One of Norway’s edgiest contemporary novelists, Stig Sæterbakken has been finding new life beyond his native language, his work having been translated into Swedish, Russian, Czech, and, in recent years, English. But despite this modest success, his books are generally published in Norway under the label “minor works.” In Sweden, the general-interest publishing house Bonnier has released only his “somewhat more accessible” books, while Vertigo, a small press that specializes in erotic and fringe classics, publishes his more perverse works.
Sæterbakken’s writing is stark, savage, uncompromising—and it only became darker as his career progressed. When Herdis Eggen, his longstanding editor at the Norwegian house Cappelen Damm, read the manuscript of Through the Night, she found it profoundly unsettling. About the experience, she wrote, “I asked about his future writing plans, because he couldn’t possibly get any darker than this. ‘No,’ he responded, ‘it can’t possibly get any darker or else I’ll drown in it myself.’” A few months after this exchange, Sæterbakken took his own life, leaving Through the Night as his final novel.
His earlier books, including Invisible Hands and Don’t Leave Me, both released in Seán Kinsella’s English translations this summer, often center on solitary male protagonists who are self-destructive and whose attempts to repress significant emotional traumas manifest in sexual deviancy. Sæterbakken tried to square some of these same traits with his own experience in his 2010 essay “The Impossibility of Living”: “While inside my own head the most ridiculous urges are cooking away, idiotic fears, detailed suicide schemes, filthy sex fantasies, and totally disrespectful notions about the so-called important things in life.” In some cases, his protagonists resort to such extremes in order to make themselves seen; they are trying to reassess their own relevance within a given narrative situation or structure, as they explore the ways and degrees to which they are visible and invisible to the most beloved people in their lives.
In Sæterbakken’s 1997 novel Siamese, the protagonist is almost completely blind and depends on his wife for food and hygiene. Yet, he tends to hold the power in the relationship, a fact he seems intent on proving, if only to himself, through increasingly bizarre abusive acts toward his wife. In Self-Control, the second volume in the loosely connected “S Trilogy,” a middle-aged man tests the effect of his words on others around him as he comes face to face with his virtual invisibility in a world he once thought he knew well.
An excessive lack of control commonly appears throughout Sæterbakken’s catalog, but becomes more corrosive in Invisible Hands, a haunting novel originally published in 2007 that the author called “his first evil book.” His editor at Vertigo, Carl-Michael Edenborg, once described it, in a spoken-word homage to Sæterbakken, as “a text that leaves your reader filthy and bewildered.” Indeed, the novel is filled with transgressions, big and small—and so numerous that the reader cannot for a moment escape the bleak moral landscape Sæterbakken meticulously depicts.
The narrator of Invisible Hands, chief inspector Kristian Wold, is assigned to the case of a teenage girl who has been missing for a year, a case that for all intents and purposes has been abandoned by Kristian’s unit. Upon meeting the girl’s mother, Inger Danielsen, he is distracted by her appearance, by how “a woman who had lost her child [could] be beautiful,” how a living picture of grief could look so untarnished. Kristian’s attitude toward the case shifts rapidly. He increasingly positions himself in an unprofessional relationship of power over her emotional life, benefiting from her extreme vulnerability. Soon, he and Inger become lovers. In investing himself in her life—if not in the case itself—Kristian finds, whether consciously or not, what he lacks in other aspects of his life: a pursuit in which he is indispensable.
Together, they meditate on the strangeness of vanishing. The focus of the novel remains intently on their peculiar anxieties, whether provoked by encountering one another or by walking into an empty room at night, upon the realization that neither can be alone yet there’s nothing they can do to avoid their fates.
Meanwhile, Kristian is married to a woman who suffers from severe migraines and can’t find any medication to help ease the pain. They become increasingly aware that her fate is out of her hands, an acknowledgment that deepens Kristian’s sense of powerlessness. Ultimately, he is unable to meet even her most basic practical or emotional needs. She spends her days in isolation, waiting for him to come home from his escapades. On the one hand there is the abstract pain that afflicts the wife; and on the other there is the disappearance that incessantly haunts the lover. Both women in Kristian’s life need his assistance (as do the other women in his professional life), but while he perceives his wife’s illness as a nuisance, he grows to believe that Maria’s disappearance was an event that brought him to Inger, as if the girl had disappeared just so that Kristian could meet her mother. At one point, Kristian looks around Inger’s living room and considers how all events in her life led up to this: “When she bought this apartment and began to furnish it, [...] converting it into a home that would suit her and her daughter’s needs, it was this that awaited them, this unimaginable suffering they had already been heading towards,” he explains. In a perverse act of imposing his own narrative upon that of a destroyed family, fate, Kristian believes, had brought them there.
Fate or—in Sæterbakken’s parlance—an idea of being doomed from the start is also at the core of Sæterbakken’s Don’t Leave Me, originally published in 2009. The novel is a love story told backwards, from the end of the romance to the moment seventeen-year-old Aksel first catches sight of Amalie. Told in the second person, the narrative allows Sæterbakken to imbue the reader with empathy for his protagonist. This approach also gives the impression that the story is out of control, even when consequential events are already known: anything can happen to the “you” in the book, and there’s nothing that “you,” the reader, can do to stop it.
