Thou comest into this world naked, and naked thou shalt leave
Oneiron, Laura Lindstedt (trans. Owen Witesman), Oneworld, 2018, pp. 368, £14.99 (Hardback)
Aetherial Worlds, Tatiana Tolstaya, Knopf Publishing Group, 2018, pp. 256 (Hardback)
T Singer, Dag Solstad, (trans. Tiina Nunnally), Harvill Secker, 2018, pp. 272, £14.99
These days, otherness and the enigmatic are out of fashion. ‘Oh I’m not sure. Can I think about it?’ – it would be fair to find such a question strange in an age of instant opinion. Perhaps zealous belief isn’t new – remember Yeats and ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’ – but ambiguity certainly feels undervalued, even unwanted. Just think of one of this year’s bestselling books, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos; instead of being a reflective, carefully considered study into how to live and why, it attracts and repels because of its strident attack on ‘not knowing’. ‘Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth’, a passage from The Book of Revelation Peterson approves of, and which illustrates perfectly his disdain for anyone he can’t convince. The unforgiving style gets plenty of attention – and is very ‘now’.
Thankfully however, many writers of fiction still prove less than willing to engage in permanent culture wars, with the best posing rather than answering questions. Three new books from Northern Europe – Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt (Finland); Aetherial Worlds by Tatiana Tolstaya (Russia); and T Singer by Dag Solstad (Norway) – are variously concerned with questions of identity and the meaningful life, yet (mostly) steer clear
from identity politics and absolutism. They tend to sidestep a restrictive, declarative clarity, relying on genres (supernatural fiction, the nostalgic short story and existentialism) that hold fact at an amused or disdainful arm’s length.
Although not without their faults, these works are a breath of fresh air for anyone tired of everyone else’s principles.
Oneiron is the most ambitious, if also flawed. Subtitled ‘A Fantasy About the Seconds After Death’, it is set in an unknown and, it turns out, unknowable white space, in which normal rules don’t apply. Seven women find themselves in limbo, without bodily functions or needs, while remaining audible and visible to each other. They communicate easily, despite their different backgrounds and languages, young Ulrike from Austria arriving last but understood soon enough by Shlomith from New York, Polina from Russia and others from countries as diverse as Brazil and the Netherlands.
The narrative is halting, even spare, as the women get to know each other, taking turns to consider how they lived and, crucially, died.
Why are they together? Why exactly them, and not anyone else? Who or what do they confront or exist in, now that they are here, wherever ‘here’ is? Lindstedt has a steady grip on her novel, keeping the tone serious and the meaning mysterious: there is no final reckoning, no deus ex machina, only female voices and thoughts, commiserating about bad lives, horrible mishaps, dodgy men.
The effect, heightened by a use of different genres such as newspaper reporting, scholarship, fictional realism and Swedenborgian mysticism, is both strange and estranging. Regret, mutual sympathy and fear are everything.
Nonetheless, Oneiron is marred by a lack of wit, which threatens to sink the whole endeavour. The overarching idea is fascinating: what is life and who are we when we die? And yet, the novel can be unforgivably mean;
all the female protagonists are damaged but sympathetic; every single man mentioned from their pasts was a threat or transgressor: adulterers, aggressive misfits, sexual predators, murderers – even Hitler gets a look in. It’s a shame, because it’s so unnecessary; it’s as if Lindstedt doesn’t think men die too. Thankfully, however, the misandry remains secondary, keeping the focus of this wonderfully peculiar novel on unknown death.
Aetherial Worlds is also populated by female narrators, but although several are annoyed with or frightened by men, others also dream of sleeping with them or conspiring against love rivals together, or fondly remember fathers, grandfathers and odd workmen shirking responsibilities but telling good stories. Tolstaya’s sensibility is heartening: she is more concerned with personalities and actions rather than gender identity, which, after all, can often be the least interesting thing about someone.
Where Oneiron is set in a terrible future while trying to make sense of the past, Aetherial Worlds’s stories are typically set in a calm, cold present, against which the past comes alive with affectionate, nostalgic or bittersweet detail. Many of the stories are set in America, France or Russia, with the narrator remembering a rich childhood or her attempt to find a home and a man to love (even if he is inconveniently married).
