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Posts Tagged ‘Scandinavian Literature’

I discovered ‘Doppler‘ by Erlend Loe sometime back. I love Norwegian and Scandinavian literature but haven’t read one recently, and so was excited to read this.

The story is narrated by Doppler. He lives in the forest bordering the city at the start of the story. He used to be a regular guy – worked hard, had a good job, was a responsible family man, with a kind wife and two kids. Then one day his father died. And then he goes cycling through the forest and trips on some tree roots and falls. He is not able to get up or call for help and while he is down something happens. Something in his mind opens up and lets in a new kind of light and suddenly he starts questioning everything about his life. Before long he moves into the forest and starts living there with a baby elk for company and the beautiful things that happen after that form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Doppler‘. Doppler’s narrative voice is wonderful and his sense of humour is charming and I couldn’t stop laughing at many of his observations. The book asks many of the big questions on what is important in life without providing any simplistic answers. It is not all wonderful and pleasant for Doppler in the forest and the book doesn’t shy away from depicting that. One of the things I loved about the book was the way the forging of new friendships is described. The way Doppler and the baby elk, whom he calls Bongo, become friends is itself complex, because it starts with a heartbreaking event, but when they start hanging out together, and Doppler starts treating Bongo like a human child, it makes us smile with pleasure. Before long Doppler’s son starts camping in the forest with him and he becomes friends with Bongo, and Bongo’s friend circle starts going up. There are three other fascinating characters in the story, with whom Doppler becomes friends, but I don’t want to write about them, because it is more pleasurable to discover about them yourself.

I enjoyed reading ‘Doppler‘. It was such a pleasurable read and I was smiling most of the time when I was reading it. I can’t wait to read more books by Erlend Loe.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“…as a cyclist you’re forced to be an outlaw. You’re forced to live on the wild side of society and at odds with established traffic conventions which are increasingly focussed on motorised traffic, even for healthy people. Cyclists are an oppressed breed, we are a silent minority, our hunting grounds are diminishing all the time and we’re being forced into patterns of behaviour which aren’t natural to us, we can’t speak our own language, we’re being forced underground. But be warned because this injustice is so obvious, and it cannot surprise anyone that anger and aggression are accumulating in cyclists and that one fine day, when non-cyclists have become so fat that they can hardly manoeuvre themselves in and out of their cars, we will strike back with all our might and main.”

“On the kitchen worktop there is the biggest Toblerone that money can buy. It weighs four and a half kilos; it’s over a metre long and as wide as my thigh. I’ve often seen bars like that myself. At Kastrup and other airports I used to fly on business before moving into the forest. But I’ve only ever bought the small ones. I’ve never dared to go the whole hog and buy the big one. It was being nice that held me back, I recollect. Always being nice. Small Toblerone bars are nice. They demonstrate a father’s consideration for his family. He remembered them. He thought of them. But big Toblerone bars are too big to be nice. They’re extreme and say dark things about the buyer. He’s got an eating problem. He’s lonely. He’s weird. He’s capable of anything.”

“It’s embedded in our DNA that we constantly have to be doing things. Finding things to do. As long as you’re active that’s fine, in a way, however mindless the activity. We want to avoid boredom at all costs, but I’ve started to notice that I like being bored. Boredom is underrated. I tell Gregus that my plan is to bore myself to happiness.”

“It’s become far more difficult to do things, and it’s become impossible to do nothing. Doing nothing is a very demanding job when other people are constantly on your back.”

“One problem with people is that as soon as they fill a space it’s them you see and not the space. Large, desolate landscapes stop being large, desolate landscapes once they have people in them. They define what the eye sees. And the human eye is almost always directed at other humans. In this way an illusion is created that humans are more important than those things on earth which are not human. It’s a sick illusion. Perhaps elk are the most important creatures when it comes down to it, I say to Bongo. Perhaps you’re the ones who know best but you’re extremely patient. I doubt that, of course, but who knows? It’s definitely not humans anyway. I refuse to believe that.”

Have you read ‘Doppler‘? What do you think about it?

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I finally dipped into the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic ‘My Struggle‘. The English translation of the first volume is called ‘A Death in the Family‘. I have been reading it for the past twelve days and finally finished reading it yesterday.

