Fiction and nonfiction releases from Per Petterson, William Gibson, Edmund de Waal and Wayne Koestenbaum.
Let's get one thing straight: Norwegian author Per Petterson is not Stieg Larsson — the phenomenally successful author of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. They may both be Scandinavian, but Petterson's books are as quiet and contemplative as Larsson's are violent and action-packed.
Petterson is happy to leave crime novels to others. "I write about families," Petterson says. "That is who we are."
Petterson's last book, Out Stealing Horses, was a surprise hit in the U.S. In his new novel, I Curse the River of Time, he draws on tragedies in his own family to explore the thorny relationship between a mother and son.
Fiction Of Family
Petterson's own mother died in a ferry boat accident that also killed his father, a brother and a nephew. It was a devastating event. Some time afterward, Petterson realized his mother's death freed him to write fiction based on her life. He never would have done it when she was alive, he says.
"Everybody would have thought it was about her," he explains, laughing. "Even she would. And she would be mad at me."
Petterson's nervous laughter seems well founded if indeed his fictional creation is anything like his own mother. This character is not the kind of person who suffers fools gladly — and her son Arvid seems determined to play the fool.
As the novel begins, Arvid's marriage is ending — just as his mother learns that she is dying of cancer. She wants nothing more than to be alone, and so she heads out to the family's summer cottage in Denmark. Arvid, obsessed with his own problems, follows her, determined to repair their broken relationship.
The year is 1989, in the days before the fall of the Soviet Union. Petterson says he initially chose to set his novel in that time because it was the year before his own mother died — but it was a politically pivotal year, as well.
"I realized this was big politics," Petterson recalls. "1989 was such a very, very important year in Europe. The wall fell, the Soviet Union was crumbling, and so many things happened — in 15 minutes the world changed."
In Petterson's novel, the fall of communism has a special significance for Arvid. As a young man he became a Maoist, and dropped out of college to work in a factory — despite the fact that he was raised by working class parents. It was this decision that caused the rift between Arvid and his mother.
"It's not because he was a communist or a Maoist," Petterson explains. "It was because he left school to work in a factory for idealistic reasons, whereas [his mother's perspective is], 'Hey, your family is a working family. The point is you should not be because you are our son.'"
"I think that's the clash," he adds. "He really is insulting his mother and everything she hoped for."
When Arvid tells his mother of his decision in a cafe, her first response is to slap him. Years later, as Arvid pursues her in the present, he is overtaken by memories of the past. His hoped for connection with his mother seems constantly beyond his reach.
'Stieg Larsson Is Stieg Larsson'
Though Petterson often returns to the same themes or concepts — family, loss — his books are never driven by plot. Petterson draws the reader in with his spare, eloquent use of language. Its rhythms force the reader to slow down, to pay attention.
"Making sentences is what I do," he says. "I mean the story will come as I write. When you are a sentence-based writer they have to be good, they have to be really on the spot. Because when you don't have a plot what will you rely on? Just language."
Petterson is a painstaking writer. He remembers when he was writing Out Stealing Horses — he got to the last chapter, and everything just stopped.
"I was really looking forward to it, because this was downhill," he remembers. "I really wanted to cherish the moment. But I was so afraid of starting on the wrong foot I think I waited two months."
Petterson was surprised and grateful that Out Stealing Horses did so well in the U.S. And though his writing is nothing like Stieg Larsson's, he knows that the popularity of those books has created an interest in other Scandinavian writers.
"Stieg Larsson is Stieg Larsson," Petterson says. "I think it is something different, but it may be that publishers look to Norway or Sweden or Denmark because of that. It's a good moment for us. Norwegian literature is strong now. Stronger than it has been for a long time."
Out Stealing Horses: A Novel Read An Excerpt
By Per Petterson
Hardcover, 256 pages
List Price: $14
I Curse the River of Time: A Novel Read An Excerpt
By Per Petterson
Hardcover, 224 pages
List price: $23
Per Petterson, an avid reader and bookseller before he became a writer, provides one of literature's greatest gifts in his novels — an absorbing interiority that creates a welcome refuge from our cacophonous world. His books are suffused with a luxurious, downy silence, a quiet that allows us to slow down and sink into spare language that evokes complex emotions and primal sensations such as cold, wet, darkness and light with surprising force.
In Out Stealing Horses, Petterson's gorgeous, heartbreaking novel about a father-son relationship disrupted by war and romance, his main character, a 67-year-old widower who retires to a remote cabin with no forwarding address, recalls the last summer he spent in a similar riverside cabin near the Norway-Sweden border with his father in 1948, 52 years earlier. Deep in his musings and memories, he worries about becoming a "shipwrecked man without an anchor in the world except in his own liquid thoughts where time has lost its sequence."
Time does lose its sequence in the liquid thoughts of the narrator of Petterson's melancholic, misty, somewhat autobiographical new novel, I Curse the River of Time. Arvid Jansen reflects back on his life, and especially 1989, a difficult year for him when, at 37, he was set adrift by the impending loss of his three anchors — his marriage, his mother, and Communism.
A prequel to In the Wake (2006), Petterson's book takes its title from a line in a poem by Mao, one of his narrator's heroes. Arvid, like Petterson, is the son of factory workers; his intellectual, multi-lingual, Danish-born mother worked at the Freia chocolate factory before leaving to clean hotels and public buildings. To his mother's disgust, in his fervor for communism, Arvid quits college after two years to join the proletariat, which he comes to realize "actually didn't exist anymore, but was an anachronism" — "not quite the same as the [working class] my mother and father belonged to on a daily basis."
It slowly dawns on Arvid that his parents had no choice, whereas he's made a bad one. A lifelong reader like his mother, his memories of "a childhood whirled away by time" and a beautiful, fine courtship sadly "ground into dust" are interspersed with resonant reactions to various classics, including Les Miserables and A Moveable Feast.
I Curse the River of Time is about "a man out of time" who feels betrayed by what life has handed him when he wasn't watching, as if "Time had passed behind my back and I had not turned to look ... ." Both time and Petterson's narrative are more tidal than linear, flowing forward and backward in associative waves that require close attention and do not offer the dramatic drive of Out Stealing Horses. But the relationship that emerges here between a grown man and his fatally ill mother, whose support and attention he can't stop seeking even when he realizes he should be sustaining her, is complex and rich. Petterson has delivered a subtle meditation on the long, unstoppable river of time that pulls us all along relentlessly, whether we pay attention or not.