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Interview with Dag Solstad

According to some, Dag Solstad, who was born in Sandefjord in 1941, is Norway’s pre-eminent living novelist. From 1969’s Patina! Green! to The Insoluble Epic Element in Telemark over the Years 1592–1896, published in 2013 (both books remain untranslated into English), his reputation in Norway has not so much grown as become increasingly obvious. He is an idiosyncratic, at times impish writer, whose voice – insinuating yet direct, droll but aghast – is impossible to ‘unhear’ once you’ve encountered it. Completely modern, yet with a kind of classical poise (‘it’s new old-fashioned elegance’, as Karl Ove Knausgaard has put it), his books are funny and serious in the great European tradition. Knut Hamsun is the inevitable touchstone, but off-beat names like Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Witold Gombrowicz and Alberto Moravia are also inviting comparisons. He is the author of eighteen novels, along with numerous essays, plays and stories, and five non-fiction books about the World Cup.

 

The inexplicable under-representation of his works in English (only three books are available) will be corrected somewhat this year with Harvill Secker’s simultaneous publication of T Singer (1999), Solstad’s last ‘traditional novel’, and Armand V (2006). Subtitled ‘Footnotes from an unexcavated novel’, the latter is part of a recent flowering of formally experimental works.

 

A provocative political commentator (Armand V, containing a commentary on Norwegian acquiescence to US foreign policy, was reviewed by the then-Foreign Minister), Solstad was for a time an ardent Maoist, as part of Norway’s populist left-wing movements of the 1970s. His inimitably dry, humorous, reflective, restlessly proliferating and self-questioning style, and his unpredictable, carefully immersed, uncannily ‘real’-feeling stories, are starting to gain popularity outside of Norway, where he is regarded as something of a cultural icon.

 

Praised alike by writers such as Lydia Davis (who learned Norwegian by reading Solstad), Haruki Murakami and Geoff Dyer, in this wide-ranging interview conducted by email (Solstad’s handwritten responses were scanned by his agent), the novelist discussed his writing process, the absence of a British revolution, the problems of authenticity, intergenerational disconnect, and imaginary libraries.

 

Q

The White Review

— This year, two of your best known, most praised novels will appear in English for the first time. It seems fair to say the appearance of these books in translation feels overdue. You’ve said that with T Singer you ‘completed your authorship’ – could you explain what you mean by this? How do you see these two novels as developing on, or departing from, the trajectory of your fiction already available in English: Novel 11, Book 18 (1992); Shyness and Dignity (1994); and Professor Andersen’s Night (1996)?

 

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— After I had written T Singer it struck me that I couldn’t write any better than that, and if I wanted to, I could write a book like that every year. And that I didn’t want.

 

My authorship is basically finished, I said. What I write from now on will be a bonus. Something completely different. A completely new author. Of course, this was just a cheap trick from my side to keep going. But it worked. I avoided writing another T Singer, which would have been a total waste, and it let me write other novels I otherwise wouldn’t have written, to experiment in an uncommitted way, which actually resembles freedom, and it’s highly fascinating.

 

Q

The White Review

— How did these more experimental works emerge – such as writing a novel composed of footnotes, or making use of parish registers and other historical documents?

 

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I used some footnotes in my novel 16.07.41 (the author’s date of birth).  Three after the first chapter, and eight after the second and last chapter. I was a bit baffled by how much fun it was to make footnotes, there was a groove to them. I would enjoy doing more of them, I thought, and there the idea of a sheer footnote novel was invented.

 

To use church books and other historical documents when one writes a novel about one’s mother’s family, as in The Insoluble Epic Element in Telemark over the Years 1592–1896 is completely obvious, I can’t see how I could have avoided that.

 

Q

The White Review

— What is the experience of being translated for an English speaking audience like – becoming ‘international literature’? Do you concern yourself much with the translation process?

 

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I’m very attached to my Norwegian language, meaning, I haven’t mastered any language other than my Norwegian. It is of course a limitation, and I have tried to turn it into an advantage. What else could I have done? Learn another language? English, for instance? I haven’t had time for doing that. I haven’t taken time for doing that. The time didn’t allow for it. But as a consequence I’ve completely surrendered to a language that I can’t escape from. That means that I don’t have any prerequisites for how the translations of my novels ought to be. From what I hear, anyway, I’ve been lucky with the translations.

