Per Petterson

Tyson Morgan

Feb 26, 2013

I'm going to use my blogging opportunity to plug the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson. Spring's coming, and what better way to usher in the season than with some melancholic Nordic fiction? You probably don't need publicity if James Wood just did a piece on you in the New Yorker, but I'm still amazed that, at least given the people I've talked to, Petterson remains a relative secret here in the U.S. Which is why I'm going to gush for a while. I encountered Petterson himself before his work, at a reading he gave at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis a couple of years ago, an event that kicked off the U.S. tour for his latest novel, I Curse the River of Time. I bought the book, then consumed his other four novels--his other four available in English, at least--like breakfast cereal. I was completely taken by the intimacy with which his narrators relate their stories. Like Junot Díaz's Yunior, Petterson's narrators sound as though they're telling you a story from across a small kitchen table, and you two are the only ones in the room. His narrators speak in simple, speeding sentences that have a hushed, urgent feel. They're to the point, but hum along more briskly than Carver's or Hemingway's, and are typically gentler. For instance, this one from Out Stealing Horses:
That bus worked a stopping routine I never understood, but it certainly did stop often, and sometimes I slept on the hot seat in the baking sun, and when I woke up again and looked out the window, it seemed we had not gone a milimeter further, for what I saw was the same view I had seen before I fell asleep; a winding gravel road with fields on both sides and farms with white-painted homesteads and red-painted barns, and some were small and some were larger, and the cows behind the barbed-wire fences next to the road lay in the grass chewing the cud with half-closed eyes in the sunshine, and almost all of them were brown and only some had patches of white on brown or black, and then the forest behind the farms with its shades of blue rising to an unchanging ridge.
This intimacy extends to the atmospheres of his stories, even though they're often bleak. A Danish fishing town in winter, a factory in Oslo--the intimacy with which Petterson renders these settings gives them a kind of warmth. The same goes for the characters. They seem like quiet, hard Scandinavian stereotypes, but they're real individuals because they're so specific, and because Petterson is not afraid to dip into their thoughts.
I Curse the River of Time (Graywolf, 2010), his latest, concerns Arvid Jansen, a character one might call Petterson's alter ego, since he appears elsewhere in his fiction. Arvid follows his mother, who has just been diagnosed with cancer, to her small native hometown in Denmark. She hasn't invited him, she doesn't really want him there, but Arvid's groping to pick up the pieces of his life, his marriage having fallen apart recently. His mother's a mysterious, hard, sometimes cold woman--if your mom was something of a hardass, you'll take to her instantly--who appears in another Petterson novel, In the Wake, which was translated into English in the late nineties. Like I Curse the River of Time, In the Wake is another sort of family drama: a description, in fact, that fits all of Petterson's novels. The novel that followed In the Wake was To Siberia, which has nothing to do with Arvid or, technically, his mother, but the facts of the main character's life--a girl who lives in a small Danish town during World War II--roughly match those of the mother's, so you feel like you're still in Arvid's family realm--a bennie. The novel that followed To Siberia and preceded I Curse the River of Time was Out Stealing Horses, which is about a teenage boy who leaves Oslo to live with his father at his cabin on the border of Norway and Sweden one summer--and World War II figures in again. Out Stealing Horses won the Impac/Dublin Literary Award, and earned Petterson a bigger reputation over here. Graywolf just published an English translation of That's Fine By Me, Petterson's first novel, but I wouldn't recommend starting with that one--though it is interesting to see where he started. Try Out Stealing Horses or To Siberia. Petterson's gifts create a very inviting kind of writing. Add to that his ability to jump seamlessly between the present and past (none of his novels are structured chronologically), and you get novels that are hard to put down--they feel uncannilly natural.