Thou comest into this world naked, and naked thou shalt leave

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - An­dre van Loon

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.

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