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Reading the World: ‘With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia’ by Asne Seierstad ***

With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia was the only one of Norwegian author Asne Seierstad’s works of extended journalism which I had outstanding.  I have found her work insightful and far-reaching in the past, and I admire the way in which she tries to present as many viewpoints as she possibly can.  The real triumph for me is Seierstad’s newest publication, One of Us (review here), which deals with Anders Breivik, who carried out atrocious terror attacks in Norway in 2011.  I felt that it would be a nice change to include a work of non-fiction in my Reading the World Project, as I have certainly gravitated more towards works of fiction thus far.

In her second book, With Their Backs to the World, Seierstad details ‘the lives of ordinary Serbs – under Milosevic, during the dramatic events leading up to his fall and finally in the troubled years that have followed’.  She follows those who fall across the entire political spectrum, from three visits which she made between 1999 and 2004.  After broadcasting about the Kosovan conflict in 1999 for NRK (Norway’s Broadcasting Corporation), she ‘couldn’t stop wondering about the Serbs, these outcasts of Europe.  This people that started one war after the other, and lost them all’. 9781844082148

In her research for With Their Backs to the World, Seierstad found that many people were reluctant to speak to her, accusing her of wanting to have her supposed ‘prejudices confirmed’, or saying that they could not formulate an understanding of what was happening even between themselves.  She eventually discovered thirteen individuals who were happy to speak to her, as well as one family, and interviewed them between the winter of 1999 and the spring of 2000.  Of her subjects, she writes: ‘These people together made up a picture, a mosaic of sorts’.

Translated from its original Norwegian by Sindre Kartvedt, With Their Backs to the World is quite often culturally fascinating.  Serbia is not anywhere that I’ve travelled to to date, but I would be interested to, particularly after understanding more of its turbulent history, and the way in which it is rising from the ashes.  With Their Backs to the World, in this sense, is both historically and culturally important.  The dialogue, however, is rather clumsy in places; whether this is a translation issue I am unsure, but some of the phrases simply did not sound right to my English ears.

One reviewer on Goodreads has commented that With Their Backs to the World focused on individual experiences at the expense of the wider picture.  I am of this opinion to an extent; Seierstad here seems to have veered toward looking at the effect rather than the cause.  The background of Serbia and its recent conflicts is covered in the introduction, but later information is not always detailed, which surprised me; I had, up until now, viewed Seierstad as a more meticulous journalist than she comes across here.  With Their Backs to the World was certainly more character driven than I was expecting, and the balance between characters and historical and geographical background does not sit quite right.

With Their Backs to the World is an interesting book in many ways, but I do not feel as though it is Seierstad’s strongest.  A slight niggle for me was that no information was included as to how the participants had been selected, and the practical details about the interviews – how were they conducted, how often, and in what language?  With Their Backs to the World was not as engrossing as I was expecting; indeed, it was a little disappointing in this respect.  There also seemed to be a real lack of emotion, which felt odd in the context of the whole.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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‘Professor Andersen’s Night’ by Dag Solstad **

Merry Christmas Eve, one and all!  I am wishing you a wonderful day today, whatever you may be doing.

Heralded as ‘Norway’s most distinguished living writer’ by The Sunday Times and as ‘an unflinching explorer of the plight of educated humankind in the inexplicable’ by The Guardian, it seems as though Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night will be a treat for readers everywhere.

9780099578420First published in Norway in 1996, this rather short novel was translated into English in 2011. The story begins on Christmas Eve, where readers will instantly recognise his frustrations with the holiday – wrestling with the lights and putting up the tree, for example. The third person narrative voice which Solstad has used throughout is interspersed with Professor Andersen’s muttered thoughts about his Christmas Eve supper – ‘if the crackling isn’t perfect, I’ll be furious, I shall swear out loud, even if it is Christmas Eve’ – and the way in which he finds himself alone at the time of year which is generally celebrated with one’s family. In this way, the loneliness and sense of melancholy which weaves itself through the majority of the book is founded at its outset: ‘He celebrated Christmas mainly because he felt very uneasy at the thought that he might have done the opposite’.

