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I Do Indeed Feel Damnation Now

By Nathan Knapp.


Dag Solstad, Professor Andersen’s Night (New Directions, 2019)

One could easily be forgiven for thinking the protagonists of Dag Solstad, like those of one of his early influences, Witold Gombrowicz, often seem more like moods than characters. They are angular creatures, but certainly not round ones. Solstad does not flesh out his characters so much as cave them in on themselves. In particular, perhaps no other living novelist has plumbed the depths of embarrassment with such excruciating exactness. Solstad is an heir to post-Ferdydurke Gombrowicz, as laconic and playfully existential a writer as is living, though his characters don’t so much spring off the page as lay there in an alcohol-induced, anxiety-ridden stupor. His world is one of much drinking, but very little actual drunkenness. A permanent, self-annihilating hangover is always there: What happened last night? What did I say? Who am I? Am I?

Each novel—five so far have made it into English—begins like water circling a drain, then spends the bulk of its action (though action isn’t really the right word) stuck in the murky darkness of the pipes. Most of Solstad’s characters aren’t so much failures as never-tried-ers, and they are defined either by their inability to do something they would very much like to do, or by their inability not to do something they would very much like not to do. At the heart of these novels lie largely self-induced problems which the protagonists cannot, for any logical or even slightly explicable reason, overcome. Armand of Armand V. strengthens his son’s resolve to join the army, even though he is horrified, even repulsed by the prospect. He just can’t help himself: “there was something inescapable about it, he could do nothing else.”When the Singer of T. Singer determines—against his own wishes, and against the wishes of everyone else involved—to adopt the daughter of his now-dead wife, he stays up late at night, tortured by his decision, “thinking over and over about his new situation and how he’d ended up in it, of his own peculiar free will.” Even though perfectly able-bodied, the protagonist of Novel 11, Book 18 fakes a botched surgery in order to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. The narrator characterizes the urge as “his No, his great Negation . . . . Through a single act he would plunge into something from which there was no possibility of retreat and which bound him to this one insane idea for the rest of his life.” Though Professor Andersen, of Professor Andersen’s Night, glimpses a murder committed on Christmas Eve, he fails to report it, for reasons which become more and more obscure both to Andersen and the reader as the novel progresses.

Each of Solstad’s protagonists (all male, all roughly the age of the author at the time of composition) finds himself in an impossible situation, without agency. Indeed, the very notion of agency—at least as far as we typically use the word in American culture, meaning the ability to act freely—in these novels seems laughable, excepting the fact that it’s always possible to make things worse. Each has his only life, and the rigidly formed, nightmarish silence of it. If his characters act, it’s in order to deepen the general helplessness of the situation in which they already find themselves, sort of like turning on all the faucets in an already-flooded house. If they leap from the proverbial diving board, the problem isn’t that the pool has no water in it, it’s that there’s no pool. Ultimately, there is very little leaping. If his protagonists do anything, it’s grow older, a process that for Solstad most resembles immurement, the medieval execution-method of entombing a person alive within a wall.

While the wall is being bricked in, his characters worry, dither, prevaricate, and despair. They go for walks. They read. And while they read they drink too much, always alone. If they talk openly it’s only with themselves, or with an imagined person on the other side of the room. The day’s light fades. The season always seems to be winter, or almost-winter, or still-winter. I don’t mean to imply Solstad talks a lot about the weather, à la John Banville, who seems to be the self-appointed weatherman of contemporary literature. If anything Solstad does the opposite. There’re almost no descriptions of the weather, certainly nothing lyrical or dramatic, no objective correlative, no paeans to the long cold northern dark. And yet winter, the atmospheric state-of-mind that winter is—maybe I should simply call what I’m talking about death and its constant presence in the back of the brain, death buried in each black letter imprinted on each of Solstad’s black pages—is always present in his books.

*

Professor Andersen’s Night (translated by Agnes Scott Langeland) begins with its eponymous subject quite happy with the way things are. Andersen is a literature professor at the country’s flagship institution. He finds satisfaction in his work. Owns a closet full of Italian suits. Possesses a circle of similarly successful friends. Up to now his life seems to have been fairly satisfying—his is a stable world, full of stable meanings. He participates in life, both individually and socially. He is a part of things. Though alone on Christmas Eve, he is happy with the situation, and goes through the holiday rituals with a certain relish, though they meant nothing to him. He did not have to do it. He celebrated Christmas on his own, after all, and he was not tied to these customs with deep and sincere emotions.

