The Unseen – Roy Jacobsen (translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

TheUnseen

Isolation, seclusion, subjects that have always interested me in literature. The vast plains, deserts, remote farmlands, mountain sides, all wonderful settings for introspection and self-discovery and now we have Roy Jacobsen adding to the locations choosing a single island, Barrøy (named after the family that lives there), from an archipelago of ten thousand.

“The Unseen” is a simple tale, a family story set on remote islands off the coast of Norway, and with slow contemplative language the feelings of isolation, of being cut off, slowly come to the fore. Even when discussing rubbish washed up on the shore, the introspection of a single remote family is the central subject;

On rare occasions they find a message in a bottle, a mixture of longing and personal confidences intended for others than the finders, but which, if they were to have reached the intended recipient, would have caused them to weep tears of blood and move all heaven and earth. Now, in all their indifference, the islanders open the bottles, pick out the letters and read them, if they understand the language they are written in, that is, and reflect on their contents, superficial, vague reflections – messages in bottles are mythical vehicles of yearning, hope and unfulfilled lives – and then they put the letters in a chest reserved for objects which can neither be possessed nor discarded, and boil the bottles and fill them with redcurrant juice, or else simply place them on the windowsill in the barn as a kind of proof of their own emptiness, leaving the sunbeams to shine through them and turn green before refracting downwards and settling in the dry straw littering the floor. (p19)

This novel has a deep personal connection, exploring the lives of the isolated family, their plans, dreams, battles. Three generations living in a home built, and renovated to accommodate the current size, one not sitting at the dinner table simply because there are insufficient chairs, their daily lives consist of planning to improve their island living conditions, and income so they can improve the quay, therefore connecting them, in some way, to the mainland. A work that shows a deep link to the environment;

It is a little under a kilometre from north to south, and half a kilometre from east to west, it has lots of crags and small grassy hollows and dells, deep coves cut into its coast and there are long rugged headlands and three white beaches. And even though on a normal day they can stand in the yard and keep an eye on the sheep, they are not so easy to spot when they are lying down in the long grass, the same goes for people, even and island has its secrets. (p77)

Although the islanders accept visitors, the local priest, fishermen, family from other islands, into their idyllic world, a stranger arrives by row boat, invading their paradise. “Nothing has been taken from the island, nothing has been stolen or destroyed. Yet the stranger has robbed them of the most important thing they had, which they can never regain.” (p138) The pervading sense of their idyll being shattered, the children needing to head to the mainland to attend school, the family battling the economic downturn and having to seek employment are all subjects bubbling along the periphery.

A novel that is made up of fifty-three short chapters, it is meticulous in construction, we even have a chapter on ‘silence’, the rarity and meaning of silence… “But silence on an island is nothing. No-one talks about it, no-one remembers it or gives it a name, however deep an impression it makes. It is the tiny glimpse of death they have while they are still alive.” (p103)

Progress, and financial realities, come to this remote part of Norway, with the family asking if their island can be included in the “milk run” where a boat stops by to pick up milk every few days, for a family used to isolation and introspection this is a major shift in their lives, however they must attend meetings on the mainland and there they hit bureaucracy and corruption;

Maria notices that no coffee is served, and that has nothing to do with the budget, and the conversation treads water for a while until it suddenly acquires a philosophical dimension, the admin officer remembers that for years Hans Barrøy has sabotaged the civilised world’s need for a seamark, a lamp or a beacon that ships can use to navigate, on Barrøy or one of its close-lying islets or skerries, after all his property lies right in the middle of the fairway, or more precisely, on its seaward side.

Hans askes what this has to do with his case and is told that the admin officer has had an idea, perhaps they can strike an informal deal, you see, his son works for the Lighthouse Authorities, so what about three calls a week on the milk route in exchange for them being allowed to set up a beacon on, shall we say, Skarvholmen, what does Hans Barrøy say to that, to this rock being of use for once instead of just a skerry in the sea?

He doesn’t know what to think.

It ruins his sleep. (p176)

One of my preferred titles on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist with the slow contemplative language and situations presenting the isolated family in a manner that suits their situation. A work that reminds me of previous Independent Foreign Fiction Prize or Man Booker International Prize longlisted works, and divergent from a number on the 2017 list. Translated by long time Karl Ove Knausguaard collaborator Don Bartlett, along with Don Shaw, the simple poetic language is a pleasure to read.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I think the simple subject matter will play against it when it comes to the main gong, but personally it should be included on the shortlist. It simply depends if the current judges still have a hint of Boyd Tonkin in their reading preferences or they are diverging radically from previous incarnations of the prize, we will know more on 20 April when the shortlist is revealed.