From the outset (which is to say, from the end), Aksel’s persistent fear that Amalie will, in one manner or another, vanish has destroyed their relationship, the only good thing in his life. “You’re a combatant and she’s your prisoner,” he seems to acknowledge. He believes that they would be more content in a hermetic world, in which he keeps her from the evil men that might try to pursue her, or from nosy girlfriends who might get into her head. The way he sees it, devoted commitment to each other is enough to validate their lives; it’s perhaps the only validation possible. He wants his body to be more important to her than food, water, family, and friendship. Amalie must live solely for the purpose of showing him that he is at the natural center of her attention, that he is “one of the people it’s possible to like, one of them who’s capable of liking others.”
His desire to be needed is so strong that at the slightest sign of rejection he becomes something uncontrollable, an angry and childish god who subjugates anybody whom he perceives to be weaker than himself—namely, young women. In one instance, he pulls a knife from his pocket and pushes a girl into a closet. She is terrified, naturally, and he is surprised that he is not more “worked up.” He is feeding on her terror, “her fear has become your composure and the other way around. You’re both in balance.” In the end, he feels that all is right in the world, while the girl “looks like a refugee with all she owns in a bundle.”
Despite the violence and the melodramatic nature of his relationship with Amalie, their romance is fairly mundane. They’re bored young adults crashing in a friend’s apartment, confined to making the same inside jokes (“Fried egg on a plate without the plate!”), and watching movies that look a lot like their own lives (a boy “goes mad because he gets it into his head that his wife is unfaithful, although it’s never made clear if she really is or if the whole thing is all just a product of the man’s imagination”).
All things considered, Aksel and Kristian have a lot in common: they both need the women in their lives to reaffirm their power, their importance, their existence. They want evidence that there is a reason for them to be there. They want proof that they’re real, that they are not the ones who are disappearing. Each time someone leaves the room, the other character is unsure if somebody else has actually been there at all, if there’s anything left in their wake. They ask themselves: Do we keep on existing when we’re not heard or seen?
Nonetheless, Kristian and Aksel each believe they have the upper hand in their respective relationships, that they are the ones helping the women in their lives find a correct path. But in reality, they are the ones who need saving. Inger and Amalie give their lives a sense of purpose—and without fuss. “The helping hand is most effective when it’s invisible,” says one of Kristian’s informers.
Some of the central characters in these novels are, in fact, effectively invisible: In Invisible Hands, Maria’s face is always a blur in family photos. She appears with her hands over her face or with her back facing the camera. Perhaps the daughter is nothing like the mother remembers; the daughter she remembers never existed. In her place, there is a void.
In Don’t Leave Me, Amalie is a mythical creature of sorts. She is talked about but rarely does any of the talking. She is loved, one could argue, but rarely gets to love. Even during sex she doesn’t have a say on what happens and is seen more like an idea than a person, “limp, like a blow-up doll, [letting] you carry on until you were spent.”
Amalie and Maria have become fantasies, idealized, unreal. They are archetypes of themselves, phony copies that only know the good moments of complicated lives. In the end, if and when Maria is found, she won’t be the same teenage girl she used to be and yet she’ll be the same nonetheless—a version of her so dark that no one will want to see it. When Aksel first encounters Amalie, he thinks, “The darkness of my past is the light of my future. [...] This has been the intention all along. That what you thought would last your whole life, it was merely a prelude.” But what he calls a prelude is the ordinary stream of life itself, in which “everything you experience puts you in mind of something terrible, every single pleasure contains fear, fear wrapped in pleasure: pleasure is the wrapping paper, fear the only thing you actually feel.” One way to find the light to normal life is to accept that this is normal life. Among the stained walls, the shadows, the phone that doesn’t ring, pleasure wrapped in dread.
These two novels show the inextricable relationship between joy and tragedy. As Sæterbakken puts it in his essay “Sacred Tears,” "the things which threaten our very existence and the things which keep us striving for more, are often one and the same thing. Where would we be, as sexual beings, without the knowledge of death? How strong would our passions be, separated from our fear of dying?”
Sæterbakken’s prose style is taut and elegant. Kinsella renders the author’s textured Norwegian with exactness, capturing the poetry and hypnotic rhythms of the original (“[Maria] looked away, she looked down, she held her hands in front of her face, she moved, she did not want her photo taken, moaned and groaned every time her mother produced the camera”). Despite—and because of—their contradictions, the characters’ emotions are visceral and honest, and treated with extreme empathy. The prose is free from authorial comment; Sæterbakken does not judge or impose his opinions of the characters on the reader, and instead invites the reader to inhabit the characters’ insecurities by refusing to correct their behavior or to show how a secure world would look like. In the process, the reader learns to see the world through their limited eyes and to consider the complexity of their mixed emotions. If anything, their insecurities feel terribly familiar. These are characters who are trying to discover what motivates them, what can shake them out of their sense of meaninglessness. They want to know, what—if not each other, not love, not sex, not a box cutter between someone’s legs—can give them power over their own lives? This is not to say that they find any answers; in fact, when they finally get to the other side, there are only more questions.
Invisible Hands and Don’t Leave Me are masterful novels about the nothingness that finds us all, the emptiness that submerges us in the wake of meaning we thought existed. Sæterbakken once said that “it is not we who go through experiences, but experiences that go through us. Not we who gain them, but they that gain us.” Life passes through us and the future is where we arrive, washed up.
Bruna Dantas Lobato is a writer and literary translator from and to Portuguese based in New York City. Her work has appeared in BOMB, Ploughshares online, The Millions, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. She is the assistant fiction editor for Washington Square Review.