Kevin Breathnach reviews Self-Control and Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken
An uncertain menace skirts the surface of much recent Norwegian literature. In Self-Control, the narrator confides in us a list of hopes he had once entertained for his grown-up daughter. The last of these—that she would not ‘have the wool pulled over her eyes by anyone’—seems to me most immediately and eventually significant. For if it is unlikely that it remains true of Self-Control’s narrator, it is still more unlikely of its author. Stig Sæterbakken, who died by suicide in 2012, was a writer every bit as receptive to bleakness (and to joy) as his fellow Norwegian, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Where his work might be said to differ is in the way his narratives choose to withhold information. Sæterbakken was a master of misdirection. There is wool all over his work.
Self-Control is a slim, teasing novel told by a rather dull, middle-aged man called Andreas Felt. There isn’t much in the way of plot or pacing here. It’s mostly just work, dinner with friends, sleep. Felt does normal things and he thinks normal thoughts—except when he doesn’t. Between complaints about cinema prices and contemporary tipping etiquette, Felt’s calm narrative tone breaks out into a rhetoric loaded with irate and violent imagery. He fantasises about giving his boss ‘a good beating [ … ] leaving him lying battered and bruised in the pitch-darkness’. He meets two girls in a bar ‘with mouths like bleeding wounds’. He even imagines his oldest friend Hans-Jacob’s wife, Elise, being sexually assaulted and ‘Hans-Jacob lying in a pool of blood on the ground beside her’.
Situated in the context of the text’s archly suggestive comments on other narratives (‘a sudden twist, and a little surprise at the end?’), these violent imaginings lure all but the least attentive of readers into the expectation that Felt has committed, or is going to commit, some great and grievous crime. Sæterbakken flatters our intelligence to insinuate that the two-faced twisted psychopath Felt claims to have worried about will in fact turn out to be Felt himself. As it happens, he is nothing of the sort. He is a man not remembering, is all. The novel’s ending comes unexpectedly, but it does not come out of nowhere. A second reading reveals a discreet network of signals working beneath a shallower subtext to ‘correct’ its extravagant omens.
The suggestion of misdirection is planted early on, for instance, when Felt tells his daughter that he and her mother are getting divorced. But in the narration, Felt immediately acknowledges this statement as false. ‘It was as unexpected for her as it was for me,’ he admits. ‘We both sat there, shocked by what we had heard.’ As the novel advances, it becomes clear that for Felt such fictions provide a way for him to evade a more painful truth. Yet these are not fictions imposed upon this unwanted truth; instead, they are psychological spaces located away from it. In announcing his divorce, Felt is not so much misdirecting his daughter as redirecting himself. The same goes for the speculations he and his wife make about their friends’ marriage problems, and for the stories he invents about fellow passengers on the bus, and even for the ‘the first chapter of a thriller that never gets any further’ that Felt imagines every night before falling asleep. This is an outwardly plotless novel, but in each of its little fictions we are following Felt on the run.
Critics have compared the irate passages in Self-Control to the work of Thomas Bernhard. To me this seems misjudged. What defines Bernhard’s writing is not so much its pitch as the persistence of its pitch. The outbursts in Self-Control, by contrast, feel altogether too sporadic. They gesture towards the Bernhardian; but listen back and these gestures start to ring false, too. ‘It made me furious now that I thought about it. This anaemic huckster, this pallid character who had brownnosed his way to the top and hadn’t lifted a finger since, just sat idly for hours on end in an overheated office in front of a computer he barely knew how to turn on and off … What real power did he have over me, when it came down to it?’ It is as if Felt is declaiming from an autocue, momentarily losing his place where the ellipsis falls. Rather than revealing to us what has been repressed, the tone of these outbursts is actually working to distract Felt’s attention away from it.
Montaigne claimed lies are difficult to remember since truth will naturally ‘dislodge the falsehoods’. But for Felt it is falsehoods, all manner of falsehoods, that serve to dislodge truths—and even truth itself. Turning the light off at night, he notes that: ‘the silence and the darkness around me and the cool wind from the gap in the curtains were utterly ruthless in forcing me to surrender myself, offering me no opportunity to discount them as fiction.’ It is here, in darkness, that Felt comes closest to recognising what he has repressed. He even admits that at one time he was unable to sleep unless he had his hand on his wife’s hip. He writes: ‘it was as if I clung on tight so as not to disappear completely.’