 

The Wreath – Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy Part 1 – Sigrid Undset (Translated by Tiina Nunnally)

I started my Classics Club reading with a couple of books by male readers, but to ensure equal representation and to ensure there is better exposure for female writers from years gone by, my Classics Club list of fifty works includes twenty-nine books by women writers (so I’ve gone 58% representation). About time I read and reviewed one.
My Classics Club reading and reviewing commenced with the Norwegian novel “Hunger” by Knut Hamsun, and now I pick up the Norwegian female writer Sigrid Undset. Both Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset have won the Nobel Prize for Literature being two of only three writers from Norway to have won the prize (the other being Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson in 1903). Sigrid Undset won the Prize in 1928 “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.”
The first novel in her epic “Kristin Lavransdatter” trilogy (the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition running to 1,144 pages including explanatory notes) is “The Wreath”. The whole trilogy following the life of Kristin Lavransdatter, starting with her childhood in Middle Age Norway;
Kristin was used to playing almost every day up here on the church hill and in the cemetery; but today she was going to travel so far that the child thought the familiar sight of her home and village looked completely new and strange. The clusters of buildings at Jørundgaard, in both the inner and outer courtyards, seemed to have grown smaller and grayer down there on the lowlands. The glittering river wound its way past into the distance, and the valley spread out before her, with wide green pastures and marches at the bottom and farms with fields and meadows up along the hillsides beneath the precipitous gray mountains.
From early on we leave of the child who is becoming world wise, she is learning that she is simply a small speck in the larger scheme of things. A classic rural opening to the novel, with the particulars of the village life being brought into perspective of the grander size of all that “spreads out”, and our heroine moving to adulthood through her experiences that are grander than the local events.
Early on in the novel the Middle Ages myth is very much to the fore, as our protagonist becomes embroiled in tales of folklore, goblins, elves, we have the Elf Maiden who approaches Kristin, beckons her with a wreath of gold…is this “The Wreath” of our title? Counterpoint to the mythology is Kristin’s father Lavrans, who is a god fearing pious man, wisdom and age lead to Christianity and faith?
As our heroine becomes older we learn of her arranged marriage to Simon;
But as time passed and her dowry chests were filled and she listened to the constant talk of her marriage and what she would take to her new home, she began to yearn for the matter to be bound with a formal betrothal and for Simon to come north. After a while she began to think about him a great deal and she looked forward to seeing him again.
As a young teenager, and arranged marriage on the horizon, Kristin is very much a product of her time, the independence and the role of a “modern” woman is literature is yet to come to the fore. Her prettier sister Ulvhild (although Kristin is “exceedingly beautiful…tall and small-waisted, with slender elegant limbs, but she…also buxom and shapely”) has an accident and becomes crippled, she recovers slightly, after the attentions of the local priest and the accused ‘witch’, Fru Aashild, now able to walk with the aid of a crutch:
Yet everyone said that if the accident had not befallen Ulvild, she would have been many times more beautiful than her sister. She had the prettiest and sweetest face, white and pink like roses and lilies, with white-gold, silky-soft hair that flowed and curled around her slender neck and thin shoulders. Her eyes resembled those of the Gjesling family: they were deep-set beneath straight black brows, and they were as clear as water and grayish blue, but her gaze was gentle, not sharp. The child’s voice was also so clear and lovely that it was a joy to listen to her whether she spoke or sang. She had an agile talent for book learning and for playing all types of stringed instruments and board games, but she took little interest in needlework because her back would tire quickly.
Written in the early 1920’s, the novel isn’t simply an historical account of Middle Ages Norway, it blends strong characterisation, historical accuracy with a headstrong main character, legends, religious fervour and romanticism. Of course, early on in the piece, we are yet to experience Kritsin’s independence, with the theme of a woman becoming a man’s “possession” prominent in the early stages.
Unlike the introduction to the Penguin Classic’s Deluxe Edition I won’t actually give away the storyline (note – I would avoid the introduction before reading this later translation as I felt it revealed too much and impacted the novel’s revelations), but needless to say we do have arranged marriages, love, scoundrels, and family honour being brought into question. To explain Kristin’s lost virginity…” the situation is such that Simon is too good to gnaw on the bare branch from with another man has broken off the blossom.”
Within 100 odd pages, our “maiden” moves to independence, falls in love with Edwin and takes control of her own destiny:
Up until the day when she gave Erlend her promise, she had always tried diligently to do everything that was right and good, but she had done everything at the bidding of other people. Now she felt that she had grown up from maiden to woman. This was not just because of the passionate, secret caresses she had received and given. She had not merely left her father’s guardianship and subjected herself to Erlend’s will. Brother Edwin had impressed on her the responsibility of answering for her own life, and for Erlend’s as well, and she was willing to bear this burden with grace and dignity. So she lived among the nuns during the Christmas season; during the beautiful services and amidst the joy and peace, she no doubt felt herself unworthy, but she consoled herself with the belief that the time would soon come when she would be able to redeem herself again.
With clever openings, the novel ensures you follow onto work number two “The Wife”;
A slight fear began to stir inside her – faint and dim, but always present – that perhaps, in some way, it might be difficult for them when they were finally married, because they had been too close to each other in the beginning and then had been separated for far too long.
As I alluded to earlier, the historical references are meticulously researched with the feeling of medieval times, through ballads, fairy tales, chivalry all building to a convincing setting. The role of women as “possessions” of men is not only presented through our main character but we have the accused “witch” living in “sin”, scorned women as their partners move on layered with the behaviour and chivalric actions of male influential members of society. A multi layered presentation of Medieval times. An example of the legends still bearing true even though a nation is moving towards Christianity is the family members witnessing the betrothed going to their wedding bed, unmarried women being the only females to wear their hair loosely, and the fashions of the times intricately detailed;
He was dressed in dark attire: a silk surcoat, pale brown interwoven with a black-and-white pattern, ankle-length and slit and the sides. Around his waist he wore a gold-studded belt and on his left hip a sword with gold on the hilt and scabbard. Over his shoulders hung a heavy, dark-blue velvet cape, and on his black hair he wore a black French silk cap which was shirred like wings at the sides and ended in two long streamers, one of which was draped across his chest from his left shoulder and then thrown back over the other.
The two further novels in the trilogy “The Wife” and “The Cross” are also included in my Classics Club reading so I’ll be getting to them over the coming months/years.
To read more about the Classics Club go here, to see my list of the fifty works I will be reading and reviewing over the next five years go here.