Professor Andersen is a middle-aged literature professor at a university in Oslo. Many questions regarding the man and his lifestyle are present in the minds of the reader almost from the outset. We wonder why he is alone, and why he seems so detached from everything around him. The main thread of the story comes when Professor Andersen, looking out of his window into the Christmas Eve darkness, witnesses a man strangling a woman in one of the flats opposite his. Little emotion is created as he surveys this scene, and the event almost comes across as an everyday occurrence in the way it is told: ‘She flailed her arms about, Professor Andersen noticed, her body jerked, he observed, before she all at once became completely still beneath the man’s hands and went limp’.

Although he feels he should call the police, he does nothing: ‘He went over to the telephone but didn’t lift the receiver… Instead, he stationed himself at the window… and kept watch on the window where he had seen a murder being committed’. Professor Andersen himself is clearly a complex character, but he comes across more often than not as a cowardly oddball, rather than as anything deeper.

With regard to Solstad’s writing style, some of Professor Andersen’s thoughts merely repeat the narrative in parrot fashion. Many of the sentences also seem rather too long and clumsily written, although whether this is merely a translation oversight or if it actually mirrors the author’s original manuscript is difficult to tell. It may perhaps be due to the stream of consciousness style which has been adopted throughout the book, as this does provide some problems of its own. The repetition of phrases is rather common, and it feels rather strange that there are no chapters or even page breaks included throughout. Several of the scenes are more drawn out than is necessary, and we never really get to know any of the characters as the book progresses. They are flat, lifeless creations for the most part, and the continuous paragraphs, which are filled with dialogue exchanges between more than two characters, can be a little confusing at times.

The prose itself is clinical at times, and rather matter-of-fact: ‘The rectangular curtains which covered the whole window, in an extremely compact manner’ and similarly oddly phrased sentences can be found throughout. There are few descriptions throughout, and even fewer scenes which contain any emotion whatsoever for any of the characters involved. Professor Andersen’s Night is not one of the easiest books to read, merely due to the style in which it has been written. Its telling is dull and stolid when it has no reason to be, and as Professor Andersen himself is not the most likeable of characters, a feeling of detachment on behalf of the reader is present throughout, particularly with regard to some of the decisions he makes. Not all of the loose ends are tied up, and although the story itself is interesting, but it could have been told in a much more inviting and literary way.

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‘The Looking-Glass Sisters’ by Gohril Gabrielsen ****

The first offering in English by acclaimed Norwegian author Gohril Gabrielsen has just been published by the marvellous Peirene Press, making it their eighteenth title, and the final instalment in 2015’s Chance Encounter series.  For those who do not know, Peirene focus upon translating European novella-length works, which would otherwise probably completely pass us by in the United Kingdom.

Translated by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters – first published in Norway in 2008 – is a stunning and intense portrayal of the relationship between two sisters.  Bergens Tidende, Norway’s fifth largest newspaper, believes that The Looking-Glass Sisters is ‘innovative and sensuous’, and Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, calls it ‘a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological’.  Here, Gabrielsen presents to us ‘a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other’.

Ragna is the elder sister, and has been tasked with caring for her partially paralysed, and thus totally dependent, sister since the deaths of their parents.  Our narrator, who remains unnamed, says, ‘I’m dependent on her help and goodwill…  But she ignores my cries, does not come, punishes me severely.  And repeatedly…  I have to realise that we’ve come to a watershed in our relationship as sisters.  After our last agonising quarrel, it looks as if she’s forgotten me.  I’ve been stowed away like an object among all the other objects up here – discarded and outside time’.

The prose style which Gabrielsen has made use of is gripping from the very start.  The story opens in the following way: ‘My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window…  Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth’.  She uses the simple yet effective technique of going back in time in order to build the contextual information, and to give us further insights into the tumultuous and often cruel relationship between the sisters.  The entire novella is deftly shaped, and Gabrielsen’s care and attention to detail mean that one is immediately submerged within the dark, stifling world of our narrator.  The very notion of everyday life, and those tasks which we perhaps take for granted, are examined, as are the ways in and means with which our narrator brings herself to cope.