 

Q

The White Review

— Are there things that you fear won’t be communicated outside of the Norwegian language and culture?

 

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— When I can be completely immersed while sitting and reading page after page about dinner conversations between trivial and snobbish dukes and countesses from the French nobility around the year 1900 in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, it’s clear both authors and readers can cope with quite immersive cultural displacements both in time and space.

 

Q

The White Review

— For you, how does a novel begin? Do they in any sense proceed from each other?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— No. A new book stands completely isolated from any other book I have written. It sounds like I’m now contradicting my answer to the first question, but it happens to be like this. Every new novel is a new start.

 

Q

The White Review

— Could you reflect on the composition process of the novels? Do you plan much or, like the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia claimed, do you sit down to find out what happens?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I sit down to find out what happens, I think. I sit on a chair and stare into the wall. And then, something happens. I don’t plan anything beforehand, except now and then I have a feeling that the book is already written.

 

Q

The White Review

— Where do you work? Do you have any particular routines or rituals?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I work anywhere. Earlier I could only work well at home, in my study. Now I can work anywhere. At home in Oslo, at our summer house by the coast, in Berlin, in Venice, yes, even on the Canary Islands. At home, in Oslo, I prefer to work in the bedroom, which opens on a long and narrow corridor. In the bedroom I have my father’s writing desk, from the 1930s, and I sit and write at that, now, unfortunately, on a computer. I had to give up my manual typewriter as nobody could repair it anymore, and nobody produces typewriter ribbons anymore. In the bedroom I have (not to say ‘we’) an enormous bed, 3 metres long and 4 metres wide. There I put all my papers or notes every morning which I may have use for during the day. Now and then I have to take a break. Then I go for a walk along my long and narrow corridor, looking down and thinking about what I have done.

 

Q

The White Review

— I’ve read that the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz was a significant early influence. Can you talk about his impact on you as a young man?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Through Gombrowicz I learned to become fundamentally sceptical towards any idealistic explanatory model. Practically it means that I, as an author, should never attempt to appear to be ‘good’ or serving the ‘good’. This has been anchored very deeply in me, and for that I’m grateful. Thus I’ve never let myself say that my authorship is deeply humanistic, not even now, when I’ve become an aging man and probably could use it.

 

Q

The White Review

— To me your novels feel more ‘life-like’ than many novels which put a higher value on conventional ‘reality effects’ that are often elided altogether in your novels. Yet at other times the recognition of particular thought processes is startling. Is a feeling of verisimilitude important?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Previously, earlier in my authorship, the feeling of verisimilitude was of some importance. When I look back, I remember that I asked myself: Is what you now write actually likely? But now I prefer to think: Did this actually happen? Can I defend writing that this happened? Thus, to what extent it’s likely or not has become uninteresting to me. What counts is to what extent it happened or not. And that’s a terrible responsibility to have as an author. It can keep you up at night.

 

Q

The White Review

— When you say ‘actually happen’, do you mean that in some sense writing actually makes something happen?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— No. But: that I can defend writing that this happened. Most likely it comes down to a question about responsibility. About insoluble aesthetics.

 

Q

The White Review

— You often choose slightly opaque or dry titles – Novel 1987; Novel 11, Book 18; 16/07/41 – which seem to draw attention to the artifice of the novel. What is the appeal of these as devices?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I simply ape the composers. Fourth symphony, sixth symphony. Novel 11, Book 18. It solves the problem of titles. Good titles attract way too much light. It blinds side-effects which are almost always of much greater significance than one pretends them to be.