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Hunger – Knut Hamsun (translated by Sverre Lyngstad)

I was drawn to this novel, originally published in 1890, after attending this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, where Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, author of the successful “Beauty Is A Wound”(Translated by Annie Tucker), spoke, in his conversation he spoke of the influences, whilst at university, that led him to choose a career as a writer.  Thinking it must romanticise the writer’s life I purchased a copy a few months ago, and now I am participating in the “Classics Club”, where I intend to read 50 classics over the next five years, I thought a great place to start this excursion was with the tale of the art of writing.
Knut Hamsun was born in 1859 into a poor peasant family in central Norway, moving to Hamarøy at age three, an area north of the Arctic Circle, he became a “sort of indentured servant to his uncle”. Although ambitious to become a writer he became a scribe and reader for his uncle, worked as a store clerk, peddler, shoemaker’s apprentice, schoolmaster, sheriff’s assistant, and road construction worker before emigrating to America. There he lectured, worked as a farmhand and a store clerk before ailing health (misdiagnosed “Galloping consumption”) forced his to return to Norway. Scratching out a meagre living as a writer he returned to America to finance his literary ambition. Again, returning to Norway he eventually presented to the editorial office of Politiken, where the Swedish writer Axel Lundergård described him (via the words of Edvard Brandes) thus; “I have seldom seen anybody so down and out. Not just that his clothes were tattered. But that face! As you know, I’m not sentimental. But the face of that man moved me.”
Hamsun himself describes his book as “an attempt to describe the strange, peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starving body.” In a letter to an American friend in late 1888 he speaks about what the subject of literature should be”…The mimosas of thought – delicate fractions of feeling; one wants to delve into the most subtle tissues of psychic life. Delicate observations of the fractional life of the psyche.” (taken from the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition by translator Sverre Lyngstad).
After the publication of “Hunger” Hamsun went on to write a number of other celebrated novels, with two others “The Growth of the Soil” (1917) and “Victoria” (1898) also appearing on my Classics Club reading list.  In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil”. As an open sympathizer of the Nazi occupation of Norway he forfeited his considerable fortune to the state and died in poverty in 1952.
Why Eka Kurniawan chose the life of a struggling artist from reading this work is a conundrum I’ll probably never understand. Like Hamsun’s own life our story is of a writer living in abject poverty, attempting to write another simple newspaper article to fund his next meal.
These people that I met – how lightly and merrily they bobbed their bright faces, dancing their way through life as though it were a ballroom! There was no sign of grief in a single eye that I saw, no burden on any shoulder, not even a cloudy thought maybe, or a little secret suffering, in any of those happy hearts. While I, who walked there right beside these people, young and freshly blown, had already forgotten the very look of happiness! Coddling myself with this thought, I found that a terrible injustice had been done to me. Why had these last few months been so exceedingly rough on me? I couldn’t recognize my cheerful disposition anymore, and I had the weirdest troubles wherever I turned. I couldn’t sit down on a bench by myself or set foot anywhere without being attacked by small, trivial incidents, miserable trifles that forced their way among my ideas scattered my powers to the four winds. A dog streaking past, a yellow rose in a gentleman’s buttonhole, could start my thoughts vibrating and occupying me for a long time. What was the matter with me? Had the Lord’s finger pointed at me? But why exactly me? Why not just as well at some person in South America, for that matter? When I pondered this, it became more and more incomprehensible to me why precisely I should have been chosen for a guinea pig for a caprice of divine grace. To skip the whole world in order to get to me – that was a rather odd way of doing things; there was, after all, both Pascha the second-hand book dealer and Hennechen the steamship agent.
Despite our narrator’s suffering, and the example quote above, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity or spend his whole life acting as a victim, our story takes us through his mental anguish from extreme hunger, the hallucinations, despondency, the clarity of thought and the wanderings of his own mind;
