An­guished cry of a soul sur­vivor

Per Pet­ter­son finds in­spi­ra­tion but no es­cape in writ­ing about his tragic fam­ily his­tory, writes Ben Na­parstek

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WHEN Per Pet­ter­son worked in an Oslo book­store in the 1980s and as­pired to write fiction that re­flected his work­ing­class ori­gins, he looked for in­spi­ra­tion to the Amer­i­can dirty re­al­ist’’ writ­ers: Ray­mond Carver, Richard Ford and Jayne Anne Phillips. In 1988 Pet­ter­son was due to visit Carver with one of his Nor­we­gian trans­la­tors when the writer died of lung can­cer. Carver’s widow sug­gested that they come any­way; Pet­ter­son slept for four nights in Carver’s li­brary.

With their spare style and at­ten­tion to the tex­tures of ev­ery­day life, Pet­ter­son’s nov­els are wor­thy of the ep­i­thet Carver- es­que. His most re­cent, Out Steal­ing Horses, sold 200,000 copies in Nor­way, with a pop­u­la­tion of fewer than five mil­lion. Af­ter tak­ing out last year’s In­de­pen­dent For­eign Fiction Prize, it beat short- listed nov­els by J. M. Coet­zee, Ju­lian Barnes, Cor­mac McCarthy and Salman Rushdie to the 2007 In­ter­na­tional IMPAC Dublin Lit­er­ary Award which, at

($ 167,000), is the world’s rich­est lit­er­ary lau­rel.

A com­ing- of- age story with none of the kitsch or melo­drama that of­ten at­taches to that genre, Out Steal­ing Horses finds 67- year- old Trond San­der re­flect­ing on the trans­for­ma­tive sum­mer of 1948 that he spent with his fa­ther in a rural town near the Swedish fron­tier. A wi­d­ower since his wife was killed in a road ac­ci­dent, Trond ren­o­vates the se­cluded cot­tage where he in­tends to pass his re­main­ing years in soli­tude, while re­call­ing how, when he was 15, his horse- thiev­ing soul­mate be­came the un­wit­ting per­pe­tra­tor of an­other tragedy.

Over cof­fee dur­ing the New York leg of a US pub­lic­ity tour, Pet­ter­son is as jaunty and jokey as his books are brood­ing and dark; in con­trast to his metic­u­lous prose, he talks nine­teen to the dozen. Pet­ter­son sees Out Steal­ing Horses partly as a homage to No­bel lau­re­ate Knut Ham­sun who, be­fore be­com­ing an ar­dent Nazi sym­pa­thiser, wrote nov­els about alien­ated out­siders who wormed their way into tight- knit com­mu­ni­ties in Nor­way’s Arc­tic north.

Ham­sun’s nov­els de­fined what Pet­ter­son terms the Nor­we­gian kind of Bud­dhism, the need to go into the for­est for the soli­tude, to be alone in na­ture do­ing rit­ual things’’.

Pet­ter­son likens the in­ter­na­tional suc­cess of Out Steal­ing Horses to a freak ac­ci­dent but, with a per­sonal his­tory buf­feted by tragedy no less than his fiction, that is no light metaphor. In 1990, the Scan­di­na­vian Star ferry caught fire, claim­ing 158 lives, in­clud­ing Pet­ter­son’s par­ents, brother and niece. Pet­ter­son was sup­posed to be on board with his fam­ily, trav­el­ling to their hol­i­day home in Den­mark, but was for­tu­itously de­layed at the last mo­ment, so de­cided to meet them later.

Pet­ter­son’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel In the Wake, out in Vin­tage pa­per­back this month, opens as Arvid Jansen, a blocked nov­el­ist, wakes di­shev­elled and slumped against the door of the Oslo book­store where he once worked, un­able to re­mem­ber how he got there. Through flash­backs we learn of how he ar­rived at this nadir and of the deaths of his par­ents and two brothers in a freak ferry ac­ci­dent six years ear­lier.

Pet­ter­son formed a sup­port group with sur­vivors and rel­a­tives of vic­tims, pro­pelled by adrenalin for two years af­ter the tragedy. I was run­ning around talk­ing about what hap­pened. We ex­ter­nalised ev­ery­thing and talked and talked and talked. Ev­ery­body had three deaths in the fam­ily or had just sur­vived by one inch. Ev­ery­body was crazy, but no­body was aware of it.’’

Pet­ter­son hadn’t spo­ken about the death of his other brother, who died seven years be­fore the ferry dis­as­ter, be­cause he felt it had no sig­nif­i­cance out­side of his fam­ily. Af­ter the na­tion­wide mourn­ing that fol­lowed the Scan­di­na­vian Star in­ci­dent, he un­der­stood how his par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion some­times spoke nos­tal­gi­cally of the wartime years. You stood shoul­der to shoul­der with your al­lies, your neigh­bours. What­ever hap­pened to a fam­ily, there was a kind of shar­ing in it.’’

