Virginia Woolf once compared reading Tolstoy to being set atop a mountain with a telescope. Reading Stig Sæterbakken, the Norwegian novelist who took his own life in January 2012, is like being squeezed into a shower stall with a madman. His novels, with their drowning interiority and derivative freight (sometimes, one feels, the examples of Beckett and Bernhard are not so much influences as references) are nasty little dramas of stasis and entrapment.
In Siamese, a gum-chewing retiree is reduced to an infantilizing state of confinement in his bathroom, paradoxically feeling “like God” while shouting and arguing with his wife on whom he is nevertheless hopelessly dependent. Andreas Feldt, the narrator of Self-Control, embarks on a kind of private war against social norms when, during lunch with his estranged daughter, he spontaneously and falsely tells her that he and her mother are getting a divorce. The moment unfolds with a touch of the Sæterbakkian absurd: as Andreas breaks the news to his daughter, he struggles to contain a fart: “I had to use all my strength to tame the demon that was wreaking havoc down in my rear end, a loud piercing fart cracked against the seat before I managed to gag it, but she was, fortunately too beside herself to notice.” In the end, indifference prevails: neither the false news of the divorce nor the loud, piercing fart register on the Richter scale. Andreas’s private war remains a fantasy—a fantasy like the one he entertains while eavesdropping on a woman in a café:
I thought that if I’d been given the opportunity of falling in love with her, the understanding one, then I could tell her everything about myself from the start, everything over again, while emphasizing the parts that weighed in my favor, and I could have left out those things which, even to this day, I’m ashamed to remember. It would be like a release, I thought, like being set free after a lifetime of captivity. It would be a release from everything that torments you, I thought, everything that usually lies there eating away at your memory. It would be like dying in the world you know and then being reborn in another, where there’s nothing written about you yet, where everything is still ahead of you, untouched, unsullied.
Sæterbakken’s characters often rail like this against their confinement within themselves, entertaining thoughts of birth, death and rebirth, before they come bouncing off the walls to find that there is no escape, no respite from themselves. In Through the Night, his final and most ambitious novel, Sæterbakken dramatizes this struggle with far greater poignancy than before: Karl Meyer, a dentist whose son has killed himself, embarks on a journey to a mysterious house in Slovakia in order to escape his grief, his sorrow, and guilt (shortly before his son’s suicide, Karl briefly left his wife for a younger woman). He dreams, quite explicitly, about being born anew: “drop everything, go away, become someone else, start afresh, put it all behind you, start over again, without encumbrance, without one single connection to what once was. Not to disappear without a trace, but arrive without a trace.”
Born in Lillehammer in 1966, Sæterbakken made his literary debut as a poet when he was still in high school. He was part of Oslo’s underground music scene in the eighties and played in various avant-garde bands. (Sæterbakken’s last published book was a biography of the Norwegian new wave punk band De Press.) In 1991 he published his first novel, Incubus, followed three years later by the highly intertextual Det nye testamentet (The New Testament), in which a photographer-pornographer obsessively roams across Europe in search of Hitler’s secret diaries. Though critics largely dismissed the novel—Karl Ove Knausgård panned it in Morgenbladet—its impetus to demolish prevailing myths about good and evil remained at the forefront of Sæterbakken’s literary endeavors until the very end.
“Our image of Hitler,” Knausgård wrote in his review, “is just that—an image, a surface. Hitler exists only as a shape. The image is impenetrable, there is nothing behind it, just the face, the gestures, the speeches, the uniform.” Sæterbakken wanted to penetrate that image, to break through it and reveal the most disturbing fact of all about Hitler: that he was human. (I remember an overwhelming feeling of complicity in the audience when I first saw Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Der Untergang, in which Hitler is brilliantly portrayed by the actor Bruno Ganz.) In an essay on Europe, Sætterbakken wrote that
a novel—a good novel that is—can make the thoughts, the moral and emotional universe of, say, a pedophile or a Nazi understandable, can make it possible for us to identify ourselves with it, bring us to the point of recognizing this as an option in ourselves as well. Because we are human. And being human means containing this too as an option. The question, Who are we? is rejected in favor of the question, What is it possible for us to become?
I wonder if it isn’t more accurate to say that a novel can make the moral or emotional universe of a pedophile or Nazi recognizable to us as opposed to “understandable.” For some reason “understandable” strikes me as a touch presumptuous. I’m not sure, for instance, whether I fully understand Humbert Humbert’s emotional and moral universe, though I certainly recognize it and inhabit it. Still, Sæterbakken was right to call attention to the fact that the greatest power of fiction is its ability to bring us closer to an understanding of other people—even if it means inhabiting the mind of a pedophile or mass murderer. It is a moral imperative of the novel to try and understand even someone whom society has deemed a monster. This surely was what Knausgård was alluding to when, after Sæterbakken’s death, he praised his compatriot’s “boundless curiosity about the human condition [and] tremendous faith in literature and its power.”
