Theater of Cruelty

"Slowly, word for word – if you want to understand what I'm saying."

Forfatter: Diverse
Forlag: (Norge)
DAY SOLSTAD / There are now over 400 pages of critical interpretation and analysis of Dag Solstad's novel literature – from the philosophical journal Agora.


The journal AgoraJornal for metaphysical speculation is now out with a special issue with newly written essays about Dag Solstads literature

Around 15 different contributors, most with self-selected themes, get to frolic in their favorite sport in over 400 pages – critical interpretation and analysis of Dag Solstad's novels. With heavy academic names like Eivind Tjønneland and Erik Bjerck Hagen at the helm, this could quickly become an internal exercise, but it will not be. The fresh, young and not least markedly extra-academic elements contribute to making this quite a spectacular performance. The articles are recommended to be read as Solstad requested for the Telemark novel: "Slowly, word for word – if you want to understand what I'm saying." The publication shows an impressive breadth, with relevant contributions, and invites the reader along on an educational journey led by infectious enthusiasm.

"Dag Solstad is, at the age of 81, the most admired Norwegian novelist of his generation. Despite his pronounced reader-unfriendly attitude {…}, Solstad has been read, discussed and liked by readers, critics, literary researchers and fellow authors for over fifty years.” This is how editor Frode Helmich Pedersen writes about Solstad's long-term and international popularity in his introduction to the special issue.

The book's purpose is, among other things, to describe the impenetrable reasons why Solstad has achieved its unique position. Possible approaches are the author's eminent interpretations of the zeitgeist, his iconic counter-images of the 68s' resistance to the public decay of the 90s – which include memes such as Rukla's umbrella and Bjørn Hansen's wheelchair.

From Asnes to existentialism

A text that occupies a special place in the text corpus is Solstad's second novel, Arild Asnes 1970, which depicts the development from independent intellectual to communist. Other key works of the 70s are 25 September square and the war trilogy (Deceit. Førkrigsår, War. 1940 og Bread and weapons). The majority of works analyzed are from the 1970s and 80s.

Existentialism, which motivates the role play already in the debut book Irr! Green!, is of a lifelong nature at Solstad. In the Bjørn Hansen trilogy (1992-2019), the pondering of existence becomes increasingly introspective.

Having said this, this Agora publication deals with a number of other aspects of Solstad's literature. Here are essays and articles about football in Solstad's writing, about Proust and love, paternal relationships and Thomas Mann, modernism and realism, and about the historical novel. There are three articles in particular that I want to touch on, with lines to each other, as well as to the authorship more generally.

The book's purpose is, among other things, to describe the impenetrable reasons why Solstad has achieved its unique position

Eivind Tjønneland writes about sentimentality and impossible dreams mainly based on one work, Arild Asnes# 1970. Kjersti Irene Aarstein also mentions Asnes, but in her analysis of pedagogy, which is diametrically different from Tjønneland's depth psychology, is Roman 1987 the central work. Aarstein also raises questions that directly or indirectly affect whether a true-to-life 'literature of reality' will be possible. Both articles can be usefully supplemented by reading a third article, by Even Just right.

Arild Asnes – a wretched sentimentality

In the critical essay "Oh, impossible dream of masses!" Eivind Tjønneland aims to show how Asnes' raw love-hate relationship with the masses subconsciously underpins and characterizes his entire Marxist-Leninist project.

The important thing to see is that both the starting point and the end point of the story is how the main character emotionally relates to the crowd, while the intellectual dimension plays a far smaller role than in a typical Solstad novel. Asnes aestheticizes politics in the best Benjamin style. He feeds, according to Tjønneland, on a feeling of disaster, a double relationship where the character both dreams of being swallowed up by the mass and fears being consumed by it. An ambivalent relationship with the woman, which is projected onto the mass, is linked to the 'train' – both as a means of transport and as the one that only departs on 1 May. A central metaphor is the 'river', and Mao's famous swim as a symbol of rebirth. Arild Asnes is driven by a dull sentimentality, which prevents a genuinely intellectual and well-thought-out commitment. The motivation takes the form of an enormous longing for the mass or the people, an impossible project, since the free intellectual artist is by definition on the other side of the fence.

It remains somewhat unclear whether Tjønneland's criticism refers to both the narrator (Asnes) and author Solstad, without this actually making the essay less interesting. In any case, the criticism can be transferred to include the ML movement itself as a psychological phenomenon.

Fjord – cunning character

Kjersti Aarstein assumes in his well-written article a completely different perspective on Solstad's "repentance books". She initially chooses to watch Roman 1987 as a pedagogical-didactic project, put into the mouth of the novel's main character, Fjord, who has become a university lecturer. In Fjord's negative pedagogy, the gaze on history plays a leading role, and in a version that is very recognizable in the later Solstad. We should not recognize ourselves in the storytelling, we must not think that we can understand historical events by comparing them with our time.

For Fjord, this view has resulted in a distinctive form of didacticism, echoing both Søren Kierkegaard's indirect message and Bertolt Brecht's 'illusion break', a method that prevents the audience from becoming involved in the theater characters and allows the emotions to take over for the thinking. Fjord thus appears in Aarstein's lighting as a cunning and intellectual character, in contrast to the sentimental Asnes in Tjønneland.

Reality literature

The last topic I will briefly discuss is Solstad's positioning in relation to the so-called literature of reality. The topic is primarily discussed in an article by Inga H. Undheim, in which, based on Øyvind Pålshaugen's book on how Solstad should be read, she inquires how Solstad's own view on the writing of novels and the reading of his literature stands in the real-life debate.

Solstad has, Undheim writes, constantly described the absolute distance between person and work – most recently in the essay The journey away from Sandefjord, performed on the occasion of the author's 75th anniversary. Maintaining such a strict separation is necessary for Solstad for several reasons, at least one of which is personal.

Solstad says, among other things, in this Sandefjords-essay that ".the experiences Dag Solstad has made on his own, untouched by any other human hand than his own, so to speak, they do not count when Dag Solstad has to express the only thing that matters to him, the novel, the indissoluble epic element" .

Again, for Solstad, it is about the impenetrable epic element, which he has incorporated into the title of his so-called Telemarks novel with the equally impenetrable title, from 2013. If this statement is intended to be generalised, it will, as I see it, could be interpreted as a poetics – a normative recipe for how literature should be written. The "element", which is actually a criterion for whether something can be called fiction, is placed at the center of the discussion. In other words: If you don't distinguish between biography and narrative, it won't be literature. Undheim is critical of whether Solstad's own practice is in line with this theory, and whether it is not undermined by the frenetic energy the author displays when it comes to influencing the public and critics to read his books in the right way. The essay in question is actually part of such a strategy and was originally presented during a seminar in Sandefjord, where the theme for the evening was precisely how Solstad would recommend readers to read his books.

The search for meaning

In summary, Solstad's writing can be read as a parallel exploration of the prevailing historical conditions set against existential investigations of human existence – expressed through the situation-typical dilemmas that arise at the intersection between them. This ability to present his characters' existential dilemmas and key situations in an iconic way seems, in my opinion, to be a characteristic of Solstad's. The action usually unfolds around contemporary themes with political or social relevance. , fatherhood continually insists on a search for meaning and purpose in a seemingly absurd and inhospitable world.

See also ours machine generated Solstad article here.

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