a standstill and yet he keeps moving, driving his beaten-up Mazda through wintry Norwegian landscapes and we keep him company, waiting for a thaw. The novel is startling, especially its opening. It takes a while to adjust to it, like a plunge into icy water, after which the body temperature must revert to normal. It is in prose passages like this describing a moment with his brother that the book comes alive: "We got out of the van, not slamming the doors but pushing them shut, because of the silence around us, not a sound but the sea sighing as it always does behind the trees but the shore when I realize that is what I can hear and stop thinking it is silence itself." His brother is sometimes a mirror for Arvid as is the memories of his father.  The action of the book is muted but Arvid's willingness to keep moving and his interaction with real living people provides hope for the reader that he will survive his grief and loneliness.

It seems appropriate that many of the scenes in the book occur in doorways or on actual thresholds, for it seems that this is where Arvid is in a psychological sense. One night, locked out, he stands outside his neighbor's house - and wakes her up. Thus begins a chapter about admission in many senses - Arvid tells his neighbor things about his dead father he has never told anyone. And it is clear that it is the confession that leads him to her bed.

Arvid is a reader as he explains, "On Sundays I sit at home reading whether it's sunny or raining or snowing."  And like Per Petterson himself, Arvid used to work in a bookshop and refers to favorite books, as if reading might accomplish what life could not. He describes one author's work like this: "Full of landscape and air and you can smell the pine needles and the heather a long way off."  Petterson's own novel is like this, too. It is prose you can almost inhale - the atmosphere is clear and overwhelming.

Hemingway is one persistent influence on Petterson, and so is Knut Hamsun—the protagonists of two early Hamsun novels, “Mysteries” and “Pan,” could be models for Petterson’s unmoored people, especially in the way that Hamsun, like Petterson, at once reveals and obscures rational motivation. Trying to separate fact from fiction with his memories flowing through his mind Arvid shares this thought: "It must have been a dream, of course, because I do not remember what that house looked like from outside or what he saw from the windows or why we were actually there. I remember a lot of dreams. Sometimes they are hard to distinguish from what has really happened. That is not so terrible. It is the same with books."

In the end Arvid's story and he himself are memorable because of his ability to become someone like the reader of his book. He rereads books, and he makes lists of favorite books. They help him deal with the the pain of the world and find a way to go on living and writing. In the end he shares a real life Hemingway moment with his brother. The reality of living in the present overcomes all the memories of the painful past.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

When I read the quotation that you posted at the beginning I thought that this was a non - fiction book. I certainly sounds like it might be memoir.

The concept of tying reading and books to real world issues and tragedies seems to be an idea that has been around for a very long time.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. This novel is certainly memoir-like in certain ways. With the main character an author it has some of the ingredients of a memoir along with his contemporary ruminations. Your further observation is also well taken and it seems that many of us, both readers and writers, can find solace in reading and books.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

I am a sucker for (1) novels about reading, and (2) novels involving Hemingway. Moreover, your posting/review is so persuasive that I will be adding the author to my library "shopping list" for next week. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.
(Change of blog name and address because of Blogger issues)