Anguished cry of a soul survivor
Per Petterson finds inspiration but no escape in writing about his tragic family history, writes Ben Naparstek
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