In Norwegian literature, darkness is a substance that reduces the self to passivity, shedding light upon liminal realms. The narrator of Self-Control clings to his wife and does not ‘disappear completely’, but the unnamed narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) is not so fortunate. When he spends the night in the ‘fathomless black eternity’ of a prison cell, a future whose inevitability he had repressed is forcibly revealed to him. Narrated by Karl Meyer, a philandering father who learns of his son’s suicide early in the text, Sæterbakken’s Through the Night seems to consciously evoke this prison scene in Hunger. Like Felt before him, Meyer unconsciously misdirects the reader, repressing an important piece of information until, in the novel’s closing pages, he enters a room which ‘someone had taken great pains making as impersonal as a prison cell’. Here, as ‘the blackness of the eternal night’ closes in around him, Meyer starts to ‘sink’ further and further into the sofa, out of himself. He smashes his head against a wall. Feeling only numbness, he continues: ‘I brought my head back and struck the rugged wall once more, and now it was like something loosened in my brain, an egg which until now had lain there intact but had finally cracked, and what had been inside it ran out and streamed down into my eyes and nose and mouth along with the tears and blood.’
Here, five pages before the truth is revealed to us, Meyer finally recognises what happened in the hours before he set out on his journey to Weinachtstadt, a small German town ‘lying illuminated and isolated, crowded with small, yellow houses, like scenery in a Christmas card of film’. This is not an imagined destination for Meyer—he really does arrive there. But in its landscape and topography, Weinachtstadt resembles a fairytale. The town borrows from fiction, which Meyer will use to escape the unwanted truth. As in Self-Control, fiction is a psychological space located not upon the truth, but away from it. Here, though, fiction is also a geographical space. To get to Weinachtstadt, Meyer must leave Norway. He must wait for trains and he must carry a suitcase. He must walk his way into forgetting. In Through the Night, it not implausible that being on the run would make your feet grow sore.
Meyer leaves Weinachtstadt when his fledgling relationship with a photographer and her son starts to feel too real (‘What was I actually about to get into here?’). He travels to Bratislava in search of a mysterious house where, according to legend, if you entered at exactly the right time, you ‘would be confronted with your greatest fears’. According to the Stalker-like figure Meyer pays to arrange his stay there, the man who built the house killed his wife and two children, ‘put their bodies in the cellar, and poured the concrete floor over them.’ Later, ‘he put a starved rat in a cage, and then fixed it to his chest in such a way that it would line up with his head.’ The man was apparently found dead with the rat lodged in his throat, and the house has been haunted since. Not even the Stalker-figure profiting from the legend believes it (‘It sounds like a bad horror film to me’). The house is an interior fictional space; its four thick walls certain to keep truth out. What Meyer’s unconscious mind hasn’t reckoned with, though, is that four such walls will also keep out light. Hamsun’s fathomless black eternity returns, and all the fictions dissolve. ‘No madman had ever lived in this house,’ Meyer finally realises. ‘No bodies lay under the concrete floor of the cellar. Nothing terrible had taken place here.’ At once all truths close in.
In the lead-up to the dissolution of the novel’s internal fictions, Meyer notes that ‘everything I’ve ever believed in and taken part in, they’ve only been illusions.’ He speaks of living with an emptiness ‘in which there’s never been anything to be found other than what I’ve been forced to imagine in order to endure it.’ It is here, more than anywhere, that Sæterbakken steps outside of the strict parameters of the work—of the fiction—to comment on the role of fiction in his own life. He wrote ten novels before he died. Each one must be considered to represent a personal effort to endure life's emptiness, to move away from its unwanted truth. Sæterbakken wrote not to learn how to die, but to keep himself alive. He is in this sense guilty of inverting Montaigne again, but his novels are no less ‘attempts’ for having done so. The internal fictions of Through the Night are constructed with such richness and complexity that it is hard to think of it as anything other than a final attempt. It didn’t work. Nowhere in Sæterbakken do the internal fictions collapse more catastrophically than in Through the Night, and nowhere does the narrator exit the external fiction so clearly as in its closing pages. This is a final attempt that knows its fate before it’s finished. At last, Through the Night is a suicide note.
Self-Control and Through The Night are published by Dalkey Archive Press.
Kevin Breathnach is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where he studied French and philosophy. His work has appeared in The New Inquiry, 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation and Totally Dublin. http://kbreathnach.tumblr.com/