It seems like every time I turn around, someone is bemoaning the slow death of yet another literary form. "Short stories are weakening!" and "The novel is in trouble!" are just two of the death knells I've heard recently. I read a fair number of book reviews, not to mention quite a few books, and I can't help but wonder if this hysteria is based a little less in fact and a little more in reader's fatigue. After all, mediocre writing isn't contagious, so all you need is one really fine piece of recently-composed literature, and the argument that all new fiction (or poetry or stories or...etc) is in decline falls to pieces in your hands.
Enter Per Petterson.
Petterson's novel Out Stealing Horses (transl. Anne Born), winner of the 2007 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, recently found its way into my hands by way of earnest recommendation. I was intrigued by the title, encouraged by the words of praise I heard, and of course, I needed something to read on the train, so I picked it up at a local bookstore. For a few days it sat idling on my shelf while I finished up another, now forgotten, novel. And then, one morning, I cracked its spine and opened it up.
I was drawn in immediately by Petterson's sparse prose; by the quiet, hardened sense of reflection that permeates the novel. Indeed, reading Out Stealing Horses feels a little bit like watching a movie directed by Ingmar Bergman - and not just on account of proximity (Petterson is Norwegian, and much of the book's action takes place in a village near the border of Bergman's native Sweden).
The book's protagonist, Trond, is a man growing old, but the novel is much more than a reflection on aging. Like Bergman's film Wild Strawberries, Petterson's novel is a meditation on the difficulties of living in the world - how quickly things can change, and how completely - through the lens of memory.
Out Stealing Horses straddles a pivotal summer in Trond's childhood and his experience of moving from Oslo to a small country village in his sixty-seventh year. Both halves of the narrative chart the degree to which Trond's life is haunted by the actions of others - even as a self-assured, older man, he is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to fully shake off the shadow of his father. But Petterson deftly brings into focus the difference between a teenager's struggle for independence and a grown man's rebellion against the gods: in his youth, Trond bucks against his burdens like a spring colt, full of anger he does not yet understand. As an adult however, and a widower, he simply tries to withdraw.
"I listen to the news, I cannot break that habit, but I do not know what to make of it any more. They say sixty-seven is no age, not nowadays, and it does not feel it either, I feel pretty spry. But when I listen to the news it no longer has the same place in my life. It does not affect my view of the world as it once did. Maybe there is something wrong with the news, the way it is reported, maybe there's too much of it."
It's a novel of solitude - the loneliness which we are dealt, and that which we choose for ourselves. Trond is an unusually sympathetic character because he is honest about his distance from the world, his inability to understand it completely. The book speaks in his voice alone, because his mind is the only one he can fully comprehend.
Despite its emphasis on isolation, however, the book ultimately left me wanting to engage with the world, because it reminds readers how easily a single act can alter a life, be it failing to come home for breakfast or forgetting to unload your gun.
I, for one, have lost my fatigue.