In 2003 the independent and celebrated film maker Jim Jarmusch released the quirky “Coffee and Cigarettes”, a series of black-and-white short films featuring the stimulants, caffeine and nicotine, and people basically sitting around talking about the same things. In Kjell Askildsen’s “Selected Stories” we have cigarettes (plenty of them) and alcohol and people sitting around talking, but not actually revealing a hell of a lot about what they’re really thinking.
Kjell Askildsen, born in 1929, has been published since 1953 and this collection of stories comes to us via Dalkey Archive. This collection is made up of eleven short stories (just like Jarmusch’s work which contains eleven stories too) and these all share a number of common themes.
We open with “Martin Hansen’s Outing”, a first person view of a man who uses binoculars to spy, from an upstairs window, on his young daughter’s friend in the garden below. A lie of a visit to his brother by way of an explanation, (after a few brandies at home first) Martin goes out drinking alone. Solitude and musing about all the angst he contains, once eventually home he sits in the suburban garden, where all appears in order except for one broken panel in the fence, peer through this gap and you’ll see all sorts of deception and strained relationships.
Next up is “The Dogs of Thessaloniki” A simple story of a day in the lives of a married couple who no longer trust each other.
I got to the fjord close to a little outdoor café and sat down at a table right by the water. I bought a glass of beer and lit a cigarette. I was hot, but didn’t removed my jacket as I presumed I had patches of sweat under the arms of my shirt. I was sitting with all the customers in the café behind me; I had the fjord and the distant, wooded hillsides in front of me. The murmur of hushed conversation and the gentle gurgle of the water between the rocks by the shore put me in a drowsy, absentminded state. My thoughts pursued seemingly illogical courses, which were not unpleasant, on the contrary I had an extraordinary sense of wellbeing, which made it all the more incomprehensible that, without any noticeable transition, I became gripped by a feeling of anxious desertion. There was something complete about both the angst and the desertion that, in a way, suspended time, but it probably didn’t take more than a few seconds before my senses steered me back to the present.
I walked home the same way I had come, across the large plain. The sun was nearing the mountains in the west; a haze lingered over the town, and there wasn’t the slightest nip in the air. I noticed I was reluctant to go home, and suddenly I thought, and it was a distinct thought; if only she were dead.
Third story in is called “Elisabeth” and the third one in a row of people pretending not to see what is really happening in front of their eyes. We have Frank, obsessed with his brother Daniel’s wife. Another outdoor setting, under a perfect façade, with two brothers unable to communicate and Frank unable to communicate with his mother.
“The Grasshopper” is a third person narrative, Jakob and Maria a married couple sitting on the verandah admiring their garden with Vera and barely communicating. Jakob goes out for a drink by himself, without warning.
“A Lovely Spot” is a third person conversation, with yet another garden setting and another apple tree (temptation?). This time we have a couple arriving at the summer country house and they go through the motions:
– Isn’t this a lovely spot
– Certainly is, he said
Our sixth story is “The Unseen”, with yet another recurring theme, looking through keyholes and out of attic windows, spying on others. The story is about a brother and sister meeting again after their father’s death:
He went out the back garden and sat on the green folding chair by a round wrought-iron table. After a while he noticed the silence, nothing was stirring and there wasn’t a sound to be heard. He felt a sudden sense of desertion, of confinement almost, and he got to his feet. He walked between the narrow flowerbed and the even narrower vegetable patch, over to the wooden fence. He stood with his back to the fence looking at the house and thought: there’s no point in me being here. Just then he saw Marion; in the living room, standing a little back from the window; looking at him. She can’t be certain I’ve seen her, he thought, letting his gaze wander further. Then he crouched down and started pulling up weeds from between the radishes, while glancing furtively at the door. She didn’t come out. Then she must think I haven’t seen her, he thought. He carried on weeding, and gradually felt content, almost a pleasure of sorts, at the sight of the clean, well-arranged miniature landscape springing up between his hands. He stopped snatching glimpses at the door, she could just come out, he was busy, he had a whole vegetable patch in front of him.
Again, a tale of suburban bliss on the surface, and again another constant, alcohol and cigarettes.
“My Sister’s Face”, I won’t reveal too much about this one, but it contains whisky, beer, cigarettes, failed relationships and people pretending to not look at each other.
Onto “Where The Dog Lies Buried”, where Jakob opens his basement after the winter freeze and finds the rotting corpse of a large dog. Who put it there? “I’ll deal with this my own way, and we’re not going to talk about it anymore!” A break from the alcohol, but not cigarettes.
“The Nail in The Cherry Tree” contains more spying through upstairs windows into small gardens. It begins with a recollection of years ago when our narrator watched his mother put a nail into a cherry tree. Running to only two and a half pages our smoking narrator, Nikolay, returns home for his father’s funeral. Of course more strained relationships this time with his older brother.
Our tenth story is “A Great Deserted Landscape”, another first person narrative where an injured man, from a car accident, is at home with his sister on the day of his wife’s funeral. More wine, gardens, guilt, repressed sexual yearnings and strained relationships with family.
We close with “Everything Like Before”, where we have Nina who gets drunk all the times and flirts with other men in front of her husband Carl. He sits along in a bar and drinks to reconcile his thoughts, until she turns up….
Short story collections can sometimes be uneven, with some stand outs and a few less polished gems being included, but here we have a very even collection of works, all with the common theme of internalising issues. Strained relationships from page one to the last, people attempting to reconcile their angst, generally through substance abuse, and the façade of a pretty suburban garden all to the fore. Like fellow Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, this is a raw and confronting look at human emotions, however minutiae of daily existence may be to the fore too however the descriptions are more scant, the language exposed and our characters calling out for help. If only they’d open up….
A nice minimalist collection that leads us into the psyche of Kjell Askildsen, surely a tortured and cigarette addicted man.