Wednesday, July 28, 2010

'Shyness & Dignity' by Dag Solstad

Fiction, 1994 (English translation, 2006)
Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad
Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, 2007
Graywolf Press, trade pb, 150 p.
ISBN: 9781555974466
From the back cover:
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.
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.
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

For more information, visit the Graywolf Press Shyness & Dignity page where you can also read an excerpt from the book.

For the other stops on the Spotlight Series Graywolf Press Tour, click on the button or the link above.

Buy Shyness & Dignity at: | BookDepository

Also reviewed by:
the complete review
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The small print:  I purchased this book for my personal library.  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. I slightly skimmed this post as I have this book on my tbr list. I started reading it when I first bought it on a sale rack but the long sentences were not what I was in the mood for at that time and I haven't gone back to it yet. I'm glad you ended up enjoying it, I'll have to pick it up again soon. Though I might try to find The Wild Duck first.

  2. Thanks so much for participating in the Series! Glad it helped you get to a book already on your wish list- I feel so efficient when that happens.

    From your excerpt, I do think I'd find this book's writing style intimidating. Or I might just get lost in a paragraph and read the same line many times. I also haven't read or seen The Wild Duck (is that a well-known play?), so if I do go for this one, I'll try and familiarize myself with that first.

  3. Hello, just discovered your site through the Spotlight Series (I did a different book). Love your page, but how do I subscribe?

    Thanks in advance,

  4. Amy - The long sentences can be pretty intimidating but it was fine once I got into the flow of it. If you have a chance I think having some knowledge of The Wild Duck would certainly add to the reading experience, but it was still worth reading regardless.

    Aarti - Thank you for helping to organise it, it's a great idea! And yes, I appreciate an excuse to get a book off my wishlist. :P

    I got a little lost in a paragraph or two but it actually read quite smoothly once I got the hang of it. Even reading the synopsis and a brief overview of The Wild Duck helped me see what the author was perhaps getting at but I'm sure a more in-depth knowledge would make it a richer read.

    Amy (Black Sheep Dances) - Thanks for stopping by, I'm glad you found your way here thanks to the Spotlight Series. To subscribe to my blog, you can click on the orange RSS button in the top right sidebar to add it to your feed reader, or you can enter your email address in the box just below the button to get new posts sent to you by email.

    If you're looking for the Google Friend Connect widget, I took that off recently since I don't use it myself and most of my followers didn't either as it's pretty much just a blogspot thing. But if that's how you follow other blogs, you can go to your Dashboard and under the Reading List there is a blue Add button. Copy/paste my URL into that and you're set. Hope that helps. Let me know if you still have any questions.

  5. The passage you quoted makes the style look a bit rambling and hard to follow. But I can imagine that it starts to flow after a while. The book sounds interesting, although I haven't read any Ibsen plays either. I instantly thought of Night Train to Lisbon when I read your review. I wonder if it is like that book, because I loved that one.

  6. Oh gosh, I'm not good without chapters!! Great review.

    Left an award for you on my blog ;)


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