Through the Night opens in a sink of grief. Karl Meyer’s teenage son, Ole-Jakob, has killed himself, leaving his recently divorced parents and his younger sister reeling with grief, loss, anger, and uncertainty. “A thousand times a day I forget that Ole-Jakob was dead,” Karl tells us. “A thousand times a day I remembered it again. Both were unbearable.” He compares it to facing away from the ocean: “Ice-cold ankles every time a wave came in. Then it receded. Then it came in.”
Karl recounts the events preceding his son’s death: meeting and falling in love with his wife, having children, falling a little out of love, until finally he meets an attractive young student, Mona, whose attention flatters him, seduces him, and finally overpowers him. An affair ensues and soon after Karl divorces his wife.
This is the weakest and most familiar part of the novel. Naturally, Karl cannot fathom why a beautiful young woman in her twenties would take an interest in a middle-aged schmuck like him. Naturally, Karl Meyer takes a boyish delight in his reckless behavior: “I took such delight in seeing it like that, asunder, so to speak, out of order, fallen out of orbit, that I felt relief even in the midst of his exhaustion.” And naturally, as Mona’s immaturity and lagging affection grates on him, and Karl’s yearned-for new existence begins to lose its appeal: “And the old thought came to mind, the old dream, the impossible dream: drop everything, go away, become someone else, start afresh,” and so forth.
But instead of starting afresh, Karl returns to his old life. His wife lets him back into their house and family, at which point tragedy strikes.
Ole-Jakob, who had been sinking into depression, swipes a bottle of liquor and drives into an oncoming truck, dying instantly. Karl insists on seeing his son’s cadaver: “I was allowed into the morgue, where after a lot of back and forth they unveiled an object that was so far removed from anything I’d ever seen that when I did throw up, it wasn’t because I could identify it with Ole-Jakob, but simply because of the sight of it—nothing more.”
Sæterbakken’s prose, stark and unfussy, works best at these moments of high intensity. But compared to the tight crevices of Siamese and Self-Control, Through the Night is a promenade of a novel, and for every taut, arresting passage there is a sagging one. Some of this, unfortunately, appears to be a joint effort by the translator, Seán Kinsella, and the editors. “As I couldn’t help call that that place,” “as I allowed myself be absorbed into the throng,” and “The worst thing about is” can probably be attributed to editorial neglect—but what about “I’d begin the hunt for something whatever little thing wasn’t quite right about this place” and “Despite all the years of his life when I’d known everything there was about him”? It’s disheartening to come across such egregious errors, and it detracts from the overall reading experience—like spotting a microphone boom bobbing at the top of a screen in the middle of a movie.
In the wake of Ole-Jakob’s death Karl’s writer-friend Boris tells him about an abandoned house in Slovakia where he can stay and be confronted by his greatest, deepest fears. Some guests, Boris tells Karl, emerge relieved and elated, while others are confined to retirement homes because they can no longer control their bowels.
There were those, according to Boris, who claimed that they’d been there, seen what there was to see and had come out again with a lighter heart, relieved of everything that had been weighing on them, joyful and in high spirits, without a trace of fear left in their bodies. They’d seen the worst things imaginable, after which nothing could threaten them anymore. Others, Boris reported, had returned with hideous, contorted faces, so that even some of their closest family and friends had trouble recognizing them. One such individual’s skin had turned completely gray, after his visit, and his nose had been moved to his cheek, he never said another word to anyone, locked himself into a room in his apartment and stayed there until he died . . .
Karl’s journey to this mysterious house—a journey that is equal parts Kafka and Tarkovsky—fills the remaining half of the novel, effectively slicing Through the Night down the middle to separate this surreal, dreamlike second half from the first. Karl reaches Slovakia via idyllic Redenburg, Germany, and meets the elusive Zagreb—the man with the key to the house—at a dingy nightclub. Karl, skeptical, interrogates Zagreb about the house to no avail. The Slovakian merely responds by saying that it exists, in effect, because people are as obsessed with pursuing pain as they are with pursuing happiness, and that Karl should think of the house as “your own private miniature Holocaust!”