So why celebrate at all? Answer: “he felt uneasy at the thought that he might have done the opposite.” Why’s that, professor? Well, “anything else was quite out of the question,” even though the whole Christmas ritual points “to a meaning of some kind which for him was meaningless.”  Despite this lack of meaning, the ritual comforts him. After all, he is a part, he’s taking part in the stable, even sturdy world of meaning—despite his awareness of the fundamental lack of it—supplied by the Holy Night. He’s cooked a lavish traditional Christmas dinner of pork ribs and set up a rather large Christmas tree (“Simply but tastefully decorated”), even though he freely admits he’s not the kind of person who sets up any Christmas tree at all, much less a large one. He’s got his beer and aquavit, to have “as one often does with this rich dish.” He’s cooked up all of the Norwegian Christmas staples, as well as those traditional in his family, such as creamed rice, which he doesn’t even like, “but he ate that, too, with ceremony.”

After dinner he opens his presents, given by his nephews. Both gifts are novels. Andersen is pleased. He throws away the wrapping paper but not the gift tags, because “handwritten names on a gift tag must be called personal when all was said and done”—even when there appears to be nothing personal about either gift, nor any particular attachment on Andersen’s part either to his nephews nor the practice of gift-giving. This is his life, these are the kinds of things he does, in the service of maintaining the meaning of things which he knows have no meaning—one could call them fictions—and knowing, without quite allowing himself to know, that if he were to fail to maintain these fictions that something much, much worse would fill the void left in its place.

Perhaps this is why he drinks so much. He downs his beer and aquavit with the food, cognac with coffee after, then more cognac. And then some more cognac. He goes to the window, and “lo and behold”—a sly nod of Solstad’s to the angel who appeared to the shepherds on Holy Night (“I bring you good tidings of great joy”!)—a woman appears in the window of an apartment on the other side of the street. At almost the same moment a man appears. The man strangles the woman and the apartment goes dark. Professor Andersen stares on, locked in sessile horror. Good tidings of great joy, this isn’t. Though he knows he should, he can’t call the police. He goes to the phone but can’t pick it up. Stands by the phone and can’t pick it up. Goes to the window and stares at the now-darkened apartment across the street. Walks back to the phone but still can’t pick it up. Goes to bed, sleeps badly. Wakes up feeling awful and doesn’t call the police, drinks, doesn’t call the police, stands at the window and stares at the apartment on the other side of the street. Christmas day passes. He doesn’t call the police. The next day he goes to dinner at the house of his closest friend, intending to consult with him about his predicament, but fails to bring it up. He can’t. He doesn’t know why, but he can’t. Can’t tell his friend. Can’t call the police. Now, even surrounded by friends, he’s apart, that most Solstadian of conditions. The rest of the novel tells the story of how he deals—and mostly doesn’t deal—with this knowledge.

The dinner itself constitutes one of the most extraordinary party scenes in all of contemporary fiction. Very little of it is actually scene, in terms of action happening on the page. There’s almost no directly reported dialogue. Instead there is an extended meditation on generational time, and a stunning dissection of the cognitive dissonance of Andersen’s (Solstad’s) generation as a whole. They feel they are radicals even though they are not, that they’ve subverted all that has been expected of them, chiefly because they have  all—right down to the last of them—refused “to be pillars of society”:

They didn’t feel they conformed: not to authority, or rather duties, which they enacted, nor to the social group to which they belonged. They denied being what they were. They didn’t feel they conformed to their given status. They were consultants, heads of administration, senior psychologists, celebrated actors and professors of literature, but in their innermost thoughts they believed, every single one of them, that they had not adopted the attitude that was expected of them [emphasis mine]. They were still against them, the others, although they could scarcely be distinguished from them any longer, apart from in small ways: they liked to wear blue denim trousers [. . . .] Nor were they being hypocritical. They just fundamentally did not conform in their own eyes, when all was said and done, to what they actually were.

*

Professor Andersen’s Night first appeared in Norway in 1996. If there’s a more striking depiction of the Baby Boomers in their prime, I’d like to see it: “They ate as became their position, resided likewise, had holiday homes and cars and boats and ever-increasing affluence, but it meant nothing, so they claimed, and rightly so.” Every generation has its nihilisms. And the Boomers—specifically the white, left-leaning upper middleclass ones Solstad so incisively describes—have been much taken to task for theirs in recent years. What really strikes me, though, about Solstad’s description of his generation, is how aptly such a description (“They just fundamentally did not conform in their own eyes”) could be made of my own. Millennials on the left—I count myself among their number—no matter how nominal they are in their progressivism, rarely admit to feeling conformist, even though intellectual difference is frequently less tolerated amongst us than amongst our planet-destroying forbears. Though we live in an age that not only tolerates but practically encourages intellectual policing, almost every one of us feels that we have “not adopted the attitude that was expected” of us. Unlike the Boomers, we’re happy to be pillars of society. We want to be pillars of society, precisely because the Boomers have done such a bang-up job of refusing to be.

