There’s a writer I want you to know about.
Photograph: Elin Hoyland/Elin Høyland
Norwegian author Per Petterson is the author of seven novels and one collection of stories. Titles of the English translations include (these are one that I have read) Out Stealing Horses, I Curse the River of Time, It’s Fine By Me, and I Refuse.
In a review for The New Yorker, James Wood observes that “[m]ost of Petterson’s protagonists are blighted by the deaths of siblings and the deaths or disappearance of parents; most of them are separated from partners or spouses, or are otherwise alone.” This might be explained, at least in part, by the fact that Petterson himself lost his parents, a brother, and a nephew in a catastrophic fire aboard a ferry boat in 1990.
In any case, I realize that I’m implying that Petterson’s novels are unrelievedly grim. They’re not, at least not for me. Instead, I find them beautiful, in the way that something can be beautiful when it is not written in the hope that it will be optioned by Hollywood, when it does not include scenes that are gratuitously sensational.
These are quiet novels about families, informed by the “intense, complex, anxious relations with the past” that Petterson’s adult characters have, as Wood puts it. “Their childhoods are flagrantly vivid to them … In Petterson’s work, the past ghosts its way back into the present with spectral power. It is always clutching at life, pulling at the sleeve of the present. Often, his sentences shift from present to past, mid-flow, without warning. But there is also joy in the natural and easy access that the novelist seems to have to the recollected stories and pungencies of childhood.”
Here’s how I Refuse begins:
Dark. It was half past four in the morning. I was driving towards Herregårdsveien from Hauketo. Just before Ljan station I turned off to the left over the railway bridge, the lights were red, but there was no one else around, so I turned anyway. When I was over the crossing and further down the road, past the shop there, they called it Karusellen, a man plunged out of the darkness into the headlights of my car. He was about to fall when I saw him. I hit the brakes, the wheels locked and the car skidded sideways for a few metres with a sickening appeal and stopped right by him. The engine died. I was certain I had hit him with the bumper.
And then he didn’t fall. He leaned against the bonnet, took three steps back and swayed. I saw the light flooding in through his eyes. He stared at the windscreen, but he couldn’t see me, he couldn’t see anything. His hair was long, and his beard was long, and he had a grey bag tucked tightly under his arm. For a moment I thought it was my father. I had never seen my father.
Wood continues: “In Petterson’s fiction, personal retrospect—the ceaseless backward gaze to childhood, to the dominant impress made by one’s parents, to all the remembered pleasure and pain of family history—is both a lure and a hazard. Reverie, dreaming, and memory threaten to immobilize the Petterson protagonist, to take him out of time, to set him drifting in deep waters.”
How each character succumbs to or overcomes that immobilization makes for fine stories, but more than that, it does what all good literature does: it makes us feel less alone, as we discover that our experiences are versions of one richly textured story shared by others.