My Struggle‘ is probably classified as auto-fiction. So the story and the events described in it are probably all inspired by what actually happened. So the narrator in the book is Karl Ove Knausgaard himself, his wife is called Linda and the characters appearing in the book are all probably real people. I didn’t do my research to find out whether there are any imaginary characters in the book. So why call it fiction? Why not call it a memoir or an autobiography? The only reason I can think of is that the author wanted to embellish some events with his own imagination, and also wanted to avoid being sued, if a real person making an appearance in the book took offence. Calling a book ‘fiction’ and putting a disclaimer on the first page takes care of all that.

The book starts with a long meditation on death, which is quite insightful and beautiful. Then the story starts when Karl Ove was a boy and then it moves back and forth and flits through multiple time periods. In many places, Knausgaard talks about one thing, and then goes back into the past to describe a related thing, and before we can blink, we have entered a rabbit hole, and we are immersed in the past, and when we come up for a breath of fresh air, we discover that thirty pages have gone and we are still in the past, and we wonder what happened to the present event he was describing, and before we know the story flits back seamlessly into the present. It is quite fascinating. I loved these digressions. However, it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The book alternates between long contemplative passages and pages, and moving the story forward with events and dialogue. The concentration of the contemplative passages is more in the first half of the book, and the second part has more dialogue and events. I liked both aspects of the book, but I liked the contemplative parts more. I read many of those contemplative passages and passages many times, and at times I didn’t want to move forward and kept reading those pages again and again. They were beautiful and insightful and thought-provoking and delightful to read. Knausgaard talks about every kind of topic under the sun – art, books, music, football and an infinite variety of other things – and there is something in these pages for every kind of reader.

What about the story itself? The story is interesting and the narrator talks about every kind of close relationship we have with our family members. The narrator’s views and insights are honest and frank and unflinching and sometimes we might even find them uncomfortable. But they are always deep and thought-provoking. The characters are complex and well-developed and real. I loved the characters of his mother, grandmother, and the brother Yngve, but there are lots of characters, they are all fascinating.

Knausgaard’s book was highly acclaimed when it first came out. Zadie Smith said, “It’s completely blown my mind.” Another reviewer said that it “has strong claim to be the great literary event of the twenty-first century.” But there are other fascinating, insightful thoughts too. For example, you can find Lisa’s (from ‘ANZ Litlovers’) review here and Jacqui’s review here. You can also find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) thoughts on auto-fiction here, which compares Knausgaard’s book with others.

From my perspective, I loved the first part of ‘My Struggle’. I loved reading those contemplative passages many times. Some readers feel that the second part is even better than the first part. I can’t wait to get into it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“When I was at home on my own every room had its own character, and though not directly hostile to me they were not exactly welcoming, either. It was more as if they did not want to subordinate themselves to me, but wanted to exist in their own right, with their own individual walls, floors, ceilings, skirting boards, yawning windows. I was aware of a deadness about the rooms – that was what made me uncomfortable – by which I mean not dead in the sense of life having ceased, but rather life being absent, the way that life is absent from a rock, a glass of water, a book. The presence of our cat, Mefisto, was not strong enough to dispel this, I just saw the cat in the yawning room; however, were a person to come in, even if it were only a small baby, the yawning room was gone. My father filled the rooms with disquiet, my mother filled them with gentleness, patience, melancholy, and on occasion, if she came home from work and was tired, also with a faint yet noticeable undercurrent of irritability. Per, who never ventured further than the front hall, filled it with happiness, expectation and submission. Jan Vidar, who was so far the only person outside my family to have been in my room, filled it with obstinacy, ambition and friendliness. It was interesting when several people were present because there wasn’t any space for the sway of more than one, at top two wills in a room, and it was not always the strongest that was the most obvious.”

Have you read the first part of Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘? What do you think about it?

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Being in the middle of reading Knausgaard, I thought it would be nice if I could take out all the Scandinavian books I have and put them together. I discovered that I have just 12 books. Yes, a round dozen only. (Ignoring the Knausgaard books, of course – I have 10 volumes of Knausgaard). I have read some of them, and hope to read the others in the future. I loved Per Petterson’sOut Stealing Horses‘. I also liked his ‘To Siberia‘. I loved the first part of Sigrid Undset’sKristin Lavransdatter‘. Haven’t read the next two parts yet. I liked ‘The Laughing Policemen‘, the series which probably launched the whole Scandinavian crime fiction scene today. I also liked ‘The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat’, which is a beautiful collection of Scandinavian short stories.