Solstad’s eye for this sort of thing—his diagnostic, “weather-vane” clarity, to use Karl Ove Knausgaard’s description of him—is one of his foremost talents as a writer. His subject is not so much generational change as it is generational being, the expression of  And here we are, and Here is how we are. It’s an increasingly rare gift for a novelist to possess.

Of course, Time and Generation aside, Andersen can’t spend the entire novel picking at the scab of his guilt for not having reported the murder. (He could, but this isn’t Beckett nor Bernhard.) He has to worry about his vocation, too. Specifically literature. Literature and the way we receive it. He’s lately begun to worry the whole thing is a sham, that “this was something which humanity had invented in order to endure its own inadequacy.” His main focus up to now has been Ibsen, the big, late plays: The Wild Duck, Ghosts, others. There’s an implicit connection between his worrying over the capacity of literature “to stir” us, and his disconnection—though he observes the ritual of it—from the religious implications of the Holy Night. He worries that this thing he calls “the stir” has never really existed. That it’s a fiction we humans have come up with in order to make ourselves feel better. Or not so much a fiction as an illusion: he fears “no such stir has ever existed in connection with works of art . . . . Now our wild course has brought us to the stage where we finally have the opportunity to rid ourselves of yet another illusion, one I would so much have preferred to keep.” This sounds like Gombrowicz at his weariest in the Diary, or his younger countryman Knausgaard, or perhaps more than anyone else like Leopardi in his Zibaldone.

On a ski trip he confesses his fears about the death of his vocation to a colleague, a fellow professor of literature. His colleague, who is never named, doesn’t think things are so bad, though he admits that “everything is pretty black, really.” He continues: “You cast doubt on everything you can cast doubt on, and I must simply admit my situation in life is not such that there is any attraction in letting myself be tempted by your points of view.” He follows this dismissal with the suggestion that they need to “get a move on” with their day, otherwise they’re going to get caught in the dark. But Andersen of course gets caught in the dark. Because incapable of getting a move on. His colleague goes on ahead, skiing with smooth and practiced confidence. Andersen falls behind.

*

Solstad is the son of a devout Christian. In a Paris Review interview wonderfully conducted by Ane Farsethås, he speculated that if he hadn’t become a novelist, he might instead have become a man of the cloth—even though he’s not himself a believer. Andersen’s first name is Pål, the Norwegian equivalent of Paul. Saint Paul, as the story goes, saw Christ on the road to Damascus and was struck blind. Afterward he converted to the new faith and made his name preaching the Gospel. Pål Andersen, on the other hand, in the kind of inversion of which Solstad seems most fond, glimpses a murder, becomes blind to any cohesion or coherence which before existed in his life, and goes about doubting his entire existence. As he doubts he preaches the death of literature. In doing so he meets God—after a fashion. This is the God of Kierkegaard on a really bad day. The Absolute, demanding that Andersen go to the police. The Absolute, demanding he atone for his sin of omission. But Andersen knows he can’t do it. And that the result of this failure, for him, means a kind of damnation. “But can I be damned when I don’t believe in God?” he wonders. The truth is, it doesn’t matter if he believes or not. This isn’t a question of belief:

because I do, indeed, feel damnation now, I can’t conjure it away . . . . when I snapped my fingers and let a murderer off, I sinned against God. It’s strange, odd. I’ve gone beyond a limit, and when I passed it, I met something I found necessary to address as God. It was freezing cold and strange.

Implicit in this is the buried notion that a world without God is not a world without damnation, but rather one replete with it.

It probably goes without saying Andersen never reports the murder. It’s not that kind of book. What he does do, in the end, is take a bath. A really hot one. And so, Professor Andersen finally manages, in his fatalistic way, to get a move on. Yet he’s still fixed in place. Caught in the dark. Quite literally up to his neck hot water. We, the readers, may be finished with Professor Andersen—this holds true long after we’ve run out of pages—but he is not finished with us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nathan Knapp
‘s writing sometimes appears in The Times Literary Supplement. He was born in Talihina, Oklahoma.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 9th, 2019.