 

Q

The White Review

— All of the novels in English translation use a style of third-person narration which has a definite distance or coolness. Perhaps the characters also view themselves with some detachment. At one moment in T Singer, a sort of central moment of self-consciousness in the novel, you write that you cannot write anything that Singer can’t think, yet that you are not identical to him. This feels very significant. Can you talk about your use of this particular mode of narration, its advantages and its limits?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Yes, I remember this paragraph from T Singer, also because I found it necessary to say that it happened to be just like that, thus I wrote it, and I did it out of faithful joy. But normally I think that all novels are essentially first-person singular novels. My novels are like that anyway. If they cease to be first-person singular novels, and become a third-person singular novel, it entails a limitation to some extent. A limitation even before one has got a single sentence. In other words, finally we’re there where we are supposed to be, with our feet on the ground: now we can begin. Without a limitation like that I would never have the courage to begin. But I have also written novels that are openly first-person singular novels, and a couple of others in which it changes (as in Armand V). With regards to the first-person novel named Gymnasium Teacher Pedersen’s Account of the Great Political Awakening That Has Haunted Our Country published in 1982, I addressed the problem in this way: it’s the only novel that I have written in which I dignify the main character with the same pronoun that I in daily life, also in all secrecy, call myself.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you find the popularisation of ‘autofiction’ as a genre interesting at all, given that some of your novels explicitly draw on real events and occasionally your own life?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I don’t think so. I don’t define myself in relation to ‘autofiction’ anyway. I said once, or perhaps even several times: I want my books to smell of literature.

 

Q

The White Review

— You treat your characters with a particular formality – we never discover Singer’s first name, Professor Andersen is always Professor Andersen, and sometimes minor characters are not named until quite late in our acquaintance with them. Would ‘formality’ be an appropriate word to describe your novels?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Yes. See my earlier answer in which I said that I dignify the main character with the same pronoun that I have reserved for myself and only for myself. I’m careful to treat my main characters with respect, after all they are left to my ruthless power, and they do, one must admit, some quite questionable things.

 

Q

The White Review

— Norway is often viewed in the UK as a paragon of social democracy. Your novels seem to focus on the aspirations and failings of the 1960s ‘boomer’ generation – perhaps a kind of failure to reconcile social conscience with the intense individualism of the late twentieth century. Can your novels be viewed in part as a diagnosis of this situation?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Great Britain is a kind of class-based society which Norway has never been close to becoming like. As a Norwegian I have never understood why there was not a revolution on the British Isles. It is still totally incomprehensible to me. For instance, in 1989. Or in 1925? Or 1928? My depiction of Norwegian social democracy is different. More affectionate, I think, than if I had been British.

 

Q

The White Review

— Does the Norwegian political backdrop form a narrative arc for your fiction – in particular the idealism and proactivity of the hard left in Norway in the 60s and 70s?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— As a former Norwegian Maoist I’m sincerely surprised, yes, almost upset, that there have been so few Maoists in Great Britain. If I had been a British Maoist I probably would have described the utopian streak in my political views as something far more trivial and undramatic than it was in Norway.

 

Q

The White Review

— I’m not sure I understand why the utopian streak would have been described as more trivial and undramatic in Britain – is it because it would have seemed more straightforwardly oppositional?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Yes, I mean that in the Norwegian social democratic welfare society, which was the premise for my political development, to be an ardent supporter of the Chinese cultural revolution, meaning to turn every value upside down, was looked upon as a highly drastic thought. In the ultimately extreme class-based society of Great Britain it occurs to me that ideas like that should have been easier to come up with, so easy that they simply should come off as trivial, yes, banal.

 

Q

The White Review

— The Norwegian left seems to have been a lot more effective over the last century than anything we’ve seen here. I’d be interested in any thoughts you have about this?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I wish the current leader of the British Labour Party all the best, and hope the people at the top of the Norwegian Labour Party will start to listen to what he says and does. Besides that I don’t want to comment on the situation of the Norwegian-British left. I’ve become a political amateur in the end.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you have any hope for the left in the USA?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I’ve never had any hope for the left in the USA. But I rooted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

 

Q

The White Review

— In your opinion is it the duty of a writer if they become famous to be publicly political?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— An author does not have any political obligation to express themselves, as little as a plumber, a miner, a businessman or a professor has. In a democratic society it’s a strength that as many as possible of these contribute, when they are in need of doing so. Of course with the possible exception of the businessman, as in our society he does after all have so much money so that he can buy himself whatever he wants.

