Over the last fifty years, Dag Solstad has forged one of the most distinct styles in postwar Norwegian literature, enough so to merit his own adjective. Solstadian, defined by Ane Farsethås in her Paris Review interview with the author, denotes “an unusually long sentence, often with several subordinate clauses and a pattern of stylized, highly recognizable repetitions.” Wry and schematic and stubbornly digressive, Solstad’s prose bridges the wide formal gap between Knut Hamsun’s psychological modernism and Karl Ove Knausgård’s quotidian worship of the self.
In his home country, Solstad is an inescapable literary figure. His extraordinary and diverse output—eighteen novels, three story collections, two plays, seven essay collections, and five book-length reports on the World Cup co-authored with Jon Michelet—suggests a peripatetic mind ever searching for modernism’s golden calf: the New. Here in the States, one of our very own Saints of the New, Lydia Davis, taught herself Norwegian by reading Solstad’s infamous Telemark novel in the original. “Do exactly what you want,” she has said of his demanding style: “the drama exists in his voice.” But for most of us American readers, who rely on gifted translators to do all the heavy lifting, and who have had to be satisfied with the 2015 rendering of Shyness and Dignity or hunt down UK editions of Novel 11, Book 18, and Professor Andersen’s Night, the majority of his work remains hidden. Happily enough, this year brings a comparative glut of Solstad novels, as a pair of the author’s late works, T Singer and Armand V, have arrived in English—in lucid, agile translations courtesy of Tiina Nunnaly and Steven T. Murray, respectively—to reintroduce readers to the Norwegian giant’s dry wit and protean style.
The progression between this pair of novels—separated by the yet-to-be-translated 16/07/41—marks a definite break in the Solstad oeuvre. T Singer, he has repeatedly stated, was the end of his work, but it is a final work that did not signal an end to writing. “Declaring that I was finished made me feel like I could do whatever I damn well pleased,” he reports to Farsethås, “which again opened up entirely new ways of thinking.” Unlike Philip Roth, to whom he is routinely compared, Solstad announced an end but did not stop. The irony implicit in an authorial conclusion that is ever delayed by each additional experiment sits snugly in a particular camp of late style. In his posthumous collection, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said locates in some late styles “a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against...” Or, to translate it back into Adorno: “The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves.” To hone a late style is to work against one’s own proclivities, to break one’s customary tones and ticks, to sharpen the blade toward the body. It is fitting, then, that the transition from T Singer’s sustained story to Armand V’s novel-via-footnotes bares a shift from an occasional metanarrative presence to a pervasive metafictional structure. Now, in the post-final phase of Solstad’s writing life, things have gotten stranger. The author, irascible as ever, has taken leave of his forms.
But to be late, one must first be early, or a little early at least. T Singer concludes a sequence of novels, begun with Novel 11, Book 18, which share a similar thematic movement and narrative style, and are all helmed by a variation on the Solstadian protagonist—an aging intellectual of some regard, unmoored from his work and alienated from his surroundings, who faces a crisis of conscience. The final entry in this sequence tracks the life of Singer, a career librarian and a perpetual worrier. Images of his early life focus on a failure to fulfill his supposed secret calling as a writer; his literary output extend no further than variations on a single sentence: “One fine day he stood eye to eye with a memorable sight.” It is a figuration that follows him through his adolescence, as Singer, like the author, tinkers with the substance and occasion of a consciously mundane image. Upon graduating from university in Oslo, Singer abandons any aspirations of becoming a writer and takes a post in rural Notoddon, intent on leading an anonymous, provincial life. There he meets and marries Merete Saethre, a ceramicist, and embarks on his next phase, as father to Isabella, his wife’s young daughter from a previous partner. Merete’s tragic death in a car accident shifts the novel into its final arc. Shamed by the secret that his marriage was on the verge of divorce, Singer takes sole guardianship of Isabella and moves her back to Oslo, where their relationship—and Singer’s relationship to the world in general—slowly unravels.
Solstad’s style in T Singer favors rigorous exposition over plot or scene. Dialogue and action are exceedingly rare, and often interrupted by the narrator’s arguments and digressions. In its opening line, the novel finds this form in a feeling: “Singer suffered from a peculiar form of guilt.” The root of this guilt is a childhood incident in which Singer and A, his best friend, are goofing off in a toy store; to please A, Singer feigns laughter at a wind-up toy’s movements, then looks over to find that his uncle has witnessed this forced merriment. By the narrator’s estimation, the shock and embarrassment of being caught trying to please another and masking his own natural response, “offers an insight into the underlying pattern of his life.” The text figures this sense of shame and fear of exposure as a kind of “nakedness” with regard to another person. In a second example of this guilt—Singer, mistaking one friend for another in a dark theater, uses a term of address reserved for the wrong person—the narrator defines this “nakedness” as a situation in which “someone who has your confidence happens unintentionally to observe you as you are displaying a confidentiality toward someone else.” Both scenes rely on a recursive logic that mimics Singer’s psychic life, wherein his thoughts and the sentences that frame them anxiously circle some missing center. The novel’s peculiar free indirect style seeks to trace this sense of disquiet—the “nakedness”—that the lonely man would prefer remain hidden. We are the unintended observer, and the novel’s style mirrors the movement of Singer’s subconscious.
