Friday, February 17, 2012
The reason a writer writes a book is to forget a book and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it.
Wise words. State Library of Tasmania, Murray Street, Hobart. February 2012.
Two contemporary European novels this week, one Norwegian and one French.
Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad is an odd little existentialist novel that explores the breakdown of the titular literary academic. The once radical Professor Andersen is now divorced, middle-aged and alone. Moreover, the distinguished Ibsen scholar believes that he has witnessed a murder on Christmas Eve which sparks a crises of self and purpose.
Despite the centrality of the murder and the vivid Oslo (and Trondheim) setting, this one is most definitely not a slice of Nordic noir. Long, rambling sentences of interior monologue follow the contortions of an academic mind defying rational intentions. The book is a little bit of a grind, as the central character is designed to be unlikable. The Professor’s crisis stems from the subtle realisation (and fear) of the pointlessness of his career.
Indeed, underneath it all his whole existence is nothing more than a charade of a poseur egotist whose youthful radicalism was a pose that has given way to snobbery and created a man unable to empathise with others, even when witness to murder! The moral paralysis he falls in after this inaction (and subsequent attempts at justification) is the cause of a breakdown.
For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it. Sure, the inner thoughts of a vain, vacuous academic can be tough going, but as someone who was once destined to academia I appreciated how it very much nailed it. Recommended.
Second up we have Piano by Jean Echenoz. A contemporary French novel that is at once suave, droll and dry. It isn’t a spoiler to say that we learn that our central character is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days (it’s mentioned in the third sentence). What follows is the tale of alcoholic French classical pianist, his death and (ultimately) his afterlife, Piano is a charming (if somewhat odd) novel.
Imagine an episode of The Twilight Zone infused with a heavy dose of French existentialism and you will have some idea of this book. The dénouement is heartbreaking, with an emotional pull rarely achieved in the genre (at least to this reader). Questions of religion, free will and morality underplay the narrative, but delivered with the lightest touch and making this an enchanting read.
Bizarre, incredibly playful and yet remarkably grounded, Piano is a very enjoyable novel. Highly recommended.