 

Q

The White Review

— How do you view the current state of Norwegian literature – is there any thing you would like to see change? Who do you think is the most underrated Norwegian author?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— About Norwegian literature, I’d prefer not to say too much, at least publicly, and outside the borders of my own country. Privately on the other hand, I have much to say, and say it also, to myself and my nearest. For instance, to the question about who is the most underrated Norwegian author, I don’t really know what to answer. If on the other hand you ask me who the most overrated Norwegian author is, I have a burning desire to tell you who it is. But I wisely keep my mouth shut.

 

I know of many very good, underrated Norwegian authors.

 

Q

The White Review

— Norway appears to be a country that values its writers and artists, often providing them with extensive financial support. Is the condition of being a ‘state-sponsored artist’ one that causes much anxiety among Norway’s cultural producers?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Yes, Norway is a country in which artists, and authors in particular, can achieve significant economic support through grants. It’s natural in small independent countries with their own languages, languages which until now have been the glue in their national identities. This is the case in all the small Nordic Europeans countries, in contrast to the big European countries, where the book-buying markets are so much bigger, so that it’s unnecessary for the French state, for instance, to intervene and support French authors so that the French language can survive. In Norway, over a fifty-year period, it’s been an unquestionable thing, and to be a ‘state–sponsored artist’ gives an author as little anxiety and paralysis as a linguist gets from becoming a Professor of Linguistics at one of the same state’s universities.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your main characters are often in the grip of a sort of extreme passivity, where they allow themselves to be carried along by life and events, seldom intervening, even in their own interests. Singer is perhaps to most obvious example of this, but Professor Andersen’s reluctance to report the crime he witnesses, and Bjorn Hansen’s bizarre literalising of his passivity in Novel 11, Book 18, seem to belong to the same species of behaviour. What is it about these sorts of characters, living on the margins of their own lives, that attracts you?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Yes, what is it about these people that attracts me? That I don’t know, but after a long life, well, more than 50 years as an author, I can, as well as others, simply state that this is how it happens to be. And I could add: may God have mercy on these fictional persons – and their author.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your main characters are often misanthropic and become more so as they age; more misogynistic also, perhaps. I don’t feel of course that your books are trying to make a point about this, but is there an element of critique intended in your representations?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I’m not sure if I completely understand the question. That my characters may have a complicated relation to women isn’t particularly stunning. Don’t you also have that? Or vice versa. By the way: I’m perhaps not the male author with the most female readers, but I brag openly about having the best.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your main characters have in common not only their quiet demeanour and emotional isolation, but often a despairing, stalled relationship to the younger generation. Does this idea of an intergenerational disconnect interest you especially?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I don’t think I’m that occupied with the generation gap itself. But it’s correct that many of my novels deal with difficult father-son relationships. I think it’s because the father-son relationship is a fundamentally hierarchical relationship, just like the student-teacher relationship, which many of my novels also deal with. In most novels, and I assume it will stay like this, the father-son relationship is seen from the son’s perspective, and from the student’s perspective in the student-teacher relationship. With me it’s the opposite. Therein I reveal a secret: I am a Norwegian author who is not a son under the influence of an evil father, but a desperate father who lies awake waiting for his poor son to come home lonely again, after yet another night of defeat as a young man.

 

Q

The White Review

— There are many resonances and shared patterns between your novels. Are they best understood as a suite of works, all of a piece – or even as serial reimaginings of the same basic predicament?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— That’s difficult to answer. The four novels I wrote in the period 1992–1999 (Shyness and Dignity, Novel 11, Book 18, Professor Andersen’s Night and T Singer) are reasonable to view as a suite.

 

Q

The White Review

— Would you describe your novels as self-effacing? In your view is it necessary for fiction generally, in its sustained encounter with another consciousness (for both the author and the reader), to be a self-effacing experience?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— Yes, yes absolutely. I also like your follow up question: Is it necessary for fiction generally to be a self-effacing experience? and I say again: Yes. Yes, absolutely to that as well. But what do I mean by that? I do in fact fully agree, but what does that entail?

