Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad
Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, 2007
Graywolf Press, trade pb, 150 p.
From the back cover:I love the idea behind the Spotlight Series Tours, bringing attention to small press publishers, and since I missed out on the first couple tours I decided I had to sign up for the latest one, which is focusing on the books by Graywolf Press. To choose my book, on the Graywolf Press website I headed straight for the Books in Translation. I don’t read as much literature in translation as I’d like but it’s always a preference of mine. I was tempted by several of the titles but Shyness & Dignity was already on my wishlist from an earlier mention so I went with that one. However, when I first started reading I wondered just what I had gotten myself into. I have to mention the writing style here because it sets the tone for the whole book. Dag Solstad is apparently considered rather innovative, so I can only guess that the translator was following the style of the original Norwegian, but at least as presented in English, Shyness & Dignity is written in a rather rambling, repetitive way, with long sentences, many commas, and no chapters.
Elias Rukla begins yet another day under the leaden Oslo sky. At the high school where he teaches, a novel insight into Ibsen’s The Wild Duck grips him with a passion so intense that he barely notices the disinterest of his students. After the lesson, when a broken umbrella provokes an unpredictable rage, he barely notices the students’ intense curiosity. He soon realizes, however, that this day will be the decisive day of his life.
Dag Solstad, praised in Norway as one of the most innovative novelists of his generation, offers an intricate and richly drawn portrait of a man who feels irrevocably alienated from contemporary culture, politics, and, ultimately, humanity.
He bid a markedly cordial good-bye to his wife, in a tone that seemed genuine and sharply contrasted with his irritable, and her rather drawn, expression. But this is how it was every morning when he composed himself, with great difficulty, for this cordial “take care of yourself,” a gesture to this wife he had for years been living so close to and with whom he consequently had to feel a deep solidarity, and although he could now, on the whole, feel only remnants of this solidarity, it was essential for him to let her know every morning, by means of this cheerful and simple “take care of yourself,” that in his innermost heart he thought that nothing had changed between them, and while they both knew that it did not reflect the actual situation, he felt obliged to force himself, for the sake of propriety, to rise to a level high enough to make this good-bye in return in the same simple and genuine tone, which had a soothing effect on his uneasiness and was indispensable to him.Sounds a little intimidating, right? Having just read a YA book with straightforward, easy to read sentences, it was a bit of an adjustment at first. But after a few pages I fell into the rhythm of it, the story started to flow and I read most of it in a couple of sittings.
The story takes place during a single day and is framed by an incident at the school where Elias Rukla, the main character, is a teacher of literature. It is this unfortunate incident involving a broken umbrella that launches Elias on a critical analysis of his life and the people that have left their imprint on it.
I haven’t read, or seen, The Wild Duck, which is referenced several times throughout the story, or unfortunately any Ibsen plays for that matter, and while it’s possible to enjoy Shyness & Dignity without having done so, just from the synopsis I’ve read, knowledge of the play would, I think, have added to my appreciation and understanding of this book. The play, The Wild Duck, tells the story of a family destroyed by truth, and this idea that sometimes it might be better to live in the lie, very much corresponds to Elias and his marriage to Eva. He spends quite a bit of time ruminating on how he first met her and later came to have her agree to be his wife. While they have lived together amicably for many years, as the story unfolds we see just how alone they both really are.
But she did show him much kindness, just as he had tried to rise above his ingrained social suffering and show her both respect and kindness. Though they might be moving about in separate worlds, it was in one and the same apartment, and the things that were there they shared, and they associated under these circumstances without colliding but moved past each other in separate orbits, without the other’s presence being felt as an intrusion, a disturbance, or as unpleasant.The book, and by extension Elias, also contemplates the state of modern society with discussions of politics and literature and popular social consciousness, as he tries to determine his place in it. On the surface it might seem like not a lot happens over the course of these 150 pages, but Shyness & Dignity is a touching deconstruction of one man’s rather ordinary life as he searches for meaning and personal worth in the world around him, and a story that subtly sneaks up on you refusing to be forgotten. This is the only one of Dag Solstad’s books to be published in English so far but I would be interested in reading something else by him someday if more of his work becomes available.
My Rating: 3.5/5
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