The reader is soon called upon to be a participant within the story, rather than merely an overseer: ‘Imagine an attic.  Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world…  You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase…  It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top.  And it’s even more difficult to come down’.   The power of the first person perspective grows: ‘You place your ear to the door.  After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce…  Deep inside, among the dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed.  And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me’.

The Looking-Glass Sisters contains such interesting and original aspects of personality, and builds a cast of characters who feel – often horribly – realistic, particularly in their cruelties.  Ragna, for example, ‘is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of resistance’.  Gabrielsen’s prose, and those elements which she depicts, are startling in places: ‘Her little heart shrivelled, like the animal hearts in the larder that her sister cooks with cream’.

Gabrielsen shrewdly demonstrates that one can be with somebody every day, and not really know them at all.  In The Looking-Glass Sisters, she masterfully builds intensity, and weaves in elements of sensuality and control.  She shows the hidden strength of our narrator, and sculpts the overriding feeling that people are not always as they may appear.  The fact that the narrator herself is never given a name gives a whole new depth to proceedings; despite her lack of identification in this manner, she is still the most human depiction in the entire novella.  The stark darkness within the plot, too, unfolds marvellously against the framework of the northern Norway setting.

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‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Orstavik ***

Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room is the fourteenth book to be published by the wonderful Peirene Press, a publishing house which we are incredibly fortunate to have.  Their intention is to bring the best of European fiction to the forefront of our consciousness, providing us with powerful and memorable stories which will linger on in our minds for months to come.  The Times Literary Supplement deems Peirene’s publications as ‘literary cinema for those fatigued by film’, and as each is designed to take no more than two hours to read, they are the perfect treats to settle down with.

‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Orstavik (Peirene Press)

Orstavik’s novella, which has been translated from its original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, and is the first of her works to appear in English, is billed as ‘a gripping portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship that will send a chill down your spine’.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, believes that ‘The Blue Room holds up a mirror to a part of the female psyche that yearns for submission…  It then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers – a struggle that is rarely addressed in either literature or society’.

The first person protagonist of the piece is Johanne, a woman in her young twenties, who is living with her mother in Oslo and studying psychology at the local University.  At the very beginning of the novella, Johanne finds herself locked into her room, following her announcement that she is to be travelling to the United States the very next day with Ivar, a man whom she has met in her University canteen and fallen in love with.  When she discovers that she cannot leave, she says: ‘I cannot get out.  Something must have happened to the lock.  I’ll have to wait until Mum comes home from work to help me’.  She goes on to describe her surroundings: ‘This is my room.  Here I am.  Inside a small cube.  Floor area: six square metres.  Height: three and a half metres.  Twenty one cubic metres’.  Rather than trying to attract help from her window, Johanne, a rather devout character, goes on to tell us that ‘I’ve decided to leave it to God, to put my fate in his hands’.

The Blue Room is quite profound at times, particularly as Johanne asks a lot of pertinent questions throughout her narrative.  The prose which Orstavik has crafted seems rather innocent and naive at first, and the darker aspects of it come as short, sharp shocks, which the reader is never quite prepared for.  Whilst other elements are entwined within the plot – the love story, for example, and musings about different aspects of psychology – the relationship between Johanne and her mother is the novella’s focal point.  ‘We belong together like two clasped hands’, Johanne writes.  Her mother is psychologically cruel, and she instils such fear within her daughter, making her expect the worst in every situation.  She essentially cripples Johanne with doubts and fear.  As one might expect from such behaviour, The Blue Room is rather dark on the whole.  Johanne often has brutal visions which seem to come out of nowhere, and her self doubt creeps in as the narrative gains speed.

In The Blue Room, past and present converge to give the novella an interesting structure.  No episodes of Johanne’s life are quite separated from others, and the plot feels almost circular in consequence.  Orstavik’s idea is clever, particularly in terms of the plot spilling outside of the small room which Johanne is trapped within.  The story is unpredictable, and it has the power both to surprise and overwhelm.  Throughout, one gets the impression that Orstavik’s writing suits her narrator completely; Johanne feels real, and her vulnerability continually seeps through the cracks in her outer facade.  The Blue Room is a thought-provoking novella, which certainly deserves its place upon Peirene’s diverse list.

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