Writ­ing didn’t as­suage his grief. Writ­ing is not con­fes­sional,’’ he says. You should do ther­apy with your ther­a­pist.’’ Pet­ter­son be­gan In the Wake seven years af­ter the tragedy, hav­ing worked through all that he pos­si­bly could. I couldn’t have writ­ten it if I was in a frag­ile state,’’ he says. The novel is less about the ferry tragedy than the fraught fam­ily dy­nam­ics that it prompts Arvid to ponder. I didn’t want to be the Scan­di­na­vian Star writer’, writ­ing about the ship and all that hap­pened. A max­i­mum of four pages is de­voted to what hap­pened on the ship.’’

Most of Pet­ter­son’s work cen­tres on fa­ther­son ten­sions; his am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ship with his

fa­ther made the lat­ter’s death par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to come to terms with. His fa­ther worked in a shoe fac­tory and was an out­doors type sus­pi­cious of speech. As a teenager, Pet­ter­son re­jected his val­ues, only later ap­pre­ci­at­ing the love of phys­i­cal work and na­ture that he had planted in him and that per­vades his fiction. ‘‘ I re­gret that we didn’t talk and that I didn’t ex­plain to him why I sort of left him when I was young. I thought, ‘ I will some day’. And then he died.’’

In Pet­ter­son’s fi­nal con­ver­sa­tion with his mother, she told him that she hoped his next book would not be child­ish like his first two nov­els, which fea­tured Arvid as a child. She might not have liked his books but Pet­ter­son is sure she was proud of him be­com­ing a writer. She passed her days work­ing in a choco­late fac­tory, but by night de­voured great lit­er­a­ture.

To Siberia ( 1996) was a fic­tion­alised ac­count of his mother’s ado­les­cence in Nazi- oc­cu­pied Den­mark, fo­cus­ing on her re­la­tion­ship with her idolised older brother who died of a brain tu­mour at 25. ‘‘ When she talked about her brother she got this glow in her eyes,’’ says Pet­ter­son, who de­scribes his mother as a tough- minded wo­man who re­fused to com­plain about life’s tri­als.

When she talked about my fa­ther, she didn’t have the same glow in her eyes. So I un­der­stood from a very early age that her older brother was the man in her life.’’

Pet­ter­son dropped out of col­lege be­fore train­ing as a li­brar­ian, which he aborted af­ter two years. I fear aca­demics be­cause I think they know some­thing that I don’t. The book­shop was my univer­sity. For 12 years I read books all the time and talked with nor­mal peo­ple, read­ers and cus­tomers, about books.’’

By 18, he wanted to be a writer, af­ter read­ing Ernest Hem­ing­way and re­al­is­ing that the lan­guage and sub­jects of fiction could be drawn from or­di­nary life. I al­ways wrote se­ri­ously, but I never fin­ished any­thing be­cause I would see that it was crap.’’ At 34, Pet­ter­son com­pleted his first story af­ter a friend pointed out that he was al­ready half­way through life and that if he didn’t make a name for him­self now, he prob­a­bly never would. I was so scared that sud­denly I could do it,’’ he says. It was like when I stopped smok­ing; it re­ally ter­ri­fied me.’’

He moved to the coun­try in 1993 at the urg­ing of his sec­ond wife, Pia, a kinder­garten teacher. I had to move to get the girl. No chance in Oslo; she wanted out.’’ As he ren­o­vated the cot­tage in east­ern Nor­way where he con­tin­ues to live, in much the same way as Trond, he put to use the skills that his fa­ther brow­beat him into ac­quir­ing. ‘‘ It was like a blast from the past. I thought, ‘ Oh I should have thanked him’, be­cause I see now how what he gave me, by forc­ing me into the woods, was im­por­tant.’’

Pet­ter­son’s fa­ther never men­tioned his books, but Pet­ter­son is con­vinced that he read them. He re­mains a cru­cial, if un­likely, in­flu­ence on his writ­ing, which is spare in di­a­logue but rich in its de­scrip­tion of phys­i­cal work. ‘‘ My fa­ther couldn’t for­mu­late the things that were im­por­tant to him; he did them with his body. But when you are younger you don’t un­der­stand that what he has given you is some­thing other than talk. I’d like to thank him for that be­cause as a writer now that is ex­tremely im­por­tant to me. Talk is en­tirely over­val­ued, I think.’’

Cold com­fort: Per Pet­ter­son’s most re­cent novel, Out Steal­ing Horses , snared two lead­ing lit­er­ary awards

and brought him in­ter­na­tional ac­claim

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