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.