Zagreb’s invocation of the Holocaust—and the gulags, AIDS, Hiroshima, and hurricanes, not to mention his odd reading of Kierkegaard—feels like thematic overkill. Lumping together these horrors only negates the terror they are meant to evoke. (The Holocaust is not the same as AIDS or Hiroshima, so Zagreb’s claim that the house is like all of them becomes a way of saying that it isn’t like any of them.)
But the exquisite, laborious description of Karl arriving at and walking through the house, room by room, is easily the finest section of the novel; Sæterbakken’s prose becomes concentrated and taut, steeling itself in anticipation of what lies ahead:
The bucket was half full of water; a thick gelatinous membrane had formed on top. Some large grayish-brown marks stained the carpet and walls, their color the same as on the ceiling of the bathroom at the Hotel Lucia. Someone had used considerable force attempting to wash them off; in a few places there were holes in the wallpaper and the paneling was visible. There were no windows in the room, no vents either, the air was stuffy, with the smell of dusty carpets and unwashed bed linen. On the way out someone grabbed hold of me and held me back. I just managed to envision the brawny arm of an angry assailant before I realized it was the strap on my bag that had snagged on the inside door handle.
This writing, extending over ten or so pages, is remarkably effective, even if its techniques—as the narrative misdirection above illustrates—are on loan from a different, well-trodden genre. But it is distinguished by its being a kind of double misdirection: Karl has been manipulated into thinking he has walked onto the set of The Shining, and his anticipation in turn manipulates the reader. Both parties, in the end, are fooled:
No madman had ever lived in the house. No bodies lay under the concrete floor of the cellar. No lunatic had run from room to room screaming in mortal terror with a cage strapped to his chest. Nothing terrible had taken place here; no, it was merely the insuperable aggregate of simple human tasks, the interminable succession of departed daily occurrences.
The terror, in other words, is human, all too human, and therefore so much more terrifying. Karl, who has travelled a long way in order to escape his singular human existence, and all the sorrow and pain it has been burdened with, is thrown cruelly back upon himself: “Nothing, I thought. There’s nothing here. Apart from me.”
If Through the Night had ended with Karl standing alone in the abandoned house, facing up to his inescapable self, it might have been a better novel. Regrettably, there follows a sentimental dreamlike sequence that concludes, in the novel’s final two sentences, with a plot revelation so unnecessary, and so cheaply withheld, that it reads like a reproach to the arresting, chilling passages that precede it. These sections are so strikingly at odds with each other that it sometimes seems inexplicable that they should be contained within the same novel.
Sæterbakken has indulged this habit of last-minute plot twists before, notably in Self-Control, and one wonders what it is about them that attracted him. It is odd that this otherwise bleak and comfortless writer should be prone to tricks of plot that so easily spill into sentimentalism. It is almost as if he wasn’t quite able to square his novels with the ideas he explored in his essays. “We’re all bastards, when it comes right down to it,” he wrote in Det onde øye (The Evil Eye). “Under certain circumstances, every single person is capable of torturing another human being. It’s a reality we can’t ignore.”
This view (the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen quibbles with it in his Philosophy of Evil) may explain Sæterbakken’s sentimental lapses. There’s a tough-guy posturing in that “We’re all bastards” bit that reminded me of Hemingway or Raymond Carver or Norman Mailer at their worst (the tougher they tried to be, the more sodden their pages became). Crucially, it is also at odds with Sæterbakken’s own suggestion, quoted earlier in this same essay, that we abandon the question of what are we in favor of what is it possible for us to become. Obviously we are not all torturers, even if we are capable of torture. As Svendsen points out, “the problem we face is that our actions, at the critical moment, are as-yet undetermined. We can’t know what we would do in a given situation—that is, before we actually do it.” For while it is important to accept that Hitler was human, it is equally important to recognize that not all of humanity is like Hitler. To claim otherwise is to negate one’s moral imagination—which, for a novelist, is a negation of one’s art.
It is almost as if Sæterbakken was capable of being overwhelmed by thoughts of evil—so overwhelmed that, in his fiction, he escaped it or neutralized it by inadvertent, sentimental exits. Curiously, he sometimes seems to have embarked on a journey similar to Karl’s in Through the Night: looking for annihilation and self-reckoning but finding only “the insuperable aggregate of simple human tasks.” To follow Sæterbakken’s attempt to resolve this conflict, which makes his last novel so problematic and yet so haunting, would have made for a thrilling literary journey. The fact that we will never embark on it is surely a great loss.
Morten Høi Jensen is a freelance writer. His essays and reviews have appeared in Salon, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Dublin Review of Books, The Millions, and elsewhere.