I noticed an interesting thing in the collection I have. I always thought that I must be having more Swedish books when compared to other Scandinavian books, because I thought that Sweden was the regional powerhouse. But when I look at this collection, the three Swedish books I have are all crime novels. There are four Danish books (three by Peter Høeg – I want to read ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow‘ soon), three Norwegian books, one Icelandic book (‘Butterflies in November‘ – such a beautiful title!) and one Scandinavian short story collection covering all Scandinavian languages. If I add the ten Knausgaard volumes I have, Norwegian wins by a clear margin! Very surprising! Who knew!

Do you like Scandinavian literature? Which are your favourite Scandinavian books? Which Scandinavian language in translation have you read the most?

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I can’t remember when exactly I discovered Karl Ove Knausgaard. But I can remember exactly the time when he started to persistently demand my attention. That was when I read an article about books which were too big to be carried around and read in the subway or in any other form of public transport. One of the books on the list was Knausgaard’s ‘The End‘ which was the last volume of his 6-volume epic, ‘My Struggle‘. I added it to my list of ‘Epic chunksters which I hope to read, but probably won’t‘. I have been tempted many times since, to get that epic. I have always talked myself out of it, telling myself that ‘I will never read it, it is too big‘, ‘I got Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time‘ ten years back and I haven’t read it yet, the same fate will befall this‘, and ‘I have too many unread books on my shelf, I need to read them first.’ I thought I had come out of this unscathed, and I was happy about it, but then recently I saw the first two volumes of ‘My Struggle‘ in my friend’s shelfie, and it was the last straw on the camel’s back. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I went and got it.

So my friends, may I present the epic mother-of-all-chunksters, the one which will give Proust a run for his money, Karl Ove Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘ 🙂 (Who calls their lifetime epic literary work ‘My Struggle’? Why???)

I think there should be a word for an epic chunkster which runs to thousands of pages (the edition I have runs to 4008 pages), which is highly recommended but rarely read, which looks like a novel, but which in reality is a veiled memoir of the author. I think that word could be ‘Knausgaardian‘. ‘Proustian‘, you have been around for nearly a century now, and we love you, but it is time for you to step aside now, because the new kid-off-the-block has arrived, he is your 21st century version, and his name is ‘Knausgaardian‘.

One of my friends says that she reads a chunkster every summer. I loved that idea. So thought I’ll try to read Knausgaard’s epic, this summer. Atleast dip my toes into it. Then I read the great Yoshida Kenko saying in his book ‘Essays in Idleness‘ –

“Those who feel the impulse to pursue the path of enlightenment should immediately take the step, and not defer it while they attend to all the other things on their mind. If you say to yourself, ‘Let’s just wait until after this is over,’ or ‘While I’m at it I’ll just see to that,’ or ‘People will criticize me about such-and-such so I should make sure it’s all dealt with and causes no problem later,’ or ‘There’s been time enough so far, after all, and it won’t take long just to wait a little longer while I do this. Let’s not rush into things,’ one imperative thing after another will occur to detain you. There will be no end to it all, and the day of decision will never come. In general, I find that reasonably sensitive and intelligent people will pass their whole life without taking the step they know they should. Would anyone with a fire close behind them choose to pause before fleeing? In a matter of life and death, one casts aside shame, abandons riches and runs.”

Kenko was a Zen monk from the medieval ages, and he was talking about taking the path to enlightenment, but it is easy to take what he said and apply it to another suitable context. So, when I remembered Kenko’s words, I thought, ‘If I can read this in summer, I can read this in spring‘ and then ‘If I can read this in spring, I can read this today‘, and then, ‘If I can read this today, I can read this now.’ This is how the human mind works.

I have read the first few pages of the first volume, and it looks very beautiful. I have a poor record with respect to chunksters – I get started with enthusiasm, and then I get distracted after a hundred or two hundred or a few hundred pages, because real world tasks which I have kept pushing below the carpet, suddenly burst out and start demanding attention, or sometimes another book uses all its wiles to distract me. So I don’t know what is going to happen here. I have dipped my toe into the Knausgaardian ocean now, and I am waiting to see where it takes me. Please wish me well.

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