T Singer’s formal chassis—in which the scaffolding of the psychological novel reveals itself sentence by sentence—is nowhere more apparent than in the narration. From the very start, the narrator attempts to shape our perception of reading Singer’s story, a copy of the novel held in our hands: “When this book begins, Singer is 34 years old.” At times, the narration is defensive. Working through Singer’s desire to become a writer, the narrator anxiously admits that “there may seem to be quite a few inconsistencies,” but resolves that the text should stand as is, to “allow it to remain a discrepancy.” On other occasions, the narration bluntly states certain character attributes as if a matter of creative license—“Can a man like Singer fall in love?” the narrator asks, and abruptly answers, “Yes, he can”—or reveals specific authorial intentions: “In this novel [Merete] is subordinate to Singer, playing the role of a minor character, and that’s not Singer’s choice but the choice of the author who is writing this book.” A certain tension arises regarding the limits of the narrator’s perspective, and the distance between the narrator and the author, who sits outside of the story, is deliberately muddied. A lengthy digression at the novel’s end charts this ambiguity:
By the way, in every novel there is a big black hole, which is universal in its blackness, and now this novel has reached that point . . . Why is Singer the main character in this novel? And not only the main character but even the one around whom everything revolves? Fortunately, the other characters in this novel are completely unaffected by the fact that they are characters or ideas that exist only in that they revolve around this main character. I wish I could have said something that Singer would not be able to ponder. There’s something I would have said about precisely this point, but I have no words for it. My language ceases when Singer’s pondering also ceases. That does not make us identical [emphasis mine].
This passage is as near as we can come to a stylistic signature. Here—with a narrator bound to his character’s thoughts, and a character bound to his narrator’s language—T Singer offers up the key to its form. The minutiae of Singer’s life and the potential terrain of his thought begin and end with the narration; and just so, the sentences and style start and stop with Singer. As with much of Solstad’s best work, the author is present in the text, is bound to his text, and meets his evocative limit precisely at the limit of his literary creation.
But if T Singer marks a finale to a certain mode of Solstadian metafiction, Armand V explodes those limits altogether. Told through a series of footnotes to an unwritten novel, Armand V follows the life and career of Armand, a rising diplomat in Norway’s foreign office. We shift from a visit to his son—who has decided to join the army against his father’s wishes—back in time to Armand’s college days, and finally forward again to his career as a diplomat to Norway’s Western allies during the US military’s engagements in the Middle East at the turn of the twenty-first century. In the novel’s final section, Armand’s son returns to Norway after being blinded in the war, and the tragedy forces Armand to reassess his own role in the modern imperialist system, transformed now from “an important fool in a vast historic machinery” to “a victim of these very same power that he so loyally served.” It is finally a fiction haunted by shame and disappointment.
Armand V’s stylistic tension comes from the absence of its source text. After setting the introductory scenes, our narrator admits that the text to which the footnotes refer “is invisible for the author in the sense that he is unable to write it.” The story then lurches along at a disjointed pace; each footnote arrives after a gap in “the text up there,” as the narrator terms the unwritten novel, drawing surprise from omission. Occasionally, the narrator signals that the Armand in the footnotes differs slightly from the figure in the source text:
When Armand now, here in this footnote and not in the novel up above, looks back on his life working for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, as I, the author, have understood it, he will undoubtedly conclude that deep in his heart it was probably the thought of the game itself that made him a diplomat.
Where T Singer reveals Singer’s interiority through the narrator’s metafictional asides, Armand V implies that the footnotes to the unwritten novel contain the text’s latent thoughts and desires. Later, in a passage detailing the diplomat’s feelings about his profession, Armand voices his private political disdain: “Our lineage has gotten away from this. It’s impossible to look the truth in the eyes. This has gone too far. There’s no way back.” Slowly, the footnotes become a repository for Armand’s interior life. Down here, in the secret story, Armand lives a second self, scared for his country, ashamed at his own passivity, awash in bourgeois dread. But what, then, is the surface from which all this hangs? What is happening in “the text up there”?
The referents are hidden away in the narrator’s mind, and this absence looms large over Armand’s story. Then comes Footnote 83—the narrator arrives in Venice in June 2004, intent upon delving into a work of footnotes to Brodsky’s Watermark, when a chance encounter with a Somali handbag vendor sets him on a new course:
. . . in a flash, [I] had a brilliant, unknown idea for a novel, which must have been about my affiliation with the imperialistic system—and the fact that in my memory I’ve combined all of this with what I wanted to write in a novel based on footnotes, original footnotes to another author’s work, but later footnotes to an unknown and unwritten but possibly writable novel by me, because I think that all this, including the distortion of memory, has significance for everything that I have here attempted to say.
And, if there were still any doubt:
I’m writing on overtime. My literary output ended with T. Singer, written and published in 1999. Everything after that is an exception, which will never be repeated. Including this.
The shroud of fiction falls away, and the author reveals himself. Whereas T Singer’s metanarration blurs the line between creator and creation without ever wholly negating it, Armand V strives for its obliteration. The “unknown and unwritten” source text is simply a feint; the novel’s real surface—"the text up there”—is an authorial confession. “Way in the back of my mind,” the narrator reveals, “is an absurd notion that I have a responsibility toward humankind.” Here we arrive at the crisis of conscience particular to Solstad’s work, transcribed from the autobiographical into literary digression. For a moment, the narration crosses the threshold of fiction into political culpability; and then, just as quickly as it dissolved, we are back in Armand’s life, the author’s reflection concealed now by the diplomat’s visit to London.
Fiction, for Solstad, is a mirror that can be held up and hidden in the same motion, his image flashing by with the movement of his prose. We may catch carefully meted-out glimpses of the man in the framing of his narratives, but they are brief and elusive. In the end, he seems to be always on his way out, leaving his texts—whether written or not—behind. But what is left when the author makes his exit and the writing carries on? Style, of course: “Everything that falls into place is lovely to behold,” Armand V’s narrator, or Solstad, or both reason, “even if it precludes your own inclusion.”
Hal Hlavinka is a writer and critic living in New York City. His work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Tin House Blog, and Golden Handcuffs Review, among other places.