Continuing our August summer Friday reading series, this week Humanities and Sciences Co-Chair Maryhelen Hendricks delves into the yin-yang relationship of two Norwegian writers, points readers to Hilary Mantel and revisits the immortal Alice in Wonderland.
Two of my favorite authors at the moment are Norwegian, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Per Petterson, whose style and scope are very different, fitting different moods. Knausgaard is not afraid of big ideas—love, death, the divine, art. Petterson writes about memory, abandonment and growing up. Knausgaard is mythic, large. Petterson is personal and political.
Ironic, leisurely, aesthetic, introspective, Knausgaard’s novels are brilliant, unique acts of storytelling. Not a typical beach read, A Time for Everything speculates on the nature of the divine and angels. Knausgaard retells stories from Genesis, reminding us that they were originally orally transmitted tales, which changed shape in the retelling. Cain slays the younger brother he adores to protect him, not out of jealousy. Abel, who has been throwing stones at the angels that guard Eden, is badly scorched and is going mad. Noah ignores the pleas of his drowning sister as his ark floats away from her. He believes that God has told him to do this, but there has been some miscommunication in heaven. I am about to begin Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a series of novels that has ignited Europe and have been translated into dozen of languages. His works are dazzling.
The two Per Petterson novels I’ve read, Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia, both deal with betrayal and memory. In Out Stealing Horses, Trond—newly relocated after 50 years in the town of his youth—and his neighbor, Lars, cannot look at one another. Why? We learn the answer as Trond forces himself to remember and reconstruct why his father abandoned the family and what happened when the Nazis abandoned this remote stretch of Norway after WWII.
To Siberia is told by a 60-year-old woman trying to remember her brother, who left town with the Resistence, never to return. Petterson’s novels are spare, elegant, moving and poignant, evoking the inevitable transition of growing up, changing perspective and moving beyond youthful optimism into acceptance.
If these novels are too weighty or too thin and too weighty, I recommend Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Whether you’ve seen it on Broadway or on TV or not at all, it’s brilliant and will change your mind about Cromwell! (He’s just a poor boy become administrator in the treacherous, hierarchical court of Henry VIII, trying to survive the axe himself and plotting a few downfalls to save himself.)
If nothing else, I recommend that you read or re-read Alice in Wonderland, a book that has inspired nearly every facet of popular culture for 150 years. Sensible, smart and unflappable, Alice falls into the world we live in and sees it for what is: illogical and amusing; narcissistic and threatening; glossy and appealing. She has fun bouncing around her world, but also escapes it intact, despite the Red Queen’s life-sentence (“Off with her head”). I’ve never gotten enough of Alice. She’s an inspiring hero for all, young and old, as they seek their way through this city, this country, this world.