Monday, May 03, 2010

Out Stealing Horses

This is the title of a novel by Per Petterson. It has been translated into English from Norwegian and I heard about it first on NPR.

Out Stealing Horses is excellent. I gobbled it up in a few short hours. Despite its slimness, the book has multiple layers as all good books have. I'm still seeing deeper connections in the story.

The blurb on the back of my copy of the book states:

Out Stealing Horses has been embraced across the world as a classic, a novel of universal relevance and power. Panoramic and gripping, it tells the story of Trond Sander, a sixty-seven-year-old man who has moved from the city to a remote, riverside cabin, only to have all the turbulence, grief and overwhelming beauty of his youth come back to him one night while he's out on a walk. From the moment Trond sees a strange figure coming out of the dark behind his home, the reader is immersed in a decades-deep story of searching and loss, and in the precise, irresistible prose of a newly crowned master of fiction.

Yes, it is that good. The New York Times book review amounts to a love letter to Petterson. A literary sun has risen! Long shine the son.

No, that is not a typo, that "son." I almost read the book as the male version of the three stages of life for women: maiden, mother and crone. It is almost an exploration of fathers and sons, men and violence and independence or isolation as a sign of masculinity. The "almost" is necessary. Very good books cannot be pigeon-holed that easily.

On another level the book is a long, silent howl of pain at all the ways fathers have failed their sons. On yet another level it is a book where women as human beings (as opposed to sexual beings or dreams) only appear fleetingly or send reminders of themselves from a great distance or death. The protagonist's father is an adored figure, an almost-god, even if he goes away when the protagonist is still a teenager and the only explanation is a letter which arrives to his wife, daughter and son:

It was a short letter. He thanked us for the time we had spent together, he looked back on it with happiness, but times were different now, and it could not be helped; he was not coming home anymore.
Best wishes. End. No special greeting for me. I don't know. I really thought I had earned one.

This does not stop the protagonist from adoring his absent father. Neither does staying and not leaving make him like his mother:

Oh, I did love my mother. I am not saying I didn't, but what future I could read in the face before me was not what I had imagined. Merely to look at that face for longer than three minutes made the world push at my shoulders from both sides. It made me short of breath, I could not sit still.


'Are you cold?' my mother said. 'There's a scarf in the bag you can have. It's not a lady's scarf or anything, so you needn't be ashamed.'

'No, I'm not cold,' I said, and heard an impatient and irritated edge in my voice. I have been criticized for that later in life, by women especially, and that is because it is women I have used it against. I admit it.

A moment later I pulled it out of the bag. It had belonged to my father, but I just put it round my neck and tied it under my chin and pushed the long ends flat down inside my jacket so they covered most of my chest. I felt immediately better...

Out Stealing Horses is a world of solitary men. Men who are self-sufficient, men who come and go, men who love and then desert, men who suffer, men who kill and men who put all this pain on their palms, then curl up the fist and squeeze until the pain has lanced itself deep inside the body, never to come out again. Because it is a very good book we can accept that one-sidedness without arguing that we should label it something different than literature. Possibly even great literature.

But would any of that change if we reversed the genders of the main characters in the book while keeping the writing as brilliant as it is? Let us see:

This is a story about a sixty-seven-year-old woman who has moved into the wilderness to begin the third act of her life. One night she meets a neighbor, another solitary old woman, and this meeting triggers a flood of memories from her teenage years, all centered on her mother, a difficult and brilliant woman whom she adored but who suddenly deserted the family. The book focuses on the mother-daughter relationship in the context of Norwegian history. The memories also cover her childhood friends: three girls who are sisters in a family where a dreadful tragegy happened.

Hmmm. I do not think that such a book would get the reception Out Stealing Horses has had. It would be seen as something women might find of interest.