Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Five

Our latest trip for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize once again takes us to snowy Scandinavia, this time to Norway, the setting for Dag Solstad's novella Professor Andersen's Night, translated by Agnes Scott Langeland.  This short work was actually written in 1996, but it has taken a good fifteen years for it to appear in English - insert usual comments about the lack of translated fiction in English here...

What's it all about?
The titular professor, Pål to his friends (pun intended...), is a professor of English literature at the University of Oslo, a divorcé in his mid-fifties and a man who lives, and is comfortable being, alone.  On Christmas Eve, he prepares his traditional yuletide meal, happy to conform to societal norms despite having no real religious beliefs, and after a sumptuous, calorie-laden and alcohol-accompanied feast, he absent-mindedly stands and watches the families in the apartments across the road, each celebrating the day in their own way.

While peering into the windows of his neighbours, suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, the good professor is witness to a disturbing crime, a brutal, bare-handed murder which tears him out of his self-imposed hermetic bubble.  However, as he hurries to the telephone to report the crime, he stops... and the call is never made.  This is the start of Professor Andersen's slow descent into depression...

While it would be tempting to think that Professor Andersen's Night is mainly concerned with the unravelling of the crime which begins it, nothing could be further from the truth.  The murder is merely the catalyst for something which has merely been waiting for the right time to emerge, namely the professor's mid-life crisis.  As he attempts to understand why he was unable to make the call (and why he continues to avoid going to the police), Andersen tries to distract himself to avoid thinking about it, drinking with friends, spontaneously leaving Oslo for a few days and then throwing himself back into his research and lecturing.

However, the more he tries to escape into his normal life, the more he realises how empty this has become.  The dinner party at his friends' house and the brief excursion to Trondheim, where he meets another friend and his young family, only show him how alone he is.  On examining his professional life more closely, he realises that he no longer believes in the power and permanence of literature, leaving him unable to go on as if nothing were wrong...

Towards the end of the novel, the mental strain has also begun to take its toll on his physical well-being.  Like a Norwegian Raskolnikov, his guilt is slowly tearing him apart, rendering his daily life unbearable, unmanageable...  Will he pull through?

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
I'm not overly convinced...  It's a fascinating little book, if a little uneven, but I'm not sure that it's one which will win over the majority of readers.  There are times when it goes a little flat, not a good sign in a book of just 154 pages, and it's not always a smooth read.  That may be owing to the translation, which, while adequate, feels a little stilted and forced at times.  Yes, the professor probably does speak in this slightly unusual manner in the original, but some of the word choices felt a little... well, wrong.

Will it make the shortlist?
I'll stick my neck out and say no.  Solstad has been longlisted twice before (and shortlisted) once, so he has form, but I can't imagine that the jury will pick this one ahead of nine of the others - unless, of course, they're looking for something short to counterbalance any weighty novels they may have chosen!  On the other hand, I could see this being the kind of book that will have some fervent supporters, who are entranced by the depiction of the professor's downward spiral - all it takes is one or two die-hards to sway the group's opinion...

That'll do for today.  I'm dragging myself off now to knock off another few pages of Parallel Stories, a book I'll be reading on and off over the next few weeks (the anti-Andersen, as it were!).  Join me next time for a trip to some warmer climes - I'm fed up with all this literary snow ;)