Having to leave home, as in the title story ‘Aetherial Worlds’, in which the narrator buys a dilapidated American house out of love and is confronted by a series of grotesques coming and going through its rooms, is the ultimate pain:
Thou comest naked into this world, and naked thou shalt leave. I stood at the fork in the road, looking. Yanked out the needle from my heart and walked away.
There is similar resigned, rich if agonised remembrance in ‘The Invisible Maiden’, tracing a Russian family’s time at a dacha:
We would enter the damp rooms, thick with the wonderful scent
of stale linen tablecloths; of blankets abandoned for the winter; of plywood from the walls and old glue that seeped form the furniture due to moisture; of ancient rubber boots that were exiled here, to the country, for hard labour.
The story ends with a subdued flourish: the family and its past have thinned out and only the narrator’s voice is left to recall it. This is deeply reminiscent of other Russian stories, such as Tarkovsky’s films around an out-of-reach domestic bliss and anguished present (e.g. Solaris).
Though Tolstaya can write flatly at times – it remains as hard as ever to capture a humdrum present with true inspiration – Aetherial Worlds is instantly recognisable as Russian literature: sometimes fantastical or dreamlike, realistic but also disappointed with the present, most alive when it turns to lost love and an idealised vision of how things used to be.
T Singer, by Dag Solstad, is the most traditional and, read superficially, apparently the least ambitious of the works under review. The story is deeply familiar: Singer, the protagonist, is the existential young man, lost in the world and himself. This has been done so many times by so many different writers that one could be forgiven for passing over this novel. Don’t we know about this sort of thing already?
And yet to skip over T Singer would be a mistake: Solstad shows a profound awareness of what he’s doing and is entirely at home in portraying Singer’s life: this is respect and love for literary tradition at its best. The author has a genuine curiosity about existentialism (loneliness and alienation didn’t die quite yet) and Singer comes to troubled life as though no-one else like him existed before. The novel, slow, ponderous and at first simply strange, becomes quietly devastating, the utter remoteness of Singer’s life unalleviated by his job as a librarian, his marriage, the death of his wife and his guardianship of her daughter.
Most painfully, the narrator pauses on Singer’s marriage, speculating about how much he must have annoyed his wife:
Can we picture Merete Saethre brooding when we bring up the matter of her husband’s distant attitude? At the very least [she was]…suspicious about almost every word and gesture he might offer that wasn’t connected to this distant attitude (these joyless routine movements).
Even when he says something as uncontroversial and friendly as ‘Oh, I have such a craving for spaghetti with pesto. Could we make that for dinner?’ she feels at once his heart isn’t in it.
Singer thinks and thinks, forgetting all the while to live. Although he desires and then achieves marriage and a steady profession, this doesn’t change his perpetual surprise at finding himself in the world. He is shadowy while carrying out incessant internal conversations about hypothetical situations.
One can imagine impatience with T Singer from readers wishing for a stronger political point of view on the world (who cares, you might hear them say, about emotionally and professionally stunted white men?), and yet Singer’s heart and soul are so mysterious that they undercut superficial statements about gender, race and sexuality.
Loneliness, Solstad says crushingly, creeps in before and after everything.
Taken together, Oneiron, Aetherial Worlds and T Singer express a profound ambivalence about the world, with the occasional exception of Lindstedt when she writes off all men as suspect and inhuman (polemics of this kind ring false in literature). Mostly, the authors treat past, present and future as different manifestations of how to live. Regret, boredom and fear are lightened – and sometimes, particularly by Tolstaya – transfigured by desire and love. Such transfiguration happens by chance – narrators and protagonists cannot plan for it – but the memory of having once been in love makes even the ghostly figure of Solstad’s Singer more rounded.
Ultimately, the three authors imply impatience with rules and restrictions. Never mind being sure about how to live as long as you have love, or the
chance of it. In the end, all is either lost or changed beyond recognition, with only the memory of the best in life remaining – perhaps.
That sounds less bleak, to my mind, than the fire and fury of people who lay down the law.