 

Q

The White Review

— I suppose I’m thinking about the difficulty of regarding fiction as either a communication of the personality, or an escape from the personality. Perhaps neither seems correct. Is this something worth thinking about, in your opinion?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I’m not sure if I completely understand these distinctions either. I think I’d rather try to answer the question you asked which I in fact, partially, overlooked. The question was, ‘Your main characters are often in the grip of a sort of extreme passivity… What is it about these sorts of characters, living on the margins of their own lives, that attracts you?’

 

Answer: that I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I’m not crossing that line. View this in light of my answer to the previous question, to which, in answer to whether I would describe my novels as self-effacing, I said: ‘Yes, yes, absolutely… But what do I mean by that? I do in fact fully agree, firmly, but what does that entail?’ I do in fact fully agree but I don’t want to know anything more. I’m not crossing that line.

 

Q

The White Review

— In T Singer we orbit what you/Singer call the central mystery of Singer’s inner life – a mystery that remains inaccessible even to himself. Is this condition of internal neglect, or rather obscurity, something you regard as universal, a symptom of modernity, or something more or less specific?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I’m afraid of using words such as ‘universal’, but I do sincerely mean, since I have for years sought a public world for my novels, that my writings concern the people in my time period and my cultural circle, and that counts not least for T Singer. What you call ‘internal neglect, or rather obscurity’, and which I most likely would have called something else (did you know that I considered naming the novel about T Singer Child of God?), is meant as an attempt to find an adequate expression for precisely this.

 

Q

The White Review

— We’re often reminded as readers of your work that we’re within the confines of a novel. What is to be gained by pointing out the artificial nature of the people and events we’re encountering as readers?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— If it’s true that readers of my novels are often reminded that we find ourselves within the confines of a novel I’ve achieved a lot. Your question is inspired by a reading of Armand V I assume, but I hope that it can also be applied to my other books.

 

Q

The White Review

— There is a concern throughout your work with a problem of inauthenticity – often a moment that has serious repercussions for the character is one where they have been perceived to be behaving in a phony, disingenuous, or, in a less clear sense, ‘inauthentic’ way. At such moments they have been ‘seen through’ – as if they have in fact been correctly understood. So in a peculiar way there is something authentic about these moments. Is this feeling – of a pretence breaking down – connected to writing for you?

A

DAG SOLSTAD

— With inauthenticity we’re back to the start again. With Gombrowicz. My first novel Patina! Green! was a Gombrowicz novel, it built openly upon Gombrowicz’s ideas and the reason I wasn’t accused of plagiarism was likely because Gombrowicz was a rather unknown author at that time, thus few reviewers recognised it. And those who recognised it thought it was OK, as this was how a modern author in 1969 should appear: one shouldn’t at all costs cling to one’s golden pen, but learn openly and honestly, from others that had made an impression on you. The fact that I had written a Gombrowicz novel made me a sort of 1968-er. But time went fast in those years. In 1971 when I wrote my second novel, I had by then become a Communist, a Maoist. It can seem highly paradoxical, that I then intended to serve the ‘good’ cause (see my previous answer about Gombrowicz), and maybe it was. Anyhow it’s a fact that it happened to be like that.  Perhaps it’s located there, the incomprehensibility in my way of expressing myself. It’s more than 30 years since utopians occurred in my authorship. That says a lot.

 

Q

The White Review

— What do you enjoy reading most of all?
A

DAG SOLSTAD

— I imagine writing a novel. It’s about myself and all my libraries. I have three libraries, one here in Oslo, one in our summer house by the coast, and one in Berlin, where we rented a small apartment, now discontinued, and the books have been moved back home. I merge these libraries into one, and place myself in the library, and look around. I stand up and pull out book after book, writing down the author and title of each book. Walking from row to row of books and taking notes. To reach the ones on top I must stand on a stepladder, to reach the ones on the bottom I must crawl on all fours. In this manner I move from wall to wall. The novel consists of an enumeration of all these titles, from the thousands of books in my library, and ‘I’ in the middle of it all. In the end, ‘I’ say a sentence, an outburst, ‘What a rich life!’ In this way I finally get to write an optimistic book.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

's most recent publication is Safe Mode (Test Centre, 2017), an ambient novel.

Audun Mortensen (b. 1985) is a Norwegian author living in Oslo.


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