As I have previously mentioned, Norwegian Tomas Espedal is always going to be compared to countryman Karl Ove Knausgaard, they address the same themes, one in minute detail the other in pared down broad-brush strokes. And when Espedal mentions reading Knausgaard, or when Karl Ove becomes a “character” it is inevitable that comparisons are going to be made.
In ’Against Nature’ (also translated by James Anderson) Tomas Espedal explored love, happiness:
For a long time I dreamt of writing a series of little books. A little book about love. A little book about friendship. A little book about writing. A little book for my daughter. A little book about happiness, et cetera.
The book about happiness could never be a long one, anyway.
Not a long book, nor yet a profound book, the language of happiness is straightforward and banal, there is no depth to happiness, or is there?
The book about happiness must be brief. Brief and fragmentary; it is impossible to create a continuous narrative about happiness. No chronology. No logic or sense, it’s impossible to write a novel about happiness.
The opening of the novel shifts in time and space and style, the lovers become Abélard and Héloïse from 1132, the story shifts to the first person, they become poetry, they are Ovid.
Imot nature (‘Against Nature’), was published in 2011, and Aret (‘The Year’) appeared five years later in 2016, a lot has changed over that time. Espedal is no longer exploring happiness, he is now looking at the loss of that love, paring back his prose even further to present a bare novel in verse. And instead of Abélard and Héloïse our author looks to Petrarch:
On Monday the sixth of April
Francesco Petrarca sees
for the first time.
In what’s known as the Laura note
which Petrarch made on a loose sheet
after Laura’s death
he wrote: That Laura
so famed for her personal attributes
and so long exalted in my poems
I first set eyes on
in my early youth
it was in the year 1327 in the month of April
during matins in the church of holy Clare
And in the same town
in that same month of April
on the same sixth day
at the same hour in the morning
but in the year 1348
the earth was deprived
of the light of her eyes.
So Laura lived
in Petrarch’s memory
from the sixth of April
to the sixth of April
she dies aged thirty-four.
When he saw her for the first time
she was thirteen
from that day on
he loved no one
Petrarch was twenty-three
and for the next thirty-one years
he would write his songs to her
and after Laura’s death
to her memory
in the great work Canzoniere
which has been called
a long and incomparable dialogue to the nature of lover.
The Canzoniere comprises 366 poems
one for each days of the year
from the sixth of April to the sixth of April.
Espadal is going to write a novel, every day detailing how he still loves his “Laura”, the woman who has left him, exploring for one complete year, from the sixth of April to the sixth of April, travelling in Petrarch’s shoes:
walking this Petrarch
leg so that I can write a book about love.
That’s what I want to do.
This novel’s first section it titled “Spring”, and it commences on the sixth of April, blending Petrarch’s teachings with self-reflection, anecdotes of writer’s festivals, journeys with his ageing father, drinking and melancholic musings on his unrequited love. He climbs Mont Ventoux as Petrarch did:
In a letter he writes
that he’s suffering bouts of depression
looks out of his window towards Mont Ventoux
and decides to climb the mountain.
The letter in which he describes the climb
is a masterly piece of prose.
Petrarch sums up the last ten years
and thinks about what is to come
his move from Avignon
his retreat to Vaucluse
the books he’s going to write there
simultaneously he describes walking
so that the ramble becomes a fusion
of reflections and description of nature
about climbing a mountain.
And when he and his brother reach the summit
that windswept height
where he enjoys the view
The joy of being able to see so far
Petrarch feels the need to dip into
which he always carries with him.
He opens the book at random
and reads to his brother: Men walk
to admire the high mountains and the great rivers
and the movements of the stars but forget to examine
leave the town
Espedal acknowledges that he is examining himself, “I” as a single line in the prose.
There is a reason that this is a “verse” novel, the only punctuation being full stops, you are to slow down, pause, contemplate, examine the minutiae, “Those who live busy lives don’t’ live at all”. It may also be a tool for the writer to document his drunken ramblings!
We are led to believe that Espedal is going to examine himself for a year, from the sixth of April to the sixth of April, and lead us through the seasons, starting with “Spring”, a period of love, travel and regeneration. However, the book doesn’t contain “Summer”, we move directly to “Autumn”, a time of dead leaves, refugees drowning. Espedal is in the twilight of his career, he’s fifty-three and has done all he wanted:
The Final Book
That’ll be the title.
Thinking about a new book
always makes me excited
and especially this one
which will be the last.
I want to write a book about death
a good death
the sort that comes when it’s supposed to.
Not the death that comes too early
which cuts short a life
not accident not murder not terrorism
not poverty starvation suffering from disease
or the long painful death
Rilke describes in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge:
Each has the death that suits him.
Not a romantic death
not a beautiful death
not the mystical death
nor yet the believer’s death
which Bach sings about in his cantata
Come, Thou Lovely Hour of Dying.
Not death as a beginning
of a new life
but death as an ultimate end
death that naturally results from a
the humdrum death
that most of us
die and will die.
This melancholy reflection taking place s Espedal contemplates the death of his lover’s love for him, the fact that she now lives, and loves, another, an ex-friend of Espedal’s, somebody he contemplates physically harming. He reads some letters, and the narrative shifts to the third person, Espedal is observing himself:
Some letters he reads
over and over again
it’s peculiarly painful
the letters she wrote
when she loved him.
I have never and will never
love anyone like I love you
over and over again
as if the letters have the power
to conjure up
many years after
she stopped loving him.
An examination of Espedal’s life, where his views on “climate change and catastrophe” sit alongside his “daily devastations” where the melancholic reflections are often seen through the bottom of a glass (or more to the point a number of bottles). The opening two lines of this book are:
I want to write a book about the seasons
spring autumn summer winter
And he’s only managed to have two sections, spring and autumn, is this an unfinished work or does an examination of love, love lost and death suffice? As per his previous works Tomas Espedal has managed to present an awkward examination of a flawed human, his journey through his relationships, with not only his ex-lover Janne, but also his daughter, his father. Another interesting work in the sequence exploring what it is to be human, he may have said that he wanted to write a final book on “death”, but the book that came after this one is titled ‘Elsken’ (‘Love’), it appears as though he can’t let it go (this title is yet to be translated into English).
The Year by Tomas Espedal is translated by James Anderson and published by Seagull Books, my copy is a personal copy.