So far not a sound disturbed me; the soft darkness had hidden the whole world from my sight and buried me in sheer quietude – only the desolate, muted voice of stillness whispers monotonously in my ear. The dark monsters out there would suck me up when night came on, and they would carry me far across the sea and through strange lands where no humans lived. They would bring me to Princess Ylajali’s castle, where an undreamed-of splendor awaited me, exceeding that of all others. And she herself will be sitting in a sparkling hall where all is of amethyst, on a throne of yellow roses, and she would hold out her hand to me when I enter, greet me and bid me welcome as I approach and kneel down: Welcome, my knight, to me and my land! I’ve waited twenty summers for you and summoned you on every white night; and when you grieved I wept in this room, and when you slept I breathed lovely dreams into you…And the fair one takes my hand and pulls me along, leads me through long corridors where big crowds of people shout hurrahs, through bright gardens where three hundred young damsels are playing games and laughing, and into another hall where all is of brilliant emeralds. Here the sun shines, beguiling choral music floats through the galleries and corridors, and waves of fragrance waft toward me. I hold her hand in mine and feel the wild beauty of enchantment race through my blood; I put my arm around her and she whispers, Not here, come further still! And we enter the red hall where all is of rubies, a foaming splendor in which I swoon. Then I feel her arms around me, she breathes upon my face and whispers, Welcome, my love! Kiss me! Again…again…
At times this novel reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”, with our hero here showing generosity in the face of all the doom, giving away his last possessions, his shaving vouchers, proclaiming to giving the policeman five kroner if he had anything. His descent into delirium from hunger includes chewing on wood shavings, castigating himself for his selfishness in needing money for food, assuming lofty characters to restore some dignity, which ends up with him not getting a meal voucher. This is a bleak portrait of a writer in despair.  
There are also numerous references to decline, decay, with bugs featuring, our introduction mentioning Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, a work published twenty-five years after “Hunger”.
I sit on the bench and write 1848 dozens of times; I write this number crisscross in all possible shapes and wait for a usable idea to occur to me. A swarm of loose thoughts is fluttering about in my head. The mood of the dying day makes me despondent and sentimental. Fall has arrived and has already begun to put everything into a deep sleep; flies and other insects have suffered their first setback, and up in the trees and down on the ground you can hear the sounds of struggling life, puttering, ceaselessly rustling, laboring not to perish. All crawling things are stirring once more; they stick their yellow heads out of the moss, lift their legs and grope their way with their long feelers, before they suddenly give out, rolling over and turning up their bellies. Every growing thing has received its distinctive make, a gentle breath of the first frost; the grass stems, stiff and pale, strain upward toward the sun, and the fallen leaves rustle along the ground with a sound like that of wandering silkworms. It’s fall, the very carnival of transience; the roses have an inflamed flush, their blood-red color tinged with a wonderfully hectic hue.
Our narrator remains nameless throughout, even when in conversation (which is rare) nobody refers to his name, and when he meets a girl our novel says, “After long negotiations we told each other our names.” However these are not revealed to the reader.
A novel full of darkness, with vivid descriptions of the dark (can you have vivid darkness?)
I lay awhile looking into the darkness, a thick massive darkness without end that I wasn’t able to fathom. My thoughts couldn’t grasp it. It struck me as excessively dark and I felt its presence as oppressive. I closed my eyes, began to sing in an undertone, and tossed back and forth in the bunk to distract myself, but it was no use. The darkness had taken possession of my thoughts and didn’t leave me alone for a moment. What if I myself were to be dissolved into darkness, made one with it?
We also have the movement of the seasons, in fact the novel is split into roughly four equal sections, personally I thought it may follow the seasons but both part one and part two cover some part of fall, with part three being the harsh times of winter. As I read I thought we would have a rebirth in the final part, a “spring”! You will have to read this yourself to find if that is in fact the case.
A novel that shows you can still have dignity in the face of downright despair, a disheveled hero, a narrator that has pawned all his possessions (he even attempts to pawn his buttons), one who is unravelling before our eyes.
I will be revisiting Hamsun as part of the Classics Club challenge with “The Growth of the Soil” (1917) and “Victoria” (1898) also on my reading list. A worthy inclusion on the list, and I can understand why Eka Kurniawan may want to be able to recreate such writing, but to want